Many of us are facing unprecedented challenges during this coronavirus crisis in America, and it has increased anxiety and fear levels in all of us. The reactive part of your brain called the amygdala, a human physiological response when faced with fear, takes control of your actions, and you enter what is known as the fight-flight-freeze response. This stress response induces your body to produce a steroid called cortisol to handle the feelings of fear. Unfortunately, cortisol has another effect on your physiology; it weakens your immune system. This effect makes you more vulnerable at a time when you need strength.
No matter what your challenges are during this pandemic, there is one thing you can bring to the crisis from which all other problems can be better solved, overcome your fear with mental toughness. Being afraid can quite literally make you more susceptible to becoming sick. As such, the proper precautions like getting adequate rest, staying hydrated, and social distancing should have an additional component, help your brain to feel safe to maximize your physical health.
Some of the techniques you can employ include shifting your focus to those things you are grateful for, like a roof over your head, food in your refrigerator, your health. Consider all of the things you have that others may not; the things we all may typically take for granted. If you can’t find gratitude about your circumstances, think of those people working on the front lines in this continuing pandemic and be grateful it is not you. Finding something to be grateful for will immediately get you out of the fight-flight response.
Begin to practice empathy. Look at the time you spend with your loved ones at home as a gift and not a jail sentence. Embrace being with them, laugh, tell them you appreciate them because when you spread joy to others, it will boost their immune system as well. It turns out that being positive is healthy and contagious. We all have a rare opportunity to forge better, more loving relationships with our immediate family, or if you live alone, take the time to recharge and re-center yourself. Take full advantage of this moment and choose positive behaviors. Extend your empathy to those who are feeling ill if possible, through video chat, phone calls, texts, or prayer. This moment is so much bigger than just us.
Turn off the news and turn on personal growth and connection. News reports are full of data, some of which are not accurate. Being addicted to the 24/7 news cycle breeds uncertainty and fear as it touts mostly negative statistics and woeful stories of the moment. The basics about this pandemic are well documented at this point. Practice proper hygiene, particularly with your hands, avoid touching your face, avoid large gatherings, and implement social distance but do not do this out of fear, do it as an act of service. Flip how your brain associates your daily choices by knowing that your actions are preventing the potential deaths of others.
Find something in media or on television that brings a smile to your face or makes you laugh. Break out the board games, cards, art projects, or walk outside (distant from others!) and get some sun. Sun provides vitamin D for your system, which also boosts your immune system. Whatever you choose, staying active and busy in a positive way will lessen any concern or fears that you are experiencing about the pandemic.
These points of view may all may read as cliché, but in 2009 Dr. Alvaro Pascual-Leone conducted a study consisting of two groups of people learning to play a simple piano melody. For five days, one group practiced the melody for two hours a day while the other group, over the same time, sat in front of the keyboard, imagining they were playing the melody. Dr. Pascual-Leone mapped the brain activity of the study participants before, during, and after the experiment, and the results were surprising. Both groups experienced the same brain changes. What this means is the brain does not differentiate between imagination and reality. What this also means is you have a choice, a choice to be riddled with anxiety, worry, and uncertainty or the opportunity to be courageous, bold, and confident by simply imagining those feelings. How you feel is a choice.
In simple terms, when you have a thought, your brain sends a pulse of electrical activity at the same moment. This electrical activity stimulates a release of neuropeptides that communicate with your body to produce a feeling. So truly, your thoughts create feelings. Activate your brain’s natural superpowers and boost your immune system by redirecting your brain’s thought patterns. Remind yourself daily to think positive thoughts, be grateful, and practice empathy which will give you the mental toughness to endure what still lies ahead.
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