Everybody has anxiety! We just all experience different levels of it with some people more pre-disposed to it than others. It is a topic we hear a lot about recently - especially with the spread of Covid 19 - a potentially killer virus. And that is the key point - potentially. Of those who get it, the current stats show that 98.3% will survive no problem - and those that do die will have significant underlying health issues and will be primarily in old age. But just because you are old or have health issues does not mean you are going to die. Fear not! You can take actions to ensure that you don't get it and that you don't pass it on by following government guidelines.
Typically, anxiety can be categorised into 2 levels;
1. Trait Anxiety
2. State anxiety
We all have a natural level of anxiety. We call this our trait anxiety or the level of anxiety at which we are normally predisposed. This can vary between individuals with highly anxious individuals experiencing a high level trait anxiety.
While this natural level of anxiety varies for many, it can elevate significantly, mostly due to a perceived level of threat in one's environment. We call this fear induced state our level of "state anxiety".
For example, different things trigger different levels of threat for different people. Some are afraid of heights, of water, of rats or snakes or even the dark etc. Others may be unaffected by any of these but could be negatively affected by other things such as enclosed spaces, large crowds, spiders, authoritave people, dictatorial work environments, sporting situations or even awkward social experiences around people with whom you feel uncomfortable.
Covid 19 is elevating our level of "state anxiety" around normal social interactions due to what people perceive as a very legitimate and serious threat - both to their own health and more importantly, vulnerable loved one's lives. Generally, this is due to the hundreds that have died in China, Italy and elsewhere, while it is also reflective of the significant volume of reporting and social media circus following this Covid 19 pandemic. Put simply, our level of exposure to the volume of threat through social media is elevating our levels of anxiety - we can't escape the sense of threat.
Spielberger (1997) defined anxiety as "subjective, consciously perceived feelings of tension and apprehension, associated with the arousal of the autonomic nervous system”
The part of the brain that facilitates rational decision making processes in the brain is called the "frontal lobe" or pre-frontal cortex. However, when one finds themselves in a perceived sense of threat, rational decision making or frontal lobe function is reduced as it interacts with the brain's threat detector - the hippocampus!
The hippocampus performs a vital role in our daily lives. Working in tandem with the frontal lobe, it functions as a monitoring process that helps us to react to danger in the environment. The function of the hippocampus ensures that we react to avoid an oncoming car and other obstacles in our pathway - a lamp-post, a pothole or a flying implement. Without it functioning, we simply would not physically survive.
These parts of the brain (frontal lobe and hippocampus) work within a circuitry loop in tandem with a tiny element at the centre of the brain - the amygdala. In high stress scenarios (eg: Covid 19 pandemic), elevated threat is detected by the hippocampus, rational thought over-ruled and fear experienced, the amygdala is known to enlarge significantly, driving our anxiety into overdrive. This can result in one of three different responses; fight, flight or freeze as over-arousal of the central nervous system can result in significant worry inducing both physical, psychological and behavioral responses.
Physical stress responses
Increased need to use toilet
Increased heart rate
Psychological stress symptoms
Lack of clear thinking
Inability to sleep
Irrational decision making
Inability to express inner thoughts
Combined at a high level, it can induce mild or moderate panic attacks or what we know as psycho-somatic stress.
My advice is that if the "threat" is having an overbearing negative impact on your life, your challenge is to deal with it as best as you can. If there is something that you can do to remove this threat from your daily life, then take action to do just that. In a performance psychology sense, we might say "control the controllables".
Control the Controllable
So if you are worried about contracting and passing on Covid 19 to vulnerable loved ones, take control. Self isolate, maintain social distance and ensure the vulnerable are doing likewise. Arrange that the vulnerable do not have to socially engage to contact people - use online interactions (skype / FaceTime etc) if possible and manage / organise groceries and leave at the door etc. Extricate yourself from overuse of social media which will elevate your levels anxiety and get your accurate information from reputable websites - https://www2.hse.ie/coronavirus/ as an example. Take away all risks by allowing vulnerable people control their environment and those they interact with.
Positive self talk may help, as can having somebody to talk to that makes you feel better about the situation - whether that is a friend, a colleague, or a family member.
Good sleep, nutrition and exercise are central to good mental health and alleviating anxiety. Routine is also important and finding ways of passing the time and alleviating anxiety is cricial. In this sense, relaxation techniques such as mindfulness, yoga, exercise in nature (utilising social distancing) and or progressive muscular relaxation may also help you find that mind/body balance to help you get through the weeks and months ahead. There are tons of videos etc on YouTube on all these areas of physical activity.
Everyone is entitled to live an anxiety free life, but sometimes you have just got to empower yourself to take charge of your anxiety and take control of the threats within your environment.
Wash your hands regularly, practice good etiquette around coughing and sneezing, self isolate, maintain social distance and avoid unnecessary travel to areas where you know Covid 19 exists. If others can do it, you can too and we will all be better off!
See below for a video giving some perspective on what you can do to protect yourself against the virus and a progressive muscular relaxation exercise to alleviate your anxiety.
Unleash Your Potential
Keith Begley is an Irish based performance psychologist, accredited with Sport Ireland Institute.
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Performance psychologist - accredited with Irish Institute of Sport