I think most of us are familiar with the sensation of panic: Whether it’s a brief moment of panic like when you realize you forgot an important date – like your anniversary or your mother’s birthday or a critical deadline at work; or a sudden, heightened moment of panic when you fear something horrible is about to happen, or when something frightening is indeed happening.
I remember back to a time in my early 20s when I was in charge of a produce department at a small collectively owned food coop in San Francisco. I was charged with buying the produce which meant I started work at 4am each day by driving the store’s ancient pick up truck to the produce warehouse district in San Francisco to pick up enough food to get us through each day or the weekend, tops. As anyone familiar with San Francisco can imagine, we didn’t have a whole lot of space in our little store. Certainly not enough space to store weeks or even days worth of inventory. I confidently accepted the position based on my qualifications of having worked on an organic farm. I knew how to plant and harvest vegetables – how hard could it be to buy and sell them?
I will never forget one day during my first week as a produce buyer. I returned to the store after my trip to the wholesale market that morning only to be met with the incredulous look of my produce-buying predecessor, who inquired with raised brows, “you bought how many cases of cucumbers?? And you bought zero cases of….????” Fill in the blank with any essential produce item besides cucumbers and it’s likely I didn’t buy it that day.
In this scenario the sense of panic I experienced occurred after the fact and was tied with the realization that, 1) I messed up and, 2) that I didn’t, actually, have a clue as to how much of anything I needed to buy each day. I had no experience upon which to base this knowledge. I didn’t know what I didn’t know, and once I knew what I didn’t know, this caused some minor panic and anxiety. Would I even be able to do this job well?? Not knowing how many cucumbers we actually needed to get through the day, my rather blind decision to purchase way too much was also based on fear – the fear of running out. Of course, there is no greater teacher than the humility of recognizing how little we actually know, so I actually went on to enjoy a long and reasonably successful first career in the produce industry.
For our species, all variations of panic and anxiety have one thing in common – they are a byproduct of the evolved human brain. In a recent NY Times article entitled, “A Brain Hack to Break the Coronavirus Anxiety Cycle,”author and psychiatrist, Justin Brewer, MD, gives a wonderfully parsimonious description of the difference between fear and anxiety (together with its close relative, panic). Fear helps us survive. It is a conditioned response in which we learn to avoid life-threatening situations. The more primitive areas of the brain allow us to experience fear and thus survive as a species. Fear is tied intimately with the flight or fight response we share in common with other mammals. The wonderful thing about fear is its immediacy. It is triggered and we react. The reason fear has helped us survive is that it bypasses the thinking part of our brain. If we stopped to think about what we are afraid of, our reactions may come too late. It has to be immediate, and once the danger has passed, the fear subsides as well.
Anxiety (and panic) on the other hand, is a product of our prefrontal cortex – the most recently evolved layer of the human brain responsible for abstract reasoning, creativity, and planning. While our bodies are responding appropriately to a fear response, our prefrontal cortexes are busy cataloguing the experience in our memory banks and assigning meaning to it. The prefrontal cortex is like an executive director (literally responsible for executive functioning). It processes various sources of information made available by other regions of the brain, searches the memory banks, and it makes predictions about what will happen in the future. Importantly, as Brewer states, “If information is lacking, our prefrontal cortex lays out different scenarios about what might happen, and guesses which will be most likely. It does this by running simulations based on previous events that are most similar. Enter anxiety. Defined as ‘a feeling of worry, nervousness or unease, typically about an imminent event or something with an uncertain outcome,’ anxiety comes up when our prefrontal cortexes don’t have enough information to accurately predict the future. Without accurate information, it is easy for our brains to spin stories of fear and dread.”
I’d like to pause for a minute to draw our attention to these two distinct experiences of fear: 1) there is fear that is cued by something in the environment – something we’ve learned to avoid – like touching a hot burner; and 2) there is fear that is cued by our very own thought processes, which spin stories of fear and dread when there is not enough reliable information with which to make predictions. Both types of fear are experienced in our bodies as different felt sensations. The first type of fear may cause a rush of adrenaline with increased heart rate and respiration as our bodies naturally and immediately prepare for fight or flight. The second type of fear – that associated with anxiety – causes an increase in cortisol and a more general and pervasive sense of nervousness and unease.
In the state of anxiety, our rational mind is stuck, like the little spinning wheel on our computer screens, overwhelmed by processing demands and not able to respond appropriately or function.
To make matters worse, anxiety is contagious. Brewer goes on to say, “our own anxiety can be cued or triggered simply by talking to someone else who is anxious.” Our unease triggers another’s unease. This is also evolutionary. We are social animals, after all, who take our cues for safety and for danger from other members of our species.
So what can we do right now in the midst of this global pandemic and economic paralysis to ease our anxieties, and those of others? There are several things we can do, actually. But first, let’s start with the things that won’t work:
- When we are in a heightened state of anxiety, it will not work to try and reason our way out of it. Why? Because the very part of our brain that is able to reason is offline, or if you prefer a different computer metaphor, frozen like a spinning wheel. We need to reboot, which is something we’ll address shortly.
- Compulsively seeking out new information on social media will not work to ease our anxiety. Why? Because sorting out “real” or “relevant” information from noise and the echoes of a panic-stricken populace all require critical thinking and a well functioning prefrontal cortex. See #1. Further, the more we consume social media, the more vulnerable we are to social contagion. And finally, the way our anxious brains work is to take any new source of information and find within it the one iota of information that appears to confirm our worse fears. It’s so hard, I know, but please ask yourself how much constantly refreshing your Facebook and Twitter feeds are helping you sleep and think clearly right now.
- Stockpiling toilet paper and other goods will not put your mind at ease – although it will probably clutter up your house, considerably. Why? It will never be enough. We don’t know enough to know what is enough so we’ll never be able to experience the sense of safety and security that accompanies certainty. Our brain’s response to uncertainty is the problem, not a shortage of toilet paper. And there’s another reason – as we fill up our shopping carts with toilet paper, we are sending a signal to all the other shoppers around us that there is something to panic about, and they will start filling up theirs, too. See #2. Social contagion will continue to infect us and everyone around us until the dreaded toilet paper shortage is a self-fulfilling prophecy. On another note, I truly wish I owned stock in toilet paper companies right now.
What, then, are some ways to cope with this truly novel, ambiguous, confusing situation and the anxiety it produces, right now?
- Notice it. The first step is awareness. Awareness creates some wiggle room between stimulus and response. It disrupts the vicious cycle of uncertainty leading to fear -> seeking confirmation of fears -> picking up on social cues of others who are also experiencing fears -> acting irrationally based on fears -> cueing others to act irrationally based on fears -> which then heighten my own sense of fear. Repeat. We need to hit the pause button. Awareness allows you to see that button and gives you the opportunity to hit it. Each of us has some level of awareness but how we are able to access it at will and especially under duress is a function of practice. Mindfulness and meditation practices abound. If it works for you, it works. Just pick one and practice. Consider your trips to Walmart an opportunity to practice awareness of your own impulses. Notice. And when you notice, hit pause.
- Welcome it. Say what?!? Allow me to clarify. Welcome the feeling – the anxiety – not the situation. Why welcome something that we experience as so uncomfortable and unsettling? Two reasons. First, noticing – mindfulness – requires that we get in touch with the sensations in our body. If we’re always trying to escape those feelings, or we are simply being driven by them, we will be unable to be aware and to notice them enough to hit the pause button. Secondly, just the very intention and practice of bringing awareness and acceptance to the shifting landscape of felt sensations in our bodies involves neural activity that integrates the brain, building our resilience and our ability to calm ourselves when we are experiencing stress and anxiety.
- Connect with others. As human beings, we are social beings. While it is true that we take our cues for danger based on those around us, it is also true that we derive our sense of felt safety, security and belonging from others. How we connect matters. When I say how we connect, I’m not talking about whether we connect on Facebook or Instagram, I’m talking about how we attune ourselves to our needs and to others’ needs simultaneously. How we meet others’ needs and ask for our own needs to be met. When relationships are trustworthy, attuned and mutually rewarding, they give us incredible strength and resilience. They grant us the ability to feel safe and secure even while the world tumbles all around us. And the cool thing is, relationships not only CAN be built with social distancing – to some extent they actually MUST be built with social distancing.
At the Natural Lifemanship Institute, we teach people principles for building what we call “connected attachment” and “connected detachment” with a horse. These principles derive from human attachment theory and are equally pertinent to relationships with humans, which is why they are part of the Natural Lifemanship process. Attachment theory is based on observation of child-caregiver dyads, and how the child responds when the caregiver is with the child, then leaves temporarily, and then re-enters the room. After observing a number of these strange situations, attachment researchers categorized responses into “secure” and various “insecure” types of attachment patterns. Since these are formed when we are very young, they typically become our patterns of relating in general throughout our lives. This is too big a topic for this blog, but the point is that secure attachment – the desirable kind that leads to all kinds of good outcomes – requires a connection that endures physical distance and separation as much as it benefits from physical closeness. There is no secure attachment without connected attachment AND connected detachment. I’ve seen some memes circulating recently that advise “social distancing, emotional closeness.” Same idea.
To sum up, these are indeed strange times. The experience of anxiety during these times is completely normal and biological. Our brains are simply doing what they are built to do – help us survive in the moment while also helping us predict and avoid future threats to our safety and well being. Our brains are taking in information from all around us, and especially from our social sphere, where we naturally look for cues of danger or safety. This is not a time where we can reasonably assess how many cases of cucumbers, or toilet paper, are needed. This is a time where we are invited to connect with ourselves and connect – perhaps differently – with others.
To connect with ourselves, we must practice awareness, get in touch with our bodies – including the sensations of anxiety – and practice ‘the pause’ before reacting or being overwhelmed by the torrents of spinning thoughts. To connect with others – we are being asked to exercise “social distancing”. What a perfect opportunity to practice connected detachment. Hold your loved ones inside your heart with intention each day. Send them loving kindness. Take the time to chat, talk on the phone, video chat and connect in new ways. Take a hike in open spaces with loved ones and practice the art of being connected while allowing at least several feet of physical space between our bodies. It builds an incredible sense of freedom and autonomy supported by a sense of closeness, shared experience and belonging. This is the very meaning of secure attachment.
Interested in learning more about what is meant by connected attached and connected detachment? Check out these blogs.