Your Brain is Trying to Solve Coronavirus
That sounds ridiculous, right? But our brains are built to guess, predict, figure out. This is what the brain does, honed over millions of years to help us survive in a dangerous, physical world. Now we are dealing with an unseen danger, a brand new world of social distancing and a once in a lifetime economic event. Welcome coronavirus anxiety.
Just listen to the predictions your brain is coming up with:
- I’m never going to be able to work again.
- Me or someone I know is going to fall ill.
- Everything I touch might be infected.
What we are experiencing is a huge amount of uncertainty and this is a key ingredient in anxiety, defined as “a feeling of worry, nervousness or unease, typically about an imminent event or something with an uncertain outcome”.
Mindfulness Reveals What’s Really Happening
Let’s ask ourselves:
- What’s true?
- What’s helpful?
We can engage the skill of mindfulness, of observing our present moment on purpose, without judgement to connect with our actual experience. Take a moment and just watch those anxious thoughts for what they are, a brain reaching for conclusions. Notice how your body reacts to these catastrophic thoughts? What does it feel like in your head, your back, your chest, your arms, etc.?
Let’s get curious. So what feels good and right? Perhaps it feels good to wash our hands at appropriate times knowing that we are preventing the spread of Coronavirus for ourselves and others. Or it feels right to connect with loved ones. How does this compare with our experiences of coronavirus anxiety?
Read + Click + Repeat = Coronavirus Anxiety
We can all practice this detective work with the news. Our brains crave information for guessing about the future. Do you have your favorite news websites? Do you seem to go to them without even thinking about it hour after hour? You’re still clicking even if there isn’t anything new or relevant to your personal safety or well-being.
This is your brain’s primitive reward-based learning system run amok. You did something once, received a reward (in this case new information), and so your brain wants to do it again. This is a reinforcing loop – the more you read the news, the more you want to read the news. The behavior becomes automatic, the information itself becomes less important, and you need to do it more to get the same reward. This leads to habit formation and addiction (substitute “information” for “food” or “alcohol”). Unfortunately for us in our modern world, it’s all right at our fingertips.
Again mindfulness can change our relationship to the news and engage the higher-order functions of our brains:
- What does it feel like in your body as you are clicking around articles, refreshing the page? Is there relaxation or tightness? Is there energy or exhaustion?
- How many times do you need to read, listen, or see the same things over and over again? Every change in the stock market, every government announcement, the same stories from different countries.
- Is this helping you be healthy, happy and free from Coronavirus?
We can experiment and play alternatives. Here are some options to build new news-reading habits:
- Since you’ll have most willpower in the morning, consider only checking the news in the morning for a set amount of time.
- Limit the number of websites or the number of clicks.
- Get the body involved – feel the press of your finger, hear the sound of the click, say “Click” out loud.
- Visit boring, government websites where you only receive the most pertinent information in comparison to other news websites that will be deliberately enticing you with “click-bait” headlines. Think about this as health-food versus junk-food.
- Turn off all news-related notifications to your devices so you can be in control of when you consume information.
- Work with an accountabili-buddy. Find someone to check in with and be accountable to your new habits.
Uncovering What’s Good
In several meditation groups that I have both led and participated in, we’ve traded stories about all of the unexpected pleasant surprises that have come out of this. Here’s what I’ve heard:
- People seem friendlier walking outside.
- I’ve gotten closer to loved ones, particularly those who live far away from me.
- I’ve been forced to change bad habits – I can’t spend the same amount of money or buy the same foods right now.
- I have more free time.
There seems to be negativity everywhere we look, but look a little closer, literally closer. What’s happening in your immediate environment, in your household, in your neighborhood? You have the option of placing your amazing power of focus and attention on the good happening right in front of you. Have you noticed it’s springtime?
We are All in This Together
This is an unheard of event where we are all physically isolated and sharing the same experiences. We can meaningfully help our fellow human by simply staying home. But we can do even more.
Just as the coronavirus is contagious and can be passed from person to person so too can our feelings and emotions be passed on. This is called social contagion. Have you ever walked into a room of angry, arguing people? Did you suddenly feel angry? What if you walked into a room of calm, peaceful people?
One powerful gift we can share is being a pillar of calm. We can demonstrate that we will get through this crisis stronger and more connected than before. We can offer compassion and support to those that may experience the most suffering from this crisis: the elderly, the poor, healthcare workers.
There are so many amazing people in the world creating content to help us all feel better. Here are some that I have found helpful:
- Article: M. D. Judson A. Brewer: A Brain Hack to Break the Coronavirus Anxiety Cycle. N.Y. Times
- Videos: DrJud: Coronavirus Anxiety: Daily Updates. YouTube
- Videos + Podcast: Being Resilient During Coronavirus – Dr. Rick Hanson
- Podcast: Facing Pandemic Fears with an Awake Heart – Tara Brach
- Poem: A Poem for Troubled Times – Alexander McCall Smith
Image courtesy of Unsplash