Almost all of the information we learn hourly about COVID-19 is in three categories: First, the extent to which it is spreading. Second, the effect it has on the human body. And third, what we can do to limit the spread.
That information is vital. We need to know it and act on it.
Yet, it overlooks one of the primary and harmful byproducts of the disease: the effect it is having on the minds and emotions of countless people. That effect is vastly more widespread than the coronavirus itself.
You, like numerous others, may find your level of fear, anxiety, depression, and hopelessness is increasing. Like a dark storm cloud spreading across the horizon, even optimistic and resilient people can succumb to the downward emotional drag.
Along with making life miserable, the four emotions—when allowed to linger and fester—have adverse physical effects on your brain.
Cortisol is commonly known as the stress hormone. It is intended to be released for a limited period. When, because of stress, we release it across time into the blood system, its corrosive effect can harm many parts of the body.
Another primary concern should be for what we are doing to a part of the brain that supports memory and learning, the hippocampus.
Excessive and prolonged stress, a component of all four emotions, has been shown in brain studies to shrink the hippocampus physically. It can happen in as little as two weeks, and the shrinkage adversely affects our ability to learn, retain, and recall information.
The following are three steps you can take to lower the negative emotions and begin to replace them with happiness and peace. We can do that without denying the reality of the situation:
First, Distancing: Limit your exposure to the information.
How many times a day do you need to be told to wash your hands for 20 seconds and practice social distancing? Once will probably do it for you, but if you sit in front of the TV screen or surf social media for hours on end, don’t be surprised if you find your emotions sinking.
What else should a person expect?
The spread of COVID-19 is tailormade for a 24/7 news cycle. That is more than enough to cause fear, etc. Fear has its place, but little good has ever come from lingering, excessive worry. We want to have a sound mind for times such as these.
It is essential to stay updated on information about the virus, but that does not require constant exposure to the reporting on it. Social distancing needs to include social media distancing.
Second, Distracting: Find other things to fill your mind.
When you wean yourself off the constant absorption of negative news, you will possibly find your thoughts returning to worry and anxiety about what you know. In most cases, trying to turn off the ruminating does not work.
What does work is a distraction or a replacement. Substitute the intake with other thoughts. For instance, this is an ideal time to turn off the news channels and get to know Netflix or Apple TV or any of the other alternative sources of entertainment.
Doctors working with Norm Cousins found that the old saying is true, “A joyful heart is good medicine.”
The discovery led to several organizations making comedies, especially slapstick movies, available for hospitals to show patients.
Third, Controlling: Act on the things you can change.
When you are feeling hopeless or helpless, identify what you have the power to alter. Then, please do it!
One of the things we know about emotionally healthy people is that they feel some degree of control over their lives. They are not delusional, thinking they have the power to change everything, but they know they can change some things. Dignity, self-worth, and a sense of responsibility and achievement comes when we set goals and act to achieve them.
Control what you can control.
We can add many more behaviors to this list, and I may do that in the next blog or two, but this is an excellent place to start. Less is more when you are changing behaviors.
It will require effort and discipline, but the lift in your emotions is more than worth it.
You can practice:
Distancing: Turn off media once you know the facts for the day.
Distracting: Fill your mind with other content, especially what makes you laugh.
Controlling: Recognize what you can change and do it.