ANXIETY is Contagious!
A study performed in Germany for the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Science shows that when we witness someone in distress, whether they are someone we love or a complete stranger, we experience stress as well. It’s no surprise then that when we see worrying and anxiety on a global scale, that we are affect. Luckily, the flip side is also true: kindness is contagious too! In previous articles and emails, I have written about ways to manage anxiety and grief during these difficult times. I have included some additional thoughts and tips here for ways that we can all work to reduce anxiety.
- Know the facts. Don’t read every text, news article, and post. Instead choose one or two trusted sources in order to garner the facts. Knowing what is true will allow you not to react to alarmists or shocking news. Don’t deep dive into different articles and don’t get obsessive. Learn what you need to know and then move forward.
- Ask for help. We are all struggling right now. We are all vulnerable. Brene Brown, the author of Daring Greatly, explains that the root of the word courage actually comes from the Latin word for heart (cor). In that sense, courage can be about sharing your heart with someone else. When we show our vulnerability and ask for help, Brown explains that we are being brave. And, when people can be vulnerable with you, and you can help them, you will ultimately build a stronger relationship.
- Connect. During these times of isolation, it is important to connect – with your friends, your family, your neighbors, your people! Reach out through the video conferencing, the phone, email, text, you name it. You need to hear people and they need to hear you. This will get serotonin pumping in your system helping you feel calm and happy.
- Practice self–compassion and self-care. Therapist Eve Menezes Cunningham explains that “when we’re anxious, we typically try to control more, but so much is now beyond our control. We can only control what we are doing – staying at home for the sake of more vulnerable populations, if you’re not already self-isolating because you are part of a more vulnerable population – not stockpiling. Be kind to yourself – anxiety is a normal reaction to have in a really unusual situation.” There are so many things that are out of our control. It’s important to recognize those things and give ourselves space to be out of control – and also attempt to take care of ourselves in small ways. This can mean an online yoga class, a call with a good friend, or a long walk (if that’s permitted where you live).
- Understand that certainty is hard, but not negative. According to Robert Leahy, the director of the American Institute for Cognitive Therapy and author of The Worry Cure, we are all stuck in “an international human trauma, where everybody has a sense that their life, or the lives of people they love, is threatened.” When we are anxious, he says: “We tend to equate uncertainty with the worst outcome. For example, after 9/11, I heard so many people say it’s inevitable that there’s going to be another major attack on New York City, or a nuclear attack by al-Qaida. That never happened. When we’re anxious, we tend to treat the uncertainty as a bad outcome. But uncertainty is neutral – we don’t know what’s going to happen.” Recognizing that uncertainty makes us think the worst, but does not always (or almost never!) produces the worst outcome, can help you overcome your worst moments.
- Perspective. When you are living in the midst of a pandemic (just saying that word is scary, right?), it is hard to gain perspective. We don’t need to have perspective all the time, but it is important that while not denying reality, we remind ourselves that this will pass, even if we don’t know when. When we are stressed, our bodies create cortisol. Cortisol lowers our immune system which can compromise our ability to fight disease. So, even though the world is far from rainbows and unicorns right now, a few times a day, work on putting a slightly happy spin on the future. Imagine a time when this is over and you have either gone back to normal or made some positive changes. This will help lower your stress and boost your immune system.
The reality is that we are all living in uncertain times. The news screams about death and disaster. We hear about friends who have lost loved ones. We may have lost loved ones ourselves. We are all grieving. We are grieving for loved ones and for a time that was and that will likely never be again. It is our choice now how to respond to that uncertainty and grief. We will all respond with anxiety at times – that’s inevitable.
But, maybe we can also choose to respond with kindness. I am reminded of the 49 year old woman in central Israel who passed away from the virus. Her death left twin four year old boys as orphans because her husband had passed away a few years earlier. Within 48 hours, the Israeli public donated more than half a million dollars to care for the boys – this while 1 out of every 4 Israelis is currently unemployed. We don’t need to donate in order to spread kindness; we can do it through connection and through service. As a society, that is how we will survive. After all, kindness is contagious too.