It’s official: We are in a pandemic. Actually, two of them. One, we all know, is the spread of the coronavirus. The second is a pandemic of fear.
Being in the grip of panic hurts us in any crisis. Just when we need to think clearly and stay calm, panic pitches our brain into foggy thinking and our body into tension.
Here’s the trouble: We can’t control what we feel, when we will feel it, nor how strong the feeling will be. Feelings like panic come unbidden.
Our choice point comes once the feeling—panic, fear, worry— arises. Then we can choose to either act from those feelings or in ways that help us drop them.
Resilience means recovering from upsets like these more quickly so our minds are once again able to think at their best and we feel calm. Research has identified several ways to enhance our capacity for recovery.
Some background. Worry, at its best, can have a positive outcome, such as when we ponder a challenge and come up with actions we can take to improve the situation. You may be an executive having to pilot an operation through a sudden downturn in business and people now working from home. Or you may be one of those people having to figure out how to work productively from home or how to stay safe and healthy if you still have to go in to work. The worrisome challenges COVID-19 poses us all are countless.
Worry that’s productive peaks as we face some urgent threat then vanishes once the danger passes. But panic indicates the worst kind of worry, where we ruminate on a threat —like the coronavirus—and end up imagining the worst that can happen without coming up with any positive steps we could take. Stanford researchers call such intense worry rumination, which just reverberates and intensifies in our mind. Such toxic worry has become a pandemic in itself.
Our propensity to worry ourselves to the point of panic is a relic of our ancestral past, a time in early human pre-history when we had to be on constant guard for dangers, like large beasts that wanted to eat us. The wiring for such vigilance now comes hardwired into our brains.
The brain’s radar for threat-detection centers on circuits that flow in and out of the amygdala, a node in the emotional centers. If the amygdala signals a threat—like the virus or even a worrisome tone of voice in our boss—the brain’s wiring triggers a cascade of reactions fixating our focus on that threat. This means our attention gets captured and we have difficulty focusing on, for example, some important task at hand, let alone being creative.
Our thinking brain, the layers of the prefrontal cortex, goes awry while intense fear or panic have us in their grip.
The good news: Our prefrontal circuits include some that can just-say-no to the panicky messages from our amygdala circuitry. And science finds we can strengthen those circuits using some of the methods I’m sharing with you.
Good luck and stay healthy!
Note: This post originally published on LinkedIn.
To share key tips and techniques (at no cost) Goleman EI has partnered with online platform Everwise to offer you a one-week course in emotional resilience. You’ll learn, for example, how to focus on your breathing and to ignore the pull of distractions, and how to scan your body for telltale signs of anxiety— and to let them go. Plus, you’ll learn ways to reset your mind, going from a negative turn of thoughts to a positive outlook.