Most common symptom? It’s not a sore throat or fever. Look at the woman afraid to leave her house to walk the dog, or the kid crying at night in his own bedroom. The biggest symptom of the coronavirus is fear and anxiety – it is already affecting millions more than the virus will.
How is your anxiety level amid all the coronavirus hysteria? If you are like most Americans, you are probably feeling stressed and confused. That’s normal from a neuroscience perspective, but if it goes on too long, it can have disastrous effects on your health.
Your brain is a prediction engine. At any moment your subconscious database is trying to figure out the next thing to happen in your current chain of events. When you flip a switch on the wall, you predict a light will come on, you also know there is probably a 5% chance the light won’t come on, in which case you would predict there is a 75% chance the bulb is burnt out and a 25% chance the fuse is blown. That’s how the brain woks – your experiences populate your subconscious database with what neuroscientists call Prior Beliefs (PB). Those PBs give us perspective on the world.
When an event happens, that’s new and unknown (another way of saying novel as in novel coronavirus), our brain is faced with something that it does not know how to predict. That creates uncertainty, and that uncertainty produces a phenomenon called Free Energy which is the root of all fear (read about it in my new book Fear is Fuel).
When fear activates your amygdala (your fear center), you have a physiological response that releases all sorts of enzymes and hormones into your bloodstream. The principle chemical is Cortisol, the stress hormone. The physiological changes can be good, and in fact a source of peak performance, but only if you can control them.
Anxiety and worry (like about the coronavirus) can leave your Cortisol spigot on and trickling out a constant stream of the stress hormone. This ultimately eats away at your immune system and causes feelings of anxiety. So what can you do?
First thing to do is take control of your health and take action. Doing so will make you feel better almost immediately. Here are the top five steps you can take to reduce anxiety about the coronavirus:
Boost your immune system
- It helps a ton if you have already been taking care of yourself, but it’s not too late to start now. I was just on a conference call with Susan Blum who is a professor of Prevention and Immunology at Mount Sinai and these are her recommendations for supplementing the immune system:
- Exercise – don’t just go out and get your heart rate up for 45 minutes. Instead, pick at least once or twice a week to do one minute sprints as if you were running from a saber-tooth tiger. Then rest until your HR is below 100 and do it again. 10 sprints like this will get the sine wave of stress waking up your protective response physically.
- Take cold showers – the last two minutes of your shower (if you can’t do the whole thing) should be as cold as you can stand it, with special emphasis on the cold hitting your sternum and head. Cold releases glutathione, a powerful anti-oxidant, and testosterone while boosting the immune response.
- Every morning when you wake up thank God, Buddha, the Universe for being alive and take two minutes or more to breathe. I use a breath pattern called Tummo breathing and the breath of fire, or a simple one is a 4×4.
- Keep your diet healthy and drink lots of water, avoid alcohol (except on St Paddy’s Day when you should stream Irish Pub music on your Sonos, buy some Guinness and get house-drunk, Irish dancing with your kids).
Focus on Facts Not Fear
- Look for sources that are credible such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) – as opposed to social media or sensationalist news sites.
- Ground zero was December 2019 in Wuhan, China. The city has a population of 11.8 million people, 50% bigger than New York city (8.6 million people). There were almost 50,000 cases reported there with 2,400 deaths. That’s a .4% chance of getting the virus.
- Keep in mind…China got a late start responding because they didn’t believe the doctor who was trying to warn the government about it. So fact 1 is slow start.
- Keep in mind…the Draconian nature of a communist state allowed a very rapid and complete lockdown and quarantine, so they were closing down the temporary hospitals in less than 60 days.
- Washing your hands for 20 seconds with soap and hot water, not touching your face and keeping a social distance of over 6 feet are the best ways to prevent the spread. Wearing a mask if you are showing any symptoms or live with someone who is sick is a smart idea.
- The virus attacks the lungs and pulmonary system so older adults with pulmonary illnesses are most at risk. If you or a loved one are in that category – self-quarantine, shop by delivery of food and groceries and wait it out. Keep in mind you might carry it without symptoms, so avoid at-risk folks if you’ve been in big crowds or travelled abroad.
Do Everything You Can and Don’t Worry About What You Can’t Control
- This might be the toughest one for anxious people, but once you’ve taken all the steps above, then you don’t have to fixate on the news and fate of the rest of the world. You’ve done all you can. Your anxiety comes from not being able to predict the outcome, and that will change as we see that China is getting back to normal. Taiwan (only 80 miles from China) has millions of visitors every year from China and only has 45 cases as of March 10th in their 23 million densely populated country because they took early precautions. So this too, even for Italy, will pass.
- The way the brain works; if we keep trying to control things, we can’t or wish were different, the brain creates Free Energy. Free Energy is the root of all fears and fires that Cortisol and DHEA release. We need to stop Free Energy production by stop giving energy to things we can not affect.
- Spend time with loved ones, friends and hobbies that are engrossing and engaging. Rock climbing, painting, playing music all are things that require focus and presence and will keep your mind off the things you can’t control.
- Ask your bank or mortgage lender if they have any programs to give you a month or two of grace on payments without reporting to credit agencies, so you know that if it affects your income, you’ve got a bit of cushion. Apply for another credit card so you have some back-up funding in an emergency.
The Potential Lies in the Present
- Be present with the people you are interacting with – either virtually or in person. Focus on them, what they are saying, how they are feeling. Imagine what it’s like to be in their shoes as they speak to you. Be curious about their mindset. This curiosity will help you see opportunities and moments you might otherwise not have noticed.
- Being present keeps you from projecting negative and disastrous thoughts into the future. Think of all the great things that being home can allow you to do – finish that project, spend time with your kids, go out for a hike, get your bike cleaned up and ready for spring, work on that book you wanted to write or take up that instrument.
- Find the bright side of this pandemic; what good will come of it for you personally and the world? We’ll be better prepared in the future, it will shorten our vaccine creation time, our cross border collaboration is already greatly improved, and it will have a positive impact on the environment. Out of every challenge comes new opportunities.
- Netflix, Amazon Prime and every episode of Golden Girls ever – what more do you need?
- It is so easy to get caught in the negative, depressing news we can forget to have fun. Do things you love to do – play music, play games with your family, fly a kite, take your dog out for a romp, watch a funny movie – Snatch is a classic, or just about any Will Ferrell movie. It doesn’t matter what you do make time to do something. I’m working on a keynote speech I have to deliver in June and now I’ve got time to make it Oscar-worthy!
- Get outside. Sunshine and green space all have a tremendous effect on health, vitality and happiness.
I hope this all helps you get through these challenging times, remember like every other major crisis this too shall pass. It helps to keep in mind your mortality and remember at some point we all will die, so with that in mind how do you want to live right now in this moment?
You can see the interview I did on ABC’s Good Morning Washington yesterday here:
For more ideas on how to build courage and confidence, check out my life-changing book Fear is Fuel. If you have any other ideas that have helped you get through tough times in the past, let me know what they are and how you are using them today by leaving a comment below. And if you know someone who is struggling with anxiety, pass this article along to them!