This week (16th - 22th March) is Brain Awareness Week (BAW), a global campaign to raise awareness about the brain and recent developments in brain research to treat conditions like parkinson’s, alzheimer’s, schizophrenia, depression and anxiety.
The global COVID-19 pandemic we're currently experiencing presents a timely reminder of our brains vulnerability during such unprecedented events, which have far reaching social and psychological implications. We’re seeing a collective hysteria playing out, propelled by speculation, the herd mentality and exposure to constant media barrage. We're witnessing supermarkets turning into battlegrounds, people stockpiling guns in the US, sporting and community events cancelled across the world and entire countries in lock down.
These reactions ultimately arise from panic and the primal emotion of fear, which in turn is sparked by the ‘unknown’ and the brains innate mechanism to preserve our survival. When we’re in fear of the unknown and for our safety, we experience anxiety and prolonged stress, which in turn deteriorates our immune system, health and psychological disposition.
Stress has become a momentous problem for many of us and can be described as a situation where our homeostasis is threatened or we perceive a situation as threatening. This results in the “stress response” which ensues after our senses have streamed information to our brain that gets interpreted as a threat because there is a clear “mismatch” between what our expectations are of what the world should look like and what the world is actually presenting to us.
Once this limbic system filtering has taken place the amygdala activates the central nervous system, which in turn releases a cocktail of adrenaline and cortisol into our bloodstream that sees blood and energy drawn from our brain and other vital organs and sent to our major muscles.
This age-old stress response facilitated survival for our ancient ancestors to flee from threatening situations and is the reason why we are still here as a species. The differentiating factor however is that during a situation like COVID-19 we’re experiencing prolonged stress and exposure to continual stressors resulting in the ongoing secretion of cortisol from the adrenal glands, otherwise known as “death by a thousand cuts”.
Knowing this is important because having an appreciation of how the brain works in threatening situations is the first step to manage our stress and anxiety levels during such unprecedented times.
So, what else can we do to manage stress levels and our mental health during this time? Thankfully there are a number of evidence based coping methods we can use, some of which include:
EFT (Emotional Freedom Technique)
EFT is a therapeutic self-help technique that has been proven to successfully deal with stress, anxiety, depression, PTSD and chronic pain. Also known as tapping the technique stimulates the body’s energy meridian points (similar to acupuncture), by tapping in a particular sequence upon specific points (primarily on the head and the face), while focusing on the issue causing concern. Here is a useful article by Medical News Today that offers a step-by-step guide and more information on the technique: https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/326434#research
Progressive Muscle Relaxation (PMR)
PMR is another evidence based stress management technique that uses mental and physical processes to tense a group of muscles as you breath in and then relaxing the same muscles as you breath out. This works on the premise that muscle tension accompanies stress and that you cannot feel anxious when your body is physically relaxed. There are a number of audio recordings and guided meditations you can find on PMR. This article from Michigan Medicine also provides a useful procedural guide: https://www.uofmhealth.org/health-library/uz2225
Psychological Process of Mindfulness Meditation
Mindfulness and meditation have been around for thousands of years but it’s only in the last few decades have we seen an abundance of research and studies (using technology like functional magnetic resonance imaging and electroencephalogram (EEG)), confirming unequivocally that these ancient practices work to reduce stress, anxiety and depression.
The science tells us that practicing mindfulness meditation reduces activity in the amygdala glands and enhances volume in the prefrontal cortex, responsible for things like focus and the regulation of our social behaviour. Mindfulness practice involves anchoring your attention to the present moment using a variety of techniques, with the other long-term benefit being that you can operate successfully in the stimulus-response gap in order to manage stress and rising anxiety. So, you’re able to become the observer of your thoughts as they’re occurring and take an objective perspective from which to regulate any tension, stress or irrational behaviour.
Aside from these evidence-based techniques, we can harness a range of common sense practices in order to abate any panic or mental tension we might be experiencing. Exercise for instance plays a vital role in brain function and mental health, with research confirming that a healthy body supports a healthy brain. Becoming more selective when we tune into our devices and media content is also important. Limit the time you check the news and take the mental approach that you are just tuning in to obtain the most prevalent and up to date information.
The other no-brainers are staying on top of a healthy diet and getting enough sleep. Tweaking our behaviours to allow for these common sense approaches can make a world of difference to the way we’re processing and responding to this current global pandemic.
What will we have learned when we look back on COVID-19? Will it be that the human psyche and behaviour crumbles at the whim of undetermined external factors or that we demonstrated the power to manage and regulate our thinking and behaviour in times of uncertainty? For it is only from this latter platform that we can create a collective response that comes from a place of consideration for the vulnerable members of our community, tolerance and banding together in times of uncertainty, as opposed to an individual self-regarding reaction.
If stress and fear is not transformed, it is transmitted. Using some of the suggestions in this article, it is my hope we can move toward self-transformation from which to create a collective positive transformation.