Keeping well, focused and productive when you’re stressed and anxious

cognitive closure coronavirus covid-19 keeping well mental health resilience wellness

Life is very uncertain right now. We don’t know how COVID-19 is going to play out in our community and in our world. Nor do we know the impact it will have on our health and our lifestyle or when things will return to ‘normal’.

The human brain is designed to make meaning in our world and protect us from harm. It does NOT like uncertainty. It likes predictability, rhythm and routine. 

When we’re awash in uncertainty, as we are now, our brain perceives that uncertainty as threat and activates our stress response system. It’s telling us, ‘Danger, danger!’ even if logic tells us otherwise - and our body responds.

We feel anxious, agitated and on high alert. We can ‘overthink’ or ruminate, worry, become short tempered, have difficulty sleeping, feel distracted and unfocused and experience physical symptoms of stress - muscle aches and pains, quickened heart rate, tension and headaches. Our emotions are quick to surface - tears, anger, irritation, exasperation.

These are all normal responses to an uncertain and stressful environment. It’s our brain doing what it’s designed to do when under threat but the result is uncomfortable, difficult and sometimes unhelpful.

Combine this with the stress felt by those around us and we’re in an emotionally combustible enviroment. Stress and anxiety is like a virus, it’s quick to spread and the effect on us and others can be exponential.

PANIC BUYING: WE’RE SEEKING CONTROL

When life feels out of control in one domain we seek to control it elsewhere. This is a normal response to uncertainty. 

We can’t do much about the global progression of COVID-19. We can’t control government decisions that impact our life and activities. We can’t stop any of this from happening but we feel the need for control so we control what we can. We stockpile food, withdraw our kids from school, insist on social media that the government do more. 

You might agree with the behaviour that we’re seeing, or you may not. That’s a personal choice. But when we see it for what it is, worried people trying to exert control in a life that feels out of control, we can have a little more compassion, a little more patience. We can understand even if we don’t agree.

WE NEED INFORMATION

If you pay attention, you might notice your own need for control playing out. Many of us feel a strong need for what human behaviour experts call cognitive closure. That’s our brain constantly scanning for information that helps us to close the gaps in our knowledge, to feel less uncertain, to feel more in control.

This need for cognitive closure may result in us constantly scanning news sites and social media for information, for facts, to help us feel like we have the answer. Of course right now there is no answer. Just more uncertainty and that can get us into hooked into a loop of scanning that leads to more uncertainty that leads to more scanning. It’s an unhelpful and at times debilitating cycle. 

You might also notice your need for control popping up elsewhere in your life. You might handwash and sanitise repeatedly. You might clean or mow the lawn or pore over your financials or get really stringent about household or workplace routine and rule following. This is normal. It’s how we respond to stress.

ASK YOURSELF: IS THIS HELPING ME?

Our responses - our behaviour - might be normal and understandable but they are not always helpful. If you’re stressed, anxious, worrying, agitated, exerting control, getting caught up in online debates or constantly scanning for information, ask yourself, ‘Is this helping me?’ Is it making me calmer? Or more stressed?

If it’s not helping it’s time to break the cycle and try something different. 

 

5 SIMPLE STRATEGIES FOR BUILDING RESILIENCE

There are several simple, free and time-efficient activities that we can engage in to satisfy our need for control, reduce our stress and build our resilience. These are based on what we know works, scientifically.

  1. Be present

No need to sit in the lotus position and chant ‘Ohmmm’ unless that’s your thing. Noticing when you’re on edge and taking five deep breaths is enough to activate your relaxation response - the body’s inbuilt system for keeping calm. Do this regularly throughout your day and you should reduce body aches and pains, calm your mind, better manage your emotions and reduce your stress

2. Rest

Keep a good sleep routine. It might be tempting to stay up late to catch the news, scroll your phone or distract yourself with Netflix but good sleep is vital for immunity, problem solving, managing your thoughts and worry and managing your mood. If you don’t know already, work out how many hours sleep you need to feel well-rested and aim for that as regularly as possible. Prioritise sleep to boost your resilience.

3. Move

Here in Australia we still have access to the outdoors and beautiful Autumn weather so let’s make use of it. Run, walk, cycle, swim, garden, jump on the trampoline with the kids, take the dog for a walk. Do what you need to get outdoors and move. It’s a great distraction from your worries. Movement helps us to problem-solve. It helps us to sleep. It boosts our mood. It doesn’t need to be intense or long. Ten minutes moving outdoors, particularly when you’re feeling agitated or uneasy, will do wonders.

4. Remind Yourself of Past Successes

When life feels uncertain, confusing and stressful it’s easy to get caught up in what’s to come but rarely do we reflect on the challenges we’ve conquered in the past. COVID-19 and its impact might be unprecedented but you’ve survived tough times before. You have struggled and fought and survived and you will emerge from this too, most likely stronger. If it feels hopeless now sit and take the time to reflect on your life and the challenges you’ve conquered in the past. Draw on these. Remind yourself of your strength. Use what you’ve learned from your past experience to brainstorm new ideas. Plan. Move from passive and powerless to active and determined. You can do this.

5. Connect and Give Back: Purpose Builds Resilience

In every crisis there are stories of those who put the needs of others ahead of themselves. These people have discovered the power of purpose. In psychology we define purpose as serving something greater than ourselves. It reminds us that we are part of a bigger world. That we are not alone. A commitment to giving back drives volunteering and social contribution. It distracts us from our worries. It puts life into perspective and it builds our personal resilience. 

We are starting to see wonderful stories emerge of people banding together to connect with their community, to think of others, to help. If you’re struggling with your feelings right now, focus on how you could do something for someone else, even in a small way.

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