THE ANIMAL WITHIN: C-19 AND STRESS

Beneath the trappings of civilization, despite our technology, laws, religion and mores, we’re animals. As such, we come with a phylogenetic inheritance from our distant ancestors.

All higher animals have an alarm response when danger appears. Just watch your cat’s tail bush out or your dog bare his teeth in response to a threat. It’s called the “fight or flight”response. It’s a good thing, and keeps us alive. It becomes a problem when the alarm sounds and there is no immediate threat.

For the purpose of this article, I’ll use the words “stress” and “anxiety” interchangeably because physiologically, stress and anxiety are the same. And they feel the same: pretty bad.

Let’s deal with physiology first. When we perceive threat, our hypothalamus (a region of the brain) sets off an alarm releasing the stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol. Adrenaline revs up your heart rate and blood pressure and increases energy supplies. Cortisol increases blood sugar in the bloodstream, boosts your brain’s use of glucose and helps with tissue repair. Both hormones are highly functional for a real threat. But what if the alarm doesn’t turn off? The negative effects are many, including high blood pressure, a weakened immune system, weight gain, anxiety and/or depression.

Our brains and therefore our minds act upon our physiology and are acted upon by it. What often happens in the attic when the kitchen is on fire is what I call “Oh, no thinking.” For example, “Oh, no, this is going to be awful, horrible, really bad and then we’re all going to die!”

Anxiety is a complex interactive phenomenon between body, brain and mind. It’s unlikely that that you can lessen anxiety without addressing both the physiology and psychology of it. Some tools for anxiety reduction follow. Don’t expect perfection. Aim for a reduction in stress. Not all things work for all people. Find what works for you by adapting and modifying. The aim is to calm your body.

1. Take a hot bath, or use a hot tub or whirlpool bath if you can. The heat tends to slacken the muscles, which is where we carry a lot of tension.

2. Take a massage. A good massage will rub the stress out of you. You can also massage your own feet.

3. Pet your cat or dog. This will reduce your heart rate and blood pressure.

4. Do something fun. Watch a movie, especially a comedy.

5. Start paying attention to your breath. Whenever you think of it, take a deep breath and breathe slowly and deeply for awhile.

6. Get some exercise. It’s a proven stress-reliever.

On the psychology side, be aware of your thoughts and feelings in a given moment. Writing them down helps increase awareness. Challenge your catastrophic thinking (projecting that some future event over which you have absolutely no control will be awful.) For a clue as to how you’re feeling, monitor your physiology. If you’re distracted and your heart rate is up, it’s a signal to check out how you’re feeling.

Prayer is a huge help. People with religious faith tend to worry less and are generally happier. Give your worries to God. You may not know what to do with them, but he does. If you’re not a believer, try meditation.

We’re going to get through this, and when it’s all over we’ll be better and stronger for it.

Michael A. Morrongiello, Ph.D.

 

ACE: STAY HEALTHY, GET CONNECTED

The saying “May you live in interesting times” is, ironically enough, an old Chinese curse. These times challenge our mental health. Being forced to isolate, threatened by an unseen enemy that might harm or kill us, is enough to raise anyone’s stress level. I offer some tips derived from 30 years as a private practice psychologist. If you are under treatment for anxiety or depression, please continue to take your medications and stay in contact with your physican and therapist.

1. Limit your TV news intake to 15 minutes a day. The radio news bulletin announcing the attack on Pearl Harbor lasted 30 seconds, followed by an immediate resumption of regular programming. Today, we’re bombarded with breaking news, developing stories and alerts, all designed to amp you up and keep you glued to the TV. Turn it off and go do something.

2. Practice reframing. Instead of complaining, “Dang it, I’m stuck at home because of this social-distancing nonsense,” look on this as a time to read a book, connect with family or start a project you’ve have had on the way-back burner. It’s not a limitation. It’s an opportunity.

3. Be happy with the next best thing, if you can’t do the top thing on your list.

4. Get outside. Breathe fresh air. Get some sun. Do something physical. Go for a walk. Ride a bike. Dig a garden. Exercise reduces anxiety and depression.

5. Connect with people by whatever means you have: phone, Facetime, Skype, email. We can also safely talk to people outdoors: arrange a meeting, just keep a prudent distance. We’re social animals who are built to connect with our fellow humans.

6. Adopt a proactive attitude. View stress as a signal that you need to do something. Don’t think of your mood as unchangeable; you can do things to change it.

7. Remember that moods change from day to day and even hour to hour. If you feel badly now, you may feel better tomorrow.

8. Keep your mind active. Binge-watching Netflix is fine for awhile, but our brains were not built to passively absorb hours of TV or video games. Get mentally active. Put your brain in gear by playing a board game that demands thought, or playing cards, doing a home improvement project, or doing something creative. You can learn new skills online.

Try to remember the acronym ACE. It stands for:

ACTIVE, physically

COGNITIVE, put your brain in gear.

ENGAGE, connect with people by whatever means.

We will get through this. Let’s get out of it healthier, smarter and more connected with each other.

Michael A. Morrongiello, Ph.D.