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Anxiety in the time of COVID: Who is running your life – your survival self or your adult self?

In COVID times, it’s fair to say that many of us are just surviving. The trouble is that when the stress response is activated over and over again it leads to burnout and overall depletion. Lack of focus, exhaustion, and an inability to concentrate are some of the complaints we might be having that hint at the fact that the stress response is over-active.

In survival mode, our vision narrows to the threat, and our pre-frontal cortex progressively shuts down. Reactivity replaces deliberation. Threat can help mobilize our attention, but when it comes to solving complex problems that have multiple variables, we need our highest cognitive resources.

It doesn’t make sense to stay in survival mode longer than we have to.

So, how do we get there?

Covid anxiety and becoming aware of our feelings

We can’t change what we don’t notice, so the first step is becoming more aware of what we’re feeling at any given moment. That means cultivating the capacity to observe our emotions, rather than being run by them. Simply naming our feelings gives us more distance from them, especially when they’re intensely negative.

Using calming techniques during Covid-related stress

The second step is to calm yourself, regardless of what’s going on around you. A simple but powerful way is to use your breath. By breathing in through your nose to a count of three and out through your mouth to a count of six, it’s possible to clear your bloodstream of cortisol — the most pernicious stress hormone — in as little as one minute. Movement is also helpful. A burst of jumping jacks, or running up and down stairs, is a rapid, reliable way to discharge stress and quiet the body and mind.

Once you feel calmer and more able to reflect, it’s possible to step into your adult self. When we embody this strong, empathic part of ourselves, it can care for our overwhelmed self. You might tell this self, “It’s a difficult time and it makes sense that you feel what you do,” or “These feelings won’t last forever,” or “You can feel better, and I’m going to help you.” The most important move is distinguishing between the different parts of you, so you can summon the strength of your adult self rather than feeling whipsawed by your survival self.

Calming techniques

  1. Focus on abdominal breathing

  2. Do a body scan to relax your muscles

  3. Guided imagery

  4. Mindfulness meditation

  5. Yoga, tai chi, and qigong

  6. Repetitive prayer

By putting our adult self back in charge, it’s possible to move from an enveloping experience of anxiety and fear, to a calmer place in which we’re able to hold and contain our most vulnerable self, so it no longer feels overwhelmed.

About PLAN

We are a private, nonprofit organization dedicated to future care planning for disabled adults due to mental illness. Incorporated in 1999, PLAN was formed by a group of families with disabled family members — mostly sons and daughters — concerned about who would care for their disabled dependents when they were no longer able to do so themselves.

PLAN of Central Ohio offers an activities program where clients can form friendships, practice social skills and just have fun. We meet two times a month, transporting clients to and from each activity. Our case manager/client ratio is approximately 1 to 5 to provide a safe, supervised outing. Our program includes casual dinners at inexpensive restaurants, outings to movies and trips to local places of interest. We have been able to continue our activities program in a safe, socially-distanced way, despite the COVID-19 epidemic. We also offer Zoom-based activities to meet the needs of those who do not wish to be out and about in these unprecedented times.


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