Use This Advice to Stop a Coronavirus Anxiety Spiral

If you often find yourself imagining the worst-case scenario, there’s a powerful way to retrain your thoughts.

fizkes / Shutterstock
fizkes / Shutterstock

As we continue to navigate this epic health crisis, staying calm and positive might be more of a challenge. With so much loss and suffering, and a steady stream of distressing news, it’s easy to feel a sense of dread and even hopelessness. In fact, in a Thrive Global survey of 5,000 respondents about coronavirus pain points, more than 65% of people reported feeling helpless when it comes to the health crisis. 

While a pull to jump to the worst-case scenario is common, this type of thought pattern isn’t helpful. “Catastrophizing, or thinking about the worst possible outcomes, provokes a fear response in the brain,” Inna Khazan, Ph.D, a health and performance psychologist and lecturer in psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, tells Thrive. In the state of fear, parts of the brain responsible for problem-solving and decision-making become less active, she explains. 

On the other hand, if you can remain steady and stay present instead of catastrophizing, you’ll lower stress and feel better, which will mean you’ll be better equipped to deal with any challenges — and make clear decisions. Khazan suggests trying this technique if you find yourself experiencing negative emotions you feel you can’t control:

“Give a brief descriptive label to your experience — naming it ‘fear,’ for example, or just ‘catastrophizing,’” says Khazan. “Research shows that this skill, called ‘affect labeling,’ changes the pattern of activation in the brain, reducing activation of the fear center while increasing activation of the parts of the brain responsible for decision-making and problem-solving.” 

Ultimately, says Kazan, naming your experience reduces distress and allows you to better regulate any difficult emotions, so you won’t feel as frustrated or hopeless.

Another technique to try is reframing, which entails looking at what is happening in a different light. Although our brains are hardwired to worry (a survival function called “negative bias”), focusing on a single negative word can ramp up activity in the amygdala — the “fear center” of our brain — releasing neurotransmitters and hormones that interrupt our cognitive functioning, especially with regards to logic and reason. So instead of viewing the pandemic “as a nightmare,” you could see it as a challenging situation and remind yourself that you have the resilience and strength to get through it. 

It all comes down to understanding that while we cannot control outside events, we do have a choice about how we respond to stressful situations. Course-correcting our thoughts in the moment makes it possible to strengthen our mental resilience.

Start with this simple but effective Microstep:

If you notice yourself imagining negative future possibilities, pause and take a breath.
Catastrophizing is counterproductive and impedes our decision-making.

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