Brian Pennie

How to Use Brain Science to Beat COVID-19 Related Anxiety

Covid Anxiety

Fight-or-flight impulses aren’t helpful. Here’s how to stop the emotional hijacking of your mind and body.

For the past six years, I’ve been obsessed with the biology of thinking and emotion. This obsession grew out of the realization that chronic anxiety drove me toward a life of chronic heroin addiction. In October 2013, I was first introduced to a solution to my suffering. Since then, I’ve become an author, a PhD student, and a lecturer at the top two universities in Ireland, all in the area of the neuroscience.

In applying neuroscience to my own history with chronic anxiety, I’ve studied the science of mindfulness extensively. Understanding the physiological processes related to anxiety—and to mindfulness practices—points to specific ways of handling not only chronic anxiety, but long-term situational anxiety as well. (For a primer on this, see my article, The Biology of Mindfulness and Mindlessness — A Neuroscientist’s Perspective.)

COVID-19 Anxiety

During the current pandemic, anxiety arises from seemingly every direction.

Consider this potential COVID-19 related example: Your parents are in isolation, so you phone your mother to see how they’re are getting on. “Your father has developed a fever,” she tells you.

Stored memories in your hippocampus remind you that your dad is 71 years old, overweight, and suffers from diabetes. He is high-risk. This lights up your amygdala — the fear centre of your brain — which activates your hypothalamus. The hypothalamus then sends a signal to your pituitary glands, which in turn, send a message to your adrenal glands, releasing cortisol throughout your bloodstream.

Cortisol is the primary stress hormone, which prepares your body for fight or flight. But you can’t run away from or fight your mind. So what do you do?

You start panicking.

The reptilian brain activates a fear response in your limbic system, releasing cortisol throughout your body. This speedy bodily reaction is what gets you out of immediate or potential danger. Unfortunately, the danger is in your head—you can neither fight nor run.

At the same time, however, the rational part of the brain — the cortex — appraises the situation. This is a slower process, and you begin to realize that it’s not all doom and gloom. Maybe he has a cold. Maybe he’s not as high-risk as you think. When this happens, the cortex deactivates the amygdala. This, in turn, inhibits the secretion of cortisol via the hypothalamus, thus bringing you back into homeostasis and reducing the anxiety in your body.

When I think of all the ways this is affecting people right now, I get a headache.

My own anxiety, which resulted from childhood trauma, centred on bodily sensations. Ever since I can remember, I was terrified of my heartbeat, breath, and pulse. If someone asked me to feel my own heartbeat, or if I even talked about it, my amygdala lit up like a Christmas tree.

The coronavirus is hitting hard right now, and amygdalae are lighting up all over the world. As a result, cortisol is collectively coursing through our bodies. This kind of physical stress can translate in many ways. Overthinking. Agitation. Feelings of despair and hopelessness. And, of course, anxiety, which for me, manifests as a pressure in my chest.

These feelings are uncomfortable for anybody. But for the reptilian brain, it only means one thing — impending doom. It perceives these feelings as a threat to its survival, even if there is no immediate danger.

To escape this perceived threat, the reptilian brain pushes you towards various behaviours — the form of which will depend on existing habits. Some people will drink or use drugs. Others will distract themselves in a more positive manner, such as cleaning, exercise, and work. Many people, I imagine, use social media and TV as a distraction, which will only intensify your anxiety if you focus on negative feeds.

In the current climate, positive distractions are not the enemy — they might even keep you sane. Negative distractions are what you need to avoid. From a biological perspective, they will creep up on you. It’s like forgetting to tighten the cortisol tap when you leave the bathroom…drip, drip, drip.

Overcoming Emotional Hijackings

Have you ever felt completely shaken and overcome by fear? I have. I was easily overwhelmed before and during my addiction — it was my default. Daniel Goleman calls this an emotional hijacking, where your amygdala screams like a siren.

In today’s coronavirus world, more often than not, the stress response is not activated by the external environment — it is activated by our own minds.

This comes in two flavours: ruminating about a past you cannot change, and worrying about an imaginary future. These internal stressors are the worst kind of triggers. External stressors come and go, but fighting with your own mind is constant.

What’s interesting about these internal stressors is that they don’t exist — not in reality anyway. They are projections of our minds, and just like my fear of my heartbeat, some of them are entirely irrational.

This is not to say that our fears about COVID-19 are irrational. This is a serious situation. People will die. Many more will get sick. It’s entirely normal to feel anxious about such things—but a lack of toilet roll isn’t going to kill you.

This makes me wonder what the cortex, the logical part of the brain, is doing during such irrational emotional hijackings. Just like running out of toilet paper, my heartbeat wasn’t going to kill me. I was never in any real danger. Wasn’t my logical mind supposed to appraise the danger? Isn’t it supposed to tell my limbic system that everything is OK?

Neuroscience provides us with many potential theories to explain these questions. The cortex might be worked too hard by an overactive limbic system, or simply unable to use logic to eliminate irrational fears. The truth is, we don’t know for sure, but understanding the basic mechanics of this system has provided me with a framework that helps me to understand anxiety.

If you’re persistently anxious, angry, or self-loathing, your brain will eventually take that shape. Thankfully, you can also shape your brain in a much more positive direction.

For example, by harnessing the power of neuroplasticity via regular mindfulness practice, you can become more resilient, develop sharper focus, and manage your anxiety more effectively.

The four tools below are all grounded in research, and they’re the ones that have helped me most during the current crisis.

1. Focus on the Present Moment

Research shows that a regular mindfulness practice significantly weakens the amygdala’s ability to hijack your emotions. This happens in two ways. First, the amygdala decreases in physical size. Second, connections between the amygdala and the parts of the cortex associated with fear are weakened, while connections associated with higher-order brain functions (i.e. self-awareness) are strengthened.

My own mindfulness practice has given me both of these gifts. I have literally shrunk the fear centre of my brain, and as a result, I simply don’t feel anxiety like I used to. Stressful events still challenge me, but by creating a space between stimulus and response, I am no longer hijacked by my emotions.

If you’re new to mindfulness, you may find the practice difficult to access. There are two reasons for this. Firstly, there are a variety of techniques, each with a unique focus. Secondly, the language used to describe mindfulness can make it difficult for newcomers to understand.

At its core, however, mindfulness is really quite simple, best described as the state of “noticing things.” If you are noticing things, you are mindful of them. If you are not noticing things, you are not mindful of them.

It doesn’t even matter what you’re noticing — it can be anything: the wind, your thoughts, bodily sensations, the space between your eyebrows. You can even walk, talk, and eat mindfully. The breath is one of the most popular anchors. I once heard someone say: “Life starts with a breath and ends with a breath; it must be important.” That stuck with me.

Once you choose something to notice, now you have to focus on it. Consider this example of the breath. It’s best to be specific, so we’ll say the air at your nostrils. Breathe in through your nose. Breathe out through your nose. Notice the cold air flowing in, and the warm air flowing out. Breathe in, breathe out. Breathe in, breathe out, and continue this rhythm.

This might sound easy, but it’s more difficult than you think. Thoughts will arise, they always do, and without realizing, your mind will begin wandering — usually about stories from the past or an imaginary future.

But don’t worry, this is the practice. Once you notice that your mind is wandering, you go back to your breath. The idea is to catch yourself getting hijacked by your thoughts, and then go back to your anchor. This is where the magic happens. This is the moment when you change your brain.

With regular practice, you’re preparing yourself for when it really matters — when life throws one of its curveballs at you. Instead of mindlessly reacting to these difficult situations, you’ll be able to catch yourself in full flight and bring yourself back to the present moment.

If you want to begin a new mindfulness practice, I highly recommend these apps: headspace, which costs $12.99 per month, and Insight Timer, which is free of charge. Both have silent timers, but I’d recommend the guided meditations as they will help guide you back to your anchor when your mind begins to wander.

You’ll also need to decide on the duration of your practice. Headspace provides great insights here, where recent findings suggest frequency rather than duration is most important. For example, 10 minutes each day is more beneficial than one 70-minute session per week. Research has found that just 10 minutes a day over one month is enough to reduce stress, increase self-compassion and strengthen focus in daily life, so that’s a good starting point.

If you struggle with 10 minutes, reduce to something that feels achievable. The most important thing is finding a length of time that keeps you feeling motivated. Without this, it will never become part of your daily routine.

Lastly, you’ll need to select a technique. Focused attention, such as mindfully “noticing” your breath, is both common and easily accessible. Other techniques, which can be found in the apps above, include body scan, noting, visualization, compassion, and self-reflection.

2. Be the Observer

Self-observation has helped me to become more self-aware. “Self” means your self-concept, your story — who you think you are. If you are suffering in some way, like I was with anxiety, disconnecting from “self” will give you the freedom to experience a greater sense of well-being.

The self-observation technique, which is a form of meditation, means mindfully observing your thoughts, feelings, and bodily sensations.

For example, if I asked you to observe how tense your body feels, you might take a step back and focus on a specific area, such as a lump in your throat or a tight chest. If I asked you about your anxious thoughts, you could observe this too. You might be worrying about money, why your chest feels like it’s going to explode, or why everyone except you seems to be able to cope with self-isolation. It’s the same for anxious feelings. If I asked you how you felt — maybe you feel restless or agitated — it’s possible to take a step back and observe this too.

The point is, you can take an observer’s perspective of anxious thoughts, feelings, and bodily sensations. However, when you implement this practice, you must observe, without engaging.

The clouds in the sky metaphor explains this best. Imagine your thoughts, feelings, or bodily sensations as clouds floating through the sky. Sometimes they’re dark and angry, sometimes they’re light and calm. But you are not the clouds. You are the blue sky who observes the clouds, without engaging. You simply observe them until they pass, and they will pass. Everything passes, good and bad — even COVID-19. Be the observer.

Through improved awareness, mindful self-observation can provide a detachment from the self. Instead of being controlled by your self-concept, an ability to observe will it arise instead.

Although research in this area is only just emerging, some promising studies have targeted an area known as the default mode network (DMN), also known as the wandering “Monkey Mind.”

The DMN is active when our minds are directionless, aimlessly drifting from thought to thought. This has been linked to rumination and overthinking, which can be extremely counterproductive to our personal well-being.

Many forms of meditation have been found to decrease activation of the DMN, which in effect, quietens our busy minds. In one study, regions of the DMN showed reduced activation in meditators compared to non-meditators, which has been interpreted as a diminished reference to self.

3. Monitor and Change Your Self-Talk

We all have a story, and it is written with the words we use. If you tell yourself a virus is going to kill you, you’re going to act accordingly. If you tell yourself you’re struggling with anxiety, it’s likely that you will.

This is backed by research that shows that language is a vehicle for emotion. As a result, how you think, and the language that you use determines how you feel. It is therefore critical that you choose your words carefully, especially when talking to yourself.

To do this, you first have to monitor your self-talk. Self-observation is an excellent tool for this. Once you catch this internal dialogue in flight, then you need to change it. This can be done in two ways: (a) You can reframe your self-talk, or b) you can challenge its assumptions.

(a) Reframe your self-talk

In the world of COVID-19, our stories about anxiety are particularly problematic, with many people crippled by an incredible amount of uncertainty. “When is this going to end?” “I can’t handle self-isolation.” “I need to drink because I feel overwhelmed.” “What if I run out of money?”

When this kind of internal dialogue goes unchecked, you’re in serious trouble. It is therefore crucial that you reframe this self-talk. For example, words and phrases such as “I can’t,” “If only,” “I must,” or “COVID-19 made me feel that way” should be replaced with proactive language such as “I will,” “I choose to,” and “Let’s look at this another way.”

You should also monitor the questions you ask yourself. For instance, replacing “Why me?” with “What can I do about this?” will provide you with a sense of control. When you replace such reactive language with more proactive language, it will instil in you a sense of strength, directing you toward corrective action rather than worrying about what you cannot change.

(b) Challenge your self-talk

Even after I conquered anxiety and addiction, I struggled with public speaking. For days before a presentation, I’d fill myself with all kinds of anxiety-inducing self-talk. “What if I mix-up my words?” “What if I faint on stage?” “What if you have a panic attack?” “What if you can’t stop sweating?”

What do you think happened on the day of the presentation? Damn right, I was crippled with anxiety. It was a self-fulfilling prophecy, or, as Henry Ford once said, “Whether you think you can or you think you can’t, you’re right.”

My public-speaking narrative is very different today. When irrational self-talk enters my mind, I identify and challenge it immediately. When I do this, it quickly becomes clear how illogical it can be. I have never fainted in my entire life. I’ve only ever had one panic attack. And as for sweating on stage, who cares. Most people wouldn’t notice anyway, and you can always wear black.

Source: Having conquered public speaking, this 70-second clip shows me speaking about the neuroscience of visualisation where I completely mess up but turn it into a joke — the best part of the talk as it happens.

In the 70-second video above, I completely messed up my words, but by changing my internal narrative around public speaking, I was calm enough to turn it into a joke — the best part of the talk as it happens.

But of course, not all self-talk is irrational. Before a presentation, my internal chatter might say: “This is going to be nerve-wracking,” which is often true. It’s the same for COVID-19. People are getting sick. People are dying. The future is uncertain. We cannot deny these facts.

Depending on your level of influence, you have two options in this situation. For things you can influence, like nerve-wracking self-talk, you can use a form of reframing called reappraisal. In this case, I replace nerve-wracking with “exciting.” This tactic works well in many stressful situations, as it’s often our interpretation of events (i.e., the language we use to describe them) rather than the event that determines our emotions and behaviour.

For rational self-talk that you cannot influence, such as “people are dying,” you’ll need to accept it completely. COVID-19 is happening. So instead of resisting what has already occurred — which often takes the form of anxiety — accept the facts, and the pain will eventually subside. More than that, you will also stop feeding it.

Don’t confuse this with giving up. Acceptance isn’t passive. It’s the first step towards corrective action. It’s also the opposite of resistance, which only creates more pain. By realizing this, anxiety from COVID-19 will no longer control your actions.

4. Prioritise the Basics

The simplest solutions are often the most powerful. Sadly, because they’re so simple, most people tend to overlook them. For me, these basics include exercise, sleep, what we put into our bodies, and what we put into our minds.

(a) Exercise

Exercise is one of the most powerful anti-anxiety techniques. Experts suggest that even a moderate level of exercise is helpful for anxiety. With social distancing and self-isolation in play, this makes it more difficult, but not impossible.

Most countries allow some form of outdoor exercise, so if you can get out for a walk or a run, great. But even if you’re in self-isolation, you can still work out at home. I do three 10-minute rounds of bodyweight exercises every day which include push-ups, sit-ups, squats, lunges, jumping jacks, and burpees.

Here is an excellent, yet simple, guide on how to stay active during self-isolation.

(b) Sleep

An inability to sleep is a big problem for many people in these challenging times. Exercise will help, but unfortunately, most people still find that they can’t shut their minds off when they go to bed. My friend Nick Wignall is an expert in this area, and he suggests that we should tighten up our habits and sleep routines to ensure better quality sleep.

This is Nick’s personal insomnia guide, but here he suggests four ways we can tighten up our sleep during times of stress:

  1. Don’t get into bed until you’re actually sleepy. Let your body, not the clock, dictate when you get into bed. If you go to bed before your body’s ready for sleep, you’re likely to end up worrying, which makes it even harder to sleep.
  2. If you can’t sleep, get out of bed until you’re sleepy. If you wake up in the middle of the night and can’t fall back asleep, don’t lie there fighting it. Instead, get out of bed until you’re sleepy again. You could read or watch some of your favourite sitcoms. The worst thing you can do is stay in bed worrying about not sleeping. Because this trains your mind to associate fear and worry with your bed, and as Nick points out, this is not good.
  3. Pick a consistent wake-up time. When we continually change our wake up time, we contribute to what’s called social jet lag, which leads to the same symptoms as real jet lag. This occurs because your body’s main signal for feeling sleepy is how long you’ve been awake. If you’re waking up at different times throughout the week, your body is never going to develop a consistent pattern of sleep.
  4. Don’t sleep in. When you first wake up in the morning, your brain is still “coming online,” which means it’s harder to think rationally. As a result, when you lay in bed after your alarm, your chances of becoming anxious go up. The best way to avoid this early morning anxiety is to get out of bed and get going straight upon hearing your alarm.

(c) What we put into our bodies

Research shows that people are more interested in alcohol than their health during self-isolation. This is unfortunate, but not unexpected. Many people use alcohol to avoid how they feel, and with so many people experiencing anxiety right now, many are taking the easier option.

Like a snake trying to eat it’s own tail when it’s hungry, however, this is counterproductive. Alcohol might make you feel better in the short term, but hangovers can have an alarming impact on your mental health. It’s best to avoid alcohol, but if this seems unreasonable, you should try to limit your alcohol consumption, as this is a core cause of anxiety for many people.

It’s difficult to give an exact figure, but Dr. Aragona Giuseppe, GP and medical adviser at Prescription Doctor, suggests we should limit our alcohol consumption to three or four units, especially during self-isolation.

This factsheet from the WHO/Europe provides important information that you should know about alcohol consumption and COVID-19.

(d) What we put into our heads

When it comes to anxiety, what you put into your head is just as important as what you put into your body. That’s why social media, which is both a blessing and a curse during this pandemic, can be so problematic.

It’s a blessing because it helps to keep us informed of the latest developments. But it’s a curse because there is so much misinformation that it’s hard to know what to believe.

Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director-general of the World Health Organisation (WHO), pulls no punches on this topic: “We’re not just fighting an epidemic; we’re fighting an infodemic. Fake news spreads faster and more easily than this virus, and is just as dangerous.”

We could simply avoid these anxiety-inducing platforms, but it’s not that easy — we need to stay informed. That’s why we need to get our information from reliable sources.

Niklas Göke provides a comprehensive guide on how to stay healthy, happy, and helpful during the crisis, but his section on where to get the facts from reliable sources is particularly useful.

Nik recommends official websites such as the US CDC and the WHO. He also recommends Elemental, Medium’s health publication, who consistently publish excellent articles on all things COVID-19. He specifically highlights this Q&A piece from Robert Roy Britt and this one from researcher Dave Troy.

When it comes to COVID-19 related anxiety, however, Nik nails it with this: “Knowledge kneecaps fear. The news might make you anxious, but actually understanding the virus and its implications can — up to a certain point — bring peace of mind.”

Finally, like alcohol, I would recommend limiting your consumption of social media, even if it’s based on facts. Forty minutes per day broken into four chunks feels sufficient. I would also advise you to read a good book or some inspirational work to counteract the negative input.

The Takeaway

Anxiety is firmly grounded in biology. Fortunately, this has helped psychologists and researchers to find effective techniques to treat it.

Having struggled with anxiety and addiction for most of my life, I have witnessed the power of these tools as they have helped me to thrive in recovery. I not only feel better, but I’m no longer anxious, I no longer worry, and I’m more focused and aware than ever before. And now they’re helping me to cope with the coronavirus crisis.

Changing how you think and feel is there for anyone. All you have to do is implement the tools above on a regular basis. Most people say they never have the time, but with the rise of COVID-19, and with many people in self-isolation, the opportunity to start has never been better.

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Brian Pennie