There is no doubt in my mind that more of us are affected on psychological level than on a physical level. Sure there are victims under physical attack of the virus, those infected, but most of us are under increased psychological attack.
- Shock at the loss of a job or income
- Grief at the loss of a loved one
- Isolation and restrictions
- Uncertainty and fear for the future…
Mental health problems will negatively impact many of us. The ones that face the highest risk are healthcare workers, older people, young people and those with pre-existing mental health conditions. This article is not for those at the front-line or at the high end of the risk profile but for the average person trying to make sense out of this crisis.
Stress is all about how we respond internally to an external event. Just knowledge of this fact gives us much more control over this psychological attacker and it’s effects than what we may realize.
Let’s use the Coronavirus as an example as it’s causing mayhem for most as well as varying degrees of stress and disruption across the globe. Virtually no one is un-affected in some way.
In these times we are confronted with some extreme changes in our environment: lockdown, restrictive movement, social isolation etc. These changes are real and can have a severe impact on your health, wellness and performance. It is vitally important to realize that how you respond to the external stressor, the virus and the restrictions that come with it, can be much more detrimental to your health, than the damage caused by the stressor itself. I am not downplaying the fact that the coronavirus is killing people and I do not suggest anyone should act irresponsible towards it. However, I do believe that there is more damage done globally on a psychological level (through fear and anxiety), than on a physical level (through number or deaths) by the virus.
The real threat or danger to your health has so much more to do with your neuropsychology (thinking and behaving) and your neurochemistry (hormones and neurotransmitters) than with the stressor itself. And these fall within your control.
According to most of the medical research, of all the fatalities caused by the virus, approximately 96% of the deceased had another co-morbidity (disease) or were over the age of 80. So based on that statistic we can say that around 4% of the “healthy population” (younger than 80 and without another disease) has been directly and severely affected by the virus. I am just guessing that there is more than 4% of the world population, who are experiencing elevated levels of stress, anxiety and fear due to the extreme changes in lifestyle; severe restrictions, economic and social uncertainty that the virus, with accompanied lockdown, has brought.
Your endocrine system responds on your mental and emotional cues. Your thoughts and feelings serve as commands being sent to your nervous system and there is an endocrine response. It is this internal endocrine response that ultimately causes damage, should it not be switched off and left to run riot. This marvelously adaptive trait would have served us as humans very well if we could run away from the virus and the restrictions that come with it. The elevated levels of cortisol and adrenalin would have given you the energy and power to sprint away and leave the virus in the dust far behind. Once you were in the clear, far away enough from the threat, the stress-response would have been switched off and your hormones would return to normal. It’s called being in homeostasis. Unfortunately you cannot run away from this physical stressor and it’s implications and therefore the stress response (elevated levels of pro-inflammatory hormones) remains switched on. Now you are out of homeostasis. Over time this begins to take its toll. Chronically elevated levels of pro-inflammatory cytokines and hormones like cortisol and adrenalin eventually cause inflammation inside your body.
Again, what is happening “inside” us is causing the damage and not what is happening “outside” in the world.
Sadly, what is making this situation worse is that the restrictions have caused the loss in many important activities like work, hobbies, sports and social interaction and thereby depriving you of the joy, meaning and purpose that daily life brings. This lowers the release of beneficial hormones like dopamine, serotonin and oxytocin, all responsible for protecting us against the ravages of stress.
Further this situation brought about some nasty unwanted side effects:
- Eating more crap
- Drinking more booze
- Getting less sunshine and fresh air
- Sitting more and moving less
So your body responds by trying to increase dopamine (the feel good/reward hormone) naturally, and some of the ways it knows how to do this is through drinking, eating, sex, drugs, social media and exercise. Unfortunately few people resort to the latter, but rather indulge in the former. This hormonal profile promotes more addictive behaviour to re-establish homeostasis.
This can cause a destructive downward spiral of increasing the pro-inflammatory hormonal response and suppressing the anti-inflammatory response. If you ever had a reason for changing your lifestyle, there is no better reason or time than now.
Here are a few things you can do to improve your internal response, as we know this is where the battle is won or lost.
Recognize that it’s your response that determines the damage
Just remember to manage that which is in your control: your thoughts, feelings, actions and words. Reflect and understand that you can choose how to respond. This is a very empowering state of mind.
Identify and replace negative thinking before it becomes a frames of mind
As soon as a negative thought rears it’s head in the form of fear, anxiety, doubt or uncertainty about the future etc. Immediately arrest that thought and replace it with a countering thought. Don’t choose to dwell on it. When thoughts habituate they become states. When states habituate they become frames of mind or perspectives. Once a frame sets in, it will govern your thinking, perceiving, valuing, emoting, responding, speaking, acting, behaving, relating etc. Frames govern subsequent experience by keeping out anything that doesn’t fit in it’s paradigm. Frames become our referencing system and control our perceptions. Frames therefore function as reality structures and are very powerful. This means that if you meditate and chew on fearful thoughts, they become your way of seeing everything. They become lenses for how you view and perceive life and you are less likely to see the “up” side of things.
Get some sunlight
Get outside and get some sunlight. It is vitally important for good mental and physical health.
Exercise, move and play. Do whatever you can to get your heart rate up. Anything is better then nothing.
This is a critical component to managing the stress response and recovery in general. Give yourself time to re-charge. Quality is more important than quantity.
Eat to thrive
Good nutritional basics remain unchanged. If you look through the clutter and the fads then solid advice is to stick to fresh, minimally processed wholefoods. Keep in mind nutrition is very subjective, what works for one is not optimal for another. For a crash course in nutrition read this post.
No need to over complicate this. Being mindful simply means to focus on the present. To be anchored in the here and now and not letting your mind dwell in the future of what can go wrong, or in the past of regrets. Breathing, prayer, meditation, intentional sensory awareness, gratefulness or just giving the current task 100% of your attention are all ways of achieving mindfulness.
This goes for most things. To limit and manage everything around you, you should have a schedule and boundaries in place. Manage your time and environment and stick to it as much as possible. Give yourself time to work, play, eat, recover and rest.
Social support is vital for mental health so get creative on how you can stay in touch with your loved ones. Be wary of those who leave you feeling drained and negative. Also be wary of being one of those.
Don’t believe everything the media tells you
While it’s important to stay informed of the latest developments, too much media consumption can increase feelings of stress, fear, anxiety and hopelessness. Only consume media from credible sources. Before allowing any content to disturb your state, apply some critical thinking by asking questions like: “Who is paying for this publicity” and “Who is benefiting from it?”. Fake news, propaganda and conspiracy theories are rife.
Replace destructive behaviours with constructive ones
Choose a healthy habit to replace a negative one. Read a constructive book rather than scrolling down endless feeds on social media. Encourage rather than criticize. Go for a walk rather than smoking a cigarette.