It is a very interesting time to be a neuroscientist. COVID-19 has created a global environment of unpredictability, the likes of which most of us have never seen. Our brains are being hijacked. Unprecedented levels of sustained fear and uncertainty are creating extraordinary levels of anxiety. I have not seen this near universal state of mind in my 30 years of studying the brain. According to The Mental Health Index: U.S. Worker Edition, there was a 43% increase in the number of people at risk of general anxiety disorder between February (pre-pandemic) and September.
Recently I sat down with David Whitehouse, MD, PhD, a Harvard trained psychiatrist with more than 20 years of experience leading managed behavior change for companies in the United States. David and I discussed the challenges of pivoting from being anxious and fearful to being calm and flexible. We talked about a framework to create a more solution-focused, positive and realistically optimistic mindset.
David provided some terrific advice on ways to fend off anxiety. Here are a few of the key takeaways from our discussion.
Name it to tame it
One of the hardest things to do in terms of getting control of your emotions is to label them. In the midst of this pandemic, there are so many mixed emotions. Is what you are feeling depression? Anger? Fear? Grief? Try to identify and speak about the emotions you are going through. Only when you can express your emotions and share them with others will you find that you have power over the feelings, rather than the feelings having power over you.
Break the cycle of catastrophizing
We would never have survived as long as we have as a species if the brain was not first and foremost a threat detection system. From the moment the brain comes awake, it is looking out for danger around us. The brain has unconscious operating rules and looks for patterns to assess the level of a threat, and it will prescribe a level of response. If the threat fits a pattern, minimal response is given; however, if the threat is something new, uncertain or confusing (such as a pandemic), our system is more alarmed, and we catastrophize. Don’t let one negative thought feed into the next. Catastrophic thoughts are likely to take over when you are tired and stressed. Get sleep and incorporate stress-relieving activities into your day like exercise, meditation and journaling. In addition, breathing exercises of six breaths per minute can help tame your brain’s negative threat response.
Focus on the positive
Due to their threat detection mechanisms, our brains find it much easier to focus on the negative rather than the positive. Negative is our default mode. It takes three times the amount of energy to focus on positive thoughts to wipe out the power of one negative thought. However, we can own and direct what we’re thinking about. Limit your focus on negative news – turn the TV off. Being bombarded with reminders of all the things going wrong in the world is not good for your state of mind. Instead, set some quiet time in the evening to ruminate about all the positives of your day.
Engage your creative right brain
Did you know that shifting your focus to something that uses your right brain — such as listening to music or reading — helps clear away negativity and fends off anxiety? When you participate in a creative activity, your brain’s resources are absorbed by that activity and you are distracted from analytical left brain thinking and processing. In short, creative outlets help prevent you from a deep spiral of analytical thinking about the negatives of a current situation — such as the worries and fears you have about COVID-19, your health, your job and more.
You have the power to own and direct what you are thinking about. Start now. Befriending your brain can help you get to a more calm and flexible state of mind. These brain insights and new habits can help change your life!
Click here to learn more about the Mental Health Index: U.S. Worker Edition.
 The Mental Health Index: U.S. Worker Edition contains data drawn from a weekly randomized sample of 500 working Americans. The data is not survey data. It comes from a mix of validated tasks and questions that are part of a neuroscientific assessment of all brain capacities. The participant assessments used to compile the Mental Health Index were taken weekly from Feb. 3 to September 27, 2020.