Talk to anyone and they will tell you their level of stress has increased. The COVID-19 pandemic has brought economic and financial pressure, fear about our health and the health of our loved ones, set in a stark landscape of isolation and social distancing with no sense of when this will be over – or what that will even look like. An ABC News/Washington Post survey found that 70 percent of people were experiencing stress as a result of the coronavirus outbreak.
There is a physiological explanation for why uncertainty adds tremendous anxiety. Our brains hate uncertainty, because to us, uncertainty means danger.
“When certainty is questioned, your stress response goes haywire, instantly arousing your fight-or-flight reaction, kicking you in the pants in an attempt to spur you to action and get you to safety,” wrote Bryan Robinson in Forbes. “Your survival brain is constantly updating your world, making judgments about what’s safe and what isn’t. Due to its disdain for uncertainty, it makes up all sorts of untested stories hundreds of times a day because to the mind, uncertainty equals danger. If your brain doesn’t know what’s around the corner, it can’t keep you out of harm’s way.”
According to an article in PsychCentral, untreated anxiety can increase the potential for more serious conditions including depression. The link between depression and anxiety is powerful; studies have revealed that the same neurotransmitters might lead to both anxiety and depression.
“Depression can develop due to anxious thoughts,” according to an article in PsychCentral. “This seems to be particularly true of those with panic disorder, possibly since panic attacks tend to trigger feelings of fear, helplessness, and disaster.”
It is eerily similar to what we are feeling from this pandemic.
How Uncertainty Anxiety Can Lead to Anticipatory Grief
In a widely shared piece, Harvard Business Review (HBR) interviewed David Kessler, one of the world’s foremost experts on grief. Kessler calls the uncertainty anxiety we are feeling about our future “anticipatory grief.”
“There is a storm coming. There’s something bad out there,” Kessler says. “With a virus, this kind of grief is so confusing for people. Our primitive mind knows something bad is happening, but you can’t see it. This breaks our sense of safety. We’re feeling that loss of safety.”
According to Kessler, unhealthy anticipatory grief is really anxiety. To manage uncertainty anxiety, he suggests, “find balance in the things you’re thinking. Anticipatory grief is the mind going to the future and imagining the worst. To calm yourself, you want to come into the present.”
Kessler recommends letting go of what you cannot control and stocking up on compassion: “Be patient. Think about who someone usually is and not who they seem to be in this moment.”
Every Little Decision Leads to “Moral Fatigue”
All this anxiety is leading us to feel, well, exhausted. And a there are a million little reasons leading to this moral fatigue.
So many aspects of our lives we once took for granted now involve “high-stakes decision-making,” according to an article in Rolling Stone. Simply put, our brains are not ready for this moral fatigue.
“It’s a fiction to think that we’re not already deeply connected to one another – we always have been. It’s just that the consequences now have been ratcheted up in a different way,” Dr. Michael Baur, associate professor of philosophy at Fordham University, who specializes in natural law and moral philosophy, told Rolling Stone. “And because of that, even our most simple actions and decisions can now have moral consequences that impact someone else’s life and health very significantly.”
Stress Makes it Hard to Plan
One of the hardest things for many people during this pandemic is that future plans are suddenly uncertain. A vacation scheduled during spring break may be postponed for months – or the summer – or next year. It’s difficult to plan when you aren’t certain of when it will be safe to resume life to normal (or a “new normal.”)
Additionally, the stress we are all feeling these days makes it difficult to make future plans by “preventing us from being able to make decisions based on memory,” according to new research from Stanford University.
“We draw on memory not just to project ourselves backward into the past but to project ourselves forward, to plan,” said Stanford psychologist Anthony Wagner, senior author of the paper. “Stress can rob you of the ability to draw on cognitive systems underlying memory and goal-directed behavior that enable you to solve problems more quickly, more efficiently and more effectively.”
Stress Management Tips
The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP) reminds us that we have to think about what’s in our control … and what isn’t. For example, washing your hands and sanitizing anything you bring into your home from outside are things within your control. Whether or not your state has enough ventilators is likely not within your control. Finding the balance is key to taking care of your mental health in this uncertain world.
Some stress management suggestions offered by the Foundation include:
- Gather in the sunshine. Exercise and fresh air can do wonders for your mental health.
- Gift yourself the present. Worrying about an uncertain future only distracts you from enjoying the moment now. One of the ways to minimize an anxiety attack is to focus on the five senses: look around and name things you can see, hear, smell, taste and feel.
- Reach out, but don’t touch someone. It is more important than ever to stay connected with loved ones – and use the technology available to do so. Schedule a video chat, pick up the phone and call someone or write a long email to a long-lost friend.
Finally, be sure that if you find yourself suffering, if the stress management tips aren’t working, or if your depression or anxiety is skyrocketing, to let someone know. Tell your loved ones that you are struggling with your mental health. And don’t hesitate to connect with a mental health professional for support.
An article in PsychCentral reminds us that if we are “experiencing chronic and unexplained feelings of anxiousness, fear, or worry, sadness or suicidal thoughts” to talk to your doctor. Even if they are not seeing patients in person, a telephone or video call can help.
“You don’t have to be alone with your worry and it can be comforting to share what you are experiencing with those trained to help,” writes AFSP.
AFSP reminds us that you can also reach out to The Crisis Text Line by texting TALK to 741741 or National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK.
The GeneSight blog has resources and information that may help, including: