How to Panic

COVID-19 is happening. 

Right now, most of us are quarantined, socially-isolating, working, or some combination of all three. People have become sick and more will be infected. These are facts. Now what?
 
Pull up a seat, bring your toilet paper, and settle in.
 
Naturally we all have questions. We want to know how to protect ourselves. We want to make decisions. We want to take action, but we want to know what action is best, so we seek out more information.
 

Meanwhile, the media is hemorrhaging constant updates about the COVID-19 virus, but it’s NOT consistent information. Things keep changing and sources often contradict each other. No one is getting a clear message about anything. We’re all over the dang place. 

Is her top made of toilet paper? Hm.

On one hand, we can appreciate how technology allows all parts of the world to communicate instantly and simultaneously. We were aware of COVID-19 before it even breached our borders. We can research treatments, vaccines, and study the virus. Access to updated reports and data is at our fingertips. We can order more cats on Amazon.

On the other hand, this stream of turbulent information affects us and our brains in ways most of us are not conscious of. Our brains are magnificent and complex, but they are designed to process information in specific ways, and our current situation is totally screwing that up.

I am a nurse, so I am in the thick of the stress, panic, anxiety, anger, fear, and uncertainty that is affecting my patients, the general public, and me. I hear the same questions over and over and over. If you are a normal human being, you probably have some of these questions and many others swirling around in your mind. 

Should I get tested?

What if I get sick?

What if I lose my job?

What about the economy?

What if I can’t pay my bills?

What if I die?

Am I over reacting/under-reacting?

Are my children safe?

What should I do?

First, you need to understand that what your brain is doing is normal. Nothing has gone wrong. Your anxiety, panic, and fear are normal.

I want you to read this again.

Panic is normal. Panic is OK.

It means your brain is working like it’s supposed to. Panic is an emotion just like sadness, excitement, or anger, and it’s purpose is protection. Panic means you are alive, and that’s what you want. Right? Right. 

But, we often panic about our panic. It makes sense if you stop and consider we aren’t accustomed to feeling true panic, so when we do, we aren’t sure how to respond. What do we do with our panic? Do we need to fix it? Is it wrong? Should we dig a hole somewhere and live in it?

No. It’s not wrong. In fact, it’s very right.

Think of your panic instinct as part of your software programming. Your brain is basically a computer and you are in control. Your brain also has programming that runs subconsciously, in the background, on its own. This software is what keeps us breathing without thinking about it, initiates reflexes, and creates the anxiety that makes us hyper-aware of our surroundings when it thinks there’s a bear. This is very useful, otherwise we would have to deliberately remember to breath 24 hours a day. We’d better be excellent multi-taskers.

The world is weird right now. Our brains have noticed. Things are a bit off. What our brains don’t understand, is that we’re in the 21st century, and we are NOT in danger of getting getting eaten by a bear. Your brain is running its “bear_protocol.exe” program, and you are being flooded with adrenaline, anxiety, and fear. You are being motivated to either find the bear and kill it, or flee the bear and escape to safety. 

One problem: there is no bear. There is nothing to defend against. There is no place we can run because we cannot leave the planet. This software is outdated. So, now what?

We can try to force the program to stop by ignoring our emotions. However, our emotions are a vital part of our brain computer system. If we shut them down, the other programs in our brain don’t function as well as they should. The longer we spend ignoring our emotions, the more  energy it requires to do so. The rest of our brain will continue to function, but less efficiently. Eventually it will stop, because all energy is routed to ignoring emotions. 

Imagine lots of error pop-ups on your screen, and other programs on your computer starting very slowly, or not at all.

404 Error. SOS. Mayday.

Running ourselves into the ground does not prevent COVID-19. In fact, it compromises our health which makes us more susceptible.

Here’s a better option. We can be understanding with our brains. Just like computers, they’re only doing what they were programmed to do. In fact, this program probably saved our ancestors more than once. We can allow the program to run in the background without needing to respond to it, because we understand exactly why it’s happening. We can embrace it as part of our humanity, and not be resistant to it’s presence. We can stop trying to prevent our brains from doing what they’re supposed to do.

Tips for Panicking

 

1.  Allow the panic.

We are going to experience negative emotions in life, whether there’s a pandemic or not, and that is fact. It’s part of being alive. Remember; life is 50/50, and expecting life to be flawless 100% of the time is pure fantasy. It’s when we get upset about our negative emotions that we make our experience much worse than it needs to be. We hate our anxiety. We resist our fear. We try to stifle our feelings of panic. The anticipation of feeling something negative makes us way more reactive than if we let ourselves experience it. We think we shouldn’t be feeling these things; that it’s somehow inappropriate, or we need to fix something.

I want to offer you the idea that nothing needs to change.

WHAT.

What if it’s normal to feel anxious when our lives are turned upside down? What if it’s healthy to feel fear when things are unusual? What if the stress we feel is exactly what is intended to happen in this situation? 
We can let ourselves worry, but withhold any judgement about the worry itself. Some of my clients who suffer from chronic anxiety experience more anxiety about having anxiety than they do actual anxiety itself. What if it’s just OK to be anxious sometimes and we don’t try to stop it?

Of course you’re worried. Of course you’re anxious. Of course you’re feeling stress. We need these emotions to remind us to be careful, to pay attention, and to be alert. You’re supposed to have them. It may not be comfortable, but it’s totally natural. It’s how our brain helps protect us. Remember, they are just emotions, and if you know how to process emotions by managing your mind, you can let yourself be human and not feel the need to respond or react.

This does not mean I am giving you permission to dash off to the store and start hoarding toilet paper. “Michelle said my panic is OK, so I am buying everything!” 

No. Stop that.

That is the opposite of allowing your emotions. There is a difference between processing an emotion and reacting to an emotion. When we allow an emotion, we sit with it in our bodies and experience how it feels. We feel the chest tightness, the clammy palms, the heavy weight in our stomach, our however it manifests itself. We do this knowing we are in no physical danger. We understand that feeling the discomfort is the worst part of a negative emotion, and that’s all we need to do. We remind ourselves it’s reasonable to be feeling these things right now.

When we feel the urge to rush out and stock-pile supplies, barricade our windows, or flee from our cities, it is because we are resisting our panic. We are reacting to it, by trying to prevent it from happening in the first place. We think if we hoard toilet paper we will feel better, that it will lessen the panic, and our panic will be replaced with something that feels better. If we run away from the bear, we will stop feeling so afraid. But remember, there is no bear, and we are trying to control things we cannot control. By doing so, we catastrophize something and make it much worse on ourselves. It helps absolutely nothing.

So, yes, we’re all feeling strange and uncomfortable and that’s exactly how it SHOULD be! Congratualtions Millennilal, you are a normal humanignorinweu

2.  Manage your mental stimulation.

Our senses gather information from our environment and use it to help us make choices. It’s the most basic software inside our computer brains. It’s how we decide how we will interact with the world.

It it’s simplified form, it’s basically a triangle:

Everyday we gather data through our senses, and then we interpret, or make sense of, that data with our brains. We base our decisions on how we interpret our surroundings. This triangle is a “cognitive cycle.”  Our brains perform hundreds of cycles any given day.

“In this way, every autonomous agent, be it human, animal, or artificial, must frequently sample (sense) its environment, process (make sense of) the input from such sampling, and select an appropriate response (action). Each cognitive cycle senses the current situation, interprets it with reference to ongoing goals, and then selects an internal or external action in response” (Madl, et al, 2011).

Right now we have 24 hour access to news streams, social media, and websites. Remember, the news is specifically portrayed in a way that catches our attention. Ratings increase as more people tune in. They need subject lines and words that make people want to pay attention. The want to compete with other news stations, and often this leads to sensationalized, flashy, over-dramatic headlines. This doesn’t mean the news is reporting false information; it means they are purposely trying to trigger the alert system in our brain. Most of us are already hyper-aware of news, but many of us are glued to our phones, computers, or tvs, so we don’t miss a single update on Coronavirus. This constant exposure causes our brains to become stuck in a cycle loop that repeatedly tells us we need to run or defend. When we do this every day we develop sensory overload.

Sensory overload happens when we get more input from our five senses than our brains can sort through. Multiple conversations going on in one room, flashing overhead lights, or a loud party can all produce the symptoms of sensory overload. This includes listening or watching media outlets without taking a break, putting ourselves in a state of perpetual fight or flight.

The input competes for our attention. Our brains cannot process it fast enough. It can’t prioritize which information it should look at first. There’s too much. Our brains start to feel trapped, and urge us to get away from all the stimuli. It tells us to run, get away, or hide. Our bodies react by tensing and releasing adrenaline. We are not designed to have adrenaline surging for days. It’s intended for moments of life and death, when we are faced with outrunning a tiger or protecting our cave. When the stimulus never subsides we start fraying at the edges and losing our ability to rationalize. We exhaust our mental and physical selves. This is what happens when we watch the news 24/7.

There is nothing wrong with staying up to date and aware. We just need to be smart about how much stimulus we are subjecting our brains to. Most of us don’t realize what’s happening in our heads. By trying to stay in control we are actually losing it.

Limit your exposure to a certain time frame each day. Take a break. Allow your brain to process and sort itself out. Allow yourself to be. This is vital to your health, and your ability to be present and supportive to those around you as well as yourself. Existing in a constant state of panic and catastrophe doesn’t serve you or your loved ones and it drains everything you have. Recharge by exposing yourself to something relaxing, joyful, or peaceful to re-calibrate. We all need balance.

Take a dang nap, yo. Go for a walk. Fingerpaint.

This panda agrees. Listen to the panda.

We can’t control the world. When we understand what’s happening in our minds, we can be gentle with ourselves, by recognizing that our brains and bodies need compassion and support. It is a strange time for all of us and it is OK to let yourself be human.

I hope this gave you guys some useful information to help you through these strange times. Be safe. As a nurse and a coach, I am here for you all, please let me know if there’s more I can discuss or offer that will help. 

 

Cited Sources

Madl, T., Baars, B. J., & Franklin, S. (2011). The timing of the cognitive cycle. PloS one6(4), e14803. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0014803

https://www.healthline.com/health/sensory-overload

How to Panic was last modified: March 28th, 2020 by practicalcoach_y7p8ax

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