Anxiety is on the rise for many reasons: a significant one being due to COVID-19 and how it has affected our lives in significant ways. For some, the impact is more pronounced than for others. The detrimental effect is often experienced as overwhelming anxiety.
Fight or flight: The brain’s natural response
Over the many thousands of years that mankind has evolved, there was a need for daily vigilance to remain alert and ever-present to the threats that could take our lives. The threats were clear, and our bodies adapted to rapid changes in our states when fight or flight was necessary.
The priority was survival, not happiness. As a species, we were not doing so well for many thousands of years. Infancy survival rates were low, and many children did not live to propagate. Now, for most of us in this fortunate world we live in, our priority has shifted to happiness more than survival. Yet, our brains did not catch up with us. The centuries of programming have kept us vulnerable to fight/flight tendencies, and thus the experience of anxiety.
So, in the modern world, we are seeking happiness with some biological hardware that is wired to notice the threats more than the daily gifts we experience.
Prior to Covid, very few of us dealt with daily threats to our existence, but this did not thwart our struggles with anxiety. Now, with Covid added to our lives and the very real additional threats that exist, many are struggling with levels of anxiety that are truly debilitating.
How to reduce anxiety starting today
As you go through these steps, I encourage you to be a thorough tester, not a quick naysayer. Those folks want the easy, quick answer and the grand slam effect. True change means changing a habitual set of neural pathways that are well-worn in the brain. We must accept this if long-lasting relief is what we seek.
Anxiety is not a thing, it is a fluid process
This is much more important than it appears. We know from measuring brain waves and bodily responses that anxiety is not static, but our minds tend to make it so. We label it a ‘thing’ and as such, it becomes more fixed than it is. So, our first step is to begin to raise our awareness of the fluidity of this process. Anxious feelings move with our thinking, but we only notice our feelings that follow the anxiety-producing thoughts.
Become less a believer of your thoughts and more of an investigator. We identify with our thoughts, rather than have curiosity. This curiosity creates some detachment from the thoughts and starts us down the path to a more easeful experience of life.
Acknowledge: There is no threat right now
We must do everything we can to de-activate the fight/flight response. Clearly see that right now, there is no threat. You might say, “Covid-19 is right outside my door,” and I would say, “Really? Step outside and see if that is true.” In other words, be intensely practical with yourself, and clear on what threats exist right at this moment to you. Most likely, none exist right now.
If a threat does exist, be clear on your plan. What steps can you take and are you taking them? If so, this is all you can do. So now we can affirm, with conviction, “There is no threat at this moment. I have done all I can do.” Will this immediately make it all go away? No, but it’s the first step. Say it to yourself, clearly and with conviction. The more we leave this moment, and move to tomorrow, next week, or next month…then we will have anxiety! Because the imagination can create limitless ways to be afraid for moments we do not have to cope with right now.
Rather than believing the threat exists right now, consider affirming the truth of this very moment
Be more attentive to small daily actions
This process is not easy, yet it is remarkably simple and effective. If you can accept that there is not a threat right now, turn your attention to whatever you are doing. At this moment, I am noticing the feel of the keyboard on my fingertips, and turn my toes wiggling in my socks. It’s these simple acts of present awareness that start to force us into the moment. Do more and more of this, as you focus on being present with your actions.
I also encourage you to do some quick research on Heart Rate Variability (HRV) Breathing, as this is a simple breathing process with proven results. Start to practice HRV breathing two to three times daily. The impact will be substantial, if, and only if, you stick with it.
Stay away from anxiety-producing content
I find many folks struggling with anxiety spend a significant amount of time-consuming information that produces anxiety. Why do this? There is little value here, and the answer is to stop. Stop today. Instead, go for a walk, sip your tea gently on the porch or spend some time doing something you love. If you must be on your phone or laptop, then seek out content that inspires and uplifts and gets your brain tuned away from anything fearful.
We can all be safe, wearing our masks and keeping our distance as we accept the reality of life for now. It will not be forever, and there is no value in railing against what keeps us and others healthy. The fundamentals of what we must do have not changed, so it’s best to limit consumption of any content that heightens anxiety.
There are many tools that will reduce anxiety incrementally. Rapid changes are available, but none sustain without effort. All of the above suggestions take daily effort to re-program the brain. If this is accepted, then progress is not just possible, real relief is probable.
Dr. Cale is the owner of Capital District Neurofeedback – “Retrain Your Brain to Work for You…Not Against You.” For more information visit CapitalDistrictNeurofeedback.com or call 518.383.0600.