It may be that living with someone who has anxiety or someone who is worried about exposure to the co-vid virus which has been going on now for several months, has already taken its toll on your mental health. Or, perhaps you are the one that is suffering from long term effects of worry, panic and anxiety because of what is happening in our world. When people can’t regulate their fears or anxiety it can result in "shared anxiety" in daily life where there wasn’t any before. If this is the case, one of the best ways to reign in troublesome thoughts, is to retrain the part of the brain which activates cycles of anxiety.
The amygdala is a tiny, almond-shaped set of neurons in the brain’s limbic system and is responsible for the fight-flight or freeze response, which alerts the body to real danger, enabling potentially life-saving reactions and the ability to rule out false alarms.
Engaging in these automated systems can happen in a split second, bypassing your cortex (the thinking part of your brain) leading to adrenaline production, which triggers physiological effects, such as increased heart rate and breathing. If worries that could normally be abated are being encouraged and reinforced by someone else’s anxiety levels, the corresponding fear is allowed to run riot and the agitated energy will ricochet back and forth between you and the other person through emotional contagion. Yes, we sponge other people’s emotions and even bond in fear, panic and terror.
As the amygdala responds rather than thinks, telling it to remain calm won’t work—you need to act in the time of panic to show it that its reaction to the current situation is out of proportion to the situation. For example, perhaps you know someone with anxiety who cannot bring themselves to accept social invitations in case no one speaks to them or because they feel their outfit might not be appropriate and now you find yourself panicking about these things too. When this arises, dig deep for courage, reach out and touch reality. Access a stronger internal voice that can reason with the emotion.
The likelihood is, you’ll be absolutely fine and in taking this action, you’re creating a new affirmation that this fear is not rational, you are safe. By repeatedly standing up to anxious thoughts and creating positive memories you have power to replace the fear. You can keep responses rational in your own mind by challenging the fear. Then, through positive emotional contagion, you can possibly even help bring the person with anxiety back into the realm of steady wellbeing.
We CAN do this!
Here are some helpful tips:
Improving your emotional intelligence can improve amygdala function.
Use your senses. Practice really taking in the sights, sounds, and smells of your environment. Slowing down and being more mindful every day makes it easier to draw on this skill in stressful situations.
Breathe. Deep abdominal breaths bring more oxygen into the brain, helping it to slow down, haling the rapid influx of negative thoughts.
Executive engagement. Try being creative in the way you are approaching your negative emotions. One idea is to name the emotions you’re feeling to engage the brain’s executive center which is involved in emotional regulation and management.
Time out. If you are really struggling to get a hold your emotions and the situation, physically take yourself out of it so that you can recoup your thoughts you don’t make emotionally clouded decisions.
Gratitude. You can quickly identify 10 things you are thankful for and change your state of being.
Even though our stress levels have increased in many ways, and this time seems surreal and different from what we are used to. Let’s make an effort to manage our fear so that we aren’t adding to the emotional contagion. Of course, it takes practice, but why not use what’s going on now as our catalyst for change and continue to practice our emotional intelligence skills as we continue with brain training and healing.