If you’re feeling anxious, frustrated, and panicked amid all the COVID-19 and political insanity, you’re certainly not alone.
Most of us are biting our nails (because the nail salons are all shut down) as we face the prospect of losing our jobs, our deals, our gigs, and now most centrally, the threat of losing our well-being.
I am certainly no medical doctor or brain scientist, but I do know that this panic we are experiencing will have serious ramifications if we allow it to continue.
THE BIOLOGICAL REASON WHY WE PANIC
Biology has conditioned us to respond to these sorts of conditions with our once-necessary fight-or-flight response (technically, it’s called our acute stress response). The key phrase here, however, is ONCE-necessary.
This response is programmed into us. It protected our ancestors when they were faced with situations that posed a true threat to their well-being. It allowed them to stick it out or fight it out — whatever their situation.
When triggered, our bodies create a hormone rush that enabled our ancestors to flee the scene, or battle their enemy. The problem is that we rarely face these types of situations today.
Yes, COVID-19 is taking lives. Yes, it is scary. But this hormone-induced state of panic is not helpful to us in this situation. After all, we are not running away from a COVID-19 Beast! We cannot outrun it, nor can we out-fight it.
What we CAN do — what we must do — is choose to prepare and be vigilant in that preparation. To do so, we must actively suppress our natural acute stress response, lest it destroys and paralyzes us. To do that, however, you need know what’s actually happening inside your body.
HOW YOUR BODY INDUCES PANIC — AND WHY IT WORKS AGAINST YOU
When something activates our fight-or-flight response, our body enters this state we call “panic.”
It gets us ready to run away or go chase our dinner (maybe this will be helpful after all, I mean, have you seen the line outside Trader Joes?!?).
To prepare us for what’s coming, it releases hormones into our blood stream. The most important of these is cortisol, which activates our Sympathetic Nervous System. That activation, in turn, stimulates our adrenal glands, releasing adrenaline and noradrenaline into our system.
It is this release that causes our bodies to become activated, aroused, and ready to go. We end up with a pounding heart, increased breath rate, increased blood pressure, dilated pupils, shaking, and a generally tensed-up body — exactly how you’d expect to feel if, say, a hungry, ferocious bear were chasing after you.
But because there is no bear, and yet we are continually triggering this natural response, it actually works against us, rather than for us.
These stress hormones, particularly cortisol, are released from our adrenals (little sacs that hang just above our kidneys). When we have too much cortisol in our system we experience anxiety, depression, lethargy, irregular cycles, infertility, weight gain, thyroid issues, and a whole slew of other things.
As we continually respond, our adrenals get SUPER fatigued, and it takes more and more work to get our bodies back into homeostasis.
OVERCOMING YOUR NATURAL PANIC RESPONSE
So here’s the thing, this reaction is our body’s natural response to external triggers. There’s not much we can do about that — when something triggers us, our body will begin to respond. However, the key word here is begin.
What we can do is recognize that we are responding and condition ourselves to control that response. Managing this natural acute stress response is a bit like running a marathon — you can’t just decide you’re going to go do it (particularly after years of panic, or in this case, sitting on the couch). You need to train for it.
There are four practices that can help train your mind and body to recognize when you’re being triggered and manage your response:
MOVE YOUR BODY
One of the best ways to manage your panic response is through exercise. Making regular time to take walks or have your own personal dance-party at home will put you in a better state to deal with triggers. If you are feeling regularly triggered, you may opt to develop a restorative or yin yoga practice, as opposed to taking up heavy-duty cardiovascular exercises. The reason for this is that cardiovascular exercise naturally increases cortisol levels, so you may want to avoid it in the short-term if you’re having trouble finding balance.
FIND BALANCE IN YOUR DIET
You may have guessed that eating chorizo burritos is not the #1 way to find “balance”. A diet with lots of cooked and raw veggies, fruits, and healthy fats, as well as one high in fiber, will help your body function with greater ease. This is essential because a healthy, balanced diet gives us a healthier nervous system that can deal with stress better.
If you want to double-down in this category, you might consider incorporating foods that have high levels of magnesium, vitamin B, and holy basil. These dietary elements help the endocrine system function optimally, which helps reduce our inclination to react and ultimately, have healthier, less emotion-driven responses. (Note: If you are looking to take magnesium as a supplement, I’d recommend magnesium glycinate. It does a better job of supporting nervous system health vs gastrointestinal tract, and is more bioavailable, meaning your body won’t have to work as hard to put it to use.)
I know you’ve heard this, but let me say it again. You need 7-9 hours of sleep each night. A rested body will handle stress responses better. It’s as simple as that.
If you can develop an evening routine and make your way into bed pre-slumber, you’ve a much better chance at lowering your cortisol to a level where you can produce more melatonin, resulting in deeper sleep. I find that having a consistent bedtime routine (including going to be at a consistent time) makes all the difference. I’m a huge fan of laying off the fluids, dimming the lights, taking a magnesium bath (and oiling my body afterwards), and reading/listening to soothing music to begin to wind down. Make it a practice. Getting enough sleep, consistently, can make you lose weight, too, if that’s something on your radar.
This is a trying and uncertain time for all of us. Simply being patient with yourself as things shift and change will go a long way in helping you manage the growing sense of panic you feel!
With restaurants, theaters, gyms, and bars closed, we now have much more TIME. Use it to cook healthy meals that you share with your family, journal, take luxurious baths, read a good book, and just RESET. This may also be a good time to explore breathwork and mediation. They can substantially change how your brain and body function, and make it easier to practice patience. There are also numerous online or teletherapy platforms available, if you want to talk to someone who isn’t your wife, or your mom.
It’s a crazy time. Panic is a very normal reaction. But that doesn’t mean you have to live with it. In fact, you may find that by embracing these four practices you will not only get through all this craziness, you’ll come out on the other side better off for it.
Hang in there, and give your loved ones a little extra TLC. We’ll get through this.