In today’s unprecedented circumstances, many of us are finding our levels of anxiety are increasing. We may be largely cooped up at home, unable to get on with our usual daily routine, prevented from taking part in many of the activities that usually give us such pleasure, not even allowed to meet up with the family and friends who are so important to us. On top of all this, we may be struggling with health worries, financial insecurity, and many other possible knock-on effects of suddenly having had the rug well and truly pulled out from under our feet. We all like to feel in control, to have a plan, to be free to make choices in our lives, and for many of us, this has been suddenly and unexpectedly taken away from us. It’s no wonder we’re struggling.
But what exactly is going in the brain and body when we find ourselves struggling like this? To answer this, we need to understand a bit about how the brain works, more particularly how the primitive brain works. Our brain is a very complex and specialised organ, but for the purposes of this explanation, we can divide it into 2 parts - the intellectual and the primitive brain. The intellectual brain is the logical, conscious, thinking part, the part that that comes up with solutions based on rational assessments. The primitive brain is the original fear-based part that evolved for purposes of survival and self-protection. It is the part that kicks in with the fight, flight or freeze mechanism when it encounters danger. It initiates the release of stress hormones which cause physical changes in the body in order to get us ready to fight or to run away from the danger. Responses include sweating, fast breathing, racing heart and churning stomach, those feelings that we typically associate with high anxiety. If we were to encounter a fierce wild animal whilst out hunting on the plains, this would be extremely useful, and key to our survival. The response occurs automatically - there is no time to sit around and ponder the pros and cons of the situation or we could end up as lunch!
Nowadays, of course, this is a situation that we are rarely likely to come across. However, the primitive brain still retains this ability to protect us whenever it perceives danger. The trouble is, it sometimes gets things wrong and initiates these responses in a false alarm situation. One situation the primitive brain views as a threat is change. It likes certainty and predictability. In times of uncertainty such as these, it can kick in with those ‘survival’ responses, leading to an increase in symptoms of anxiety.
There is something else thrown into the mix here too, and that is all about how we cope with uncertainty and life’s other challenges. We need a nice steady flow of endorphins such as serotonin and dopamine in our systems in order to keep us happy and in coping mode. Modern neuroscience has shown us that certain activities and ways of thinking help promote the flow of these feel-good factors. These include positive action, positive interaction and positive thinking. So, engaging in hobbies or other activities that bring us enjoyment like reading or listening to music, exercising, enjoying good food, socialising, interacting with family, and keeping a positive mindset are very important in promoting these endorphins and so boosting our wellbeing.
Unfortunately, we have recently been prevented from engaging in many of the sorts of activities that help to keep us happy and contented. So right now, it is especially important to be creative and find possible alternatives so that we can continue to remain buoyant. For example, we can choose a different form of exercise that is permitted whilst we are not allowed to go to the gym, maybe take up a new sedentary hobby or craft, and make sure we continue to have plenty of virtual interaction with friends and loved ones.
Positive thinking is known to be a function of the intellectual brain, more specifically the left pre-frontal cortex, and the more we can exercise this skill, the less hold the anxiety-provoking primitive brain will have over our behaviour. Developing a positive mindset might seem a bit of a nebulous concept at first. However, there are concrete measures we can take to help steer us in the right direction. For example, we can start a gratitude journal, learn how to meditate, actively review what’s been good about our day every evening, make an effort to stop complaining… We can also actively avoid the things that bring us down, maybe by limiting the amount of time we spend listening to the news or watching doom and gloom on the TV.
Hope is also an important element in our efforts to remain buoyant. Hope is essentially optimism for the future, as opposed to anxiety, which provokes you to think of the worst possible outcomes. Throughout history, hope has enabled people to cope and survive through the worst possible times. Hope can be regarded as a protective factor against negative thinking. Consciously deciding to be hopeful and optimistic gives us a sense of control, which is key when we are dealing with threats that are entirely out of our hands. Hope leads to positive thinking, and both are very powerful in helping people to get back on the road to mental wellbeing. Not only do they play a role in raising morale, but they can also prevent certain mental illnesses, notably depression, from developing. And at a time when there’s so much stress and misery about, now is when we need that glimmer of hope and positivity the most. Do your best to remain hopeful, keep on keeping on – the tunnel may sometimes seem long and dark, but keep focusing on the light at the end of it.