By Cheshta Bhatia
We, as humans, are hard wired with the urge to know everything that life holds for us. We like to plan our every action, think about the reactions life can have to those actions, and sketch out how we would manage those situations. This is something very fundamental to human behaviour. In times of COVID, when nothing seems to be under our control, it gives us anxiety. Many of us are not able to meet our best productivity levels, leading to rise in frustration. In addition to this, social isolation can lead to a reduced desire for social interaction. A similar study by researchers at the Wolfson Institute for Biomedical Research and Sainsbury Wellcome Centre, University College London demonstrates a difference in brain activity between social zebrafish which were isolated from other fishes (referred as the “lonely” fish) as compared to the zebrafish who are averse to social cues, but not isolated from other fishes (“loner” fish). They observe hypersensitivity and increased activation of brain regions associated with stress in the lonely fish than the loner1. These brain activity differences were mainly observed in the hypothalamus, the brain region responsible for releasing hormones and maintaining homeostasis in humans. In simpler words, lonely fish became overwhelmed when exposed to social interaction, and hence had to experience negative effects post isolation. Humans are social animals and can learn from the brain activity of zebrafish. This study indicates the anxiousness and reduced social preference that humans might have to deal with, once the social interaction and normal lives restore. Hence, the battle with anxiety and depression is a long one this time, but important thing is to remember that you are not alone. COVID-19 is a global pandemic, and no one is expected to perform their best. We are all together in this.
Coping with COVID anxiety
Uncertainties are not easy to deal with; You might be tensed about catching the virus, your job plans being cancelled, disruption of your daily routine, financial crisis. Before you know how to manage these feelings, you need to understand some signs and symptoms of anxiety :
- Fast and shallow breath: This is a way of our body to cope with the situation
- Sweating and trembling
- Pounding heart
- Frequent nightmares followed by a traumatic incident
- Recurring thoughts that trigger anxiety disorders
Anxiety disorders include panic attacks, which can be very sudden and can be triggered even in the absence of a real danger or apparent cause2. The worst is the constant fear that a person who has experienced panic attack lives with. Sufferers start living with fearful anticipation of future attacks. In 2017, 44.9 million people suffered from anxiety disorders in India3. The positive thing is that anxiety disorders including panic attacks are curable, but we need to talk about it. We need to tell others that we need help. The best way to proceed is to seek professional help by talking to therapists, however, I will list some practices which can be done in addition to seeking professional help and can be helpful in managing anxiety.
Tips for Managing Anxiety:
- Exercise: By increasing body movement, our body releases endorphins. These are the chemicals which interact with brain receptor to reduce pain sensation, contributing to a sense of pleasure.
- Slow breathing: When we are anxious, our breathing becomes fast and shallow. Try making it slow and deep. Start counting with your breaths. If you are with a person experiencing panic attack, count with him as he breathes.
- Meditate while observing: Sit in a park and quietly observe. Give yourself tasks like “I will make a mental note of five different colour things I see, four things I can touch, three things I can hear, two things I can smell and one thing I can taste”5.
- Lifestyle: Don’t skip meals. Have a routine. Don’t make work your entire life. Please take out time for your hobbies. Take out at least an hour in a day to do something that gives you joy.
- Self Talk: Talk to yourself. It is possible that you get anxious or get a panic attack when you are alone. To be prepared for such times, it is important to talk to yourself. To tell yourself repeatedly that this is hard, but it won’t kill you. That you will survive it. You have done it before, and you will do it again.
- Be kind to yourself: It is important to acknowledge how you feel, and not blame yourself for feeling a certain way. It is not your fault. Anxiety does not make you weak. Accepting that you feel anxious, does not make you vulnerable. It actually inspires hundreds of people to open up to themselves and their families.
- Prioritize yourself: Start saying no. If you don’t want to attend a phone call and spend time just with yourself, say no. Watch movies. Read. Develop a hobby. Do anything that helps you become a better version of yourself.
- Maintain a journal: Pen down your thoughts. Pen down how you helped yourself overcome an anxious state. Next time when you feel anxious, you can read it and it will definitely help you feel calmer.
- Have a RING: Have a small circle of 2-3 people you are most comfortable with. I like to call this concept the “RING”. All people of a particular RING would keep a regular check on each other, to see if everyone is doing fine and feeling happy. They would also set a code word in case any of them start experiencing symptoms of a mental health issue like stressful thoughts, sleeplessness, difficulty in breathing etc. For example, if the code word is “Blue Bird”, and one member of RING texts that, others will do their level best to make sure he is okay. Since therapists can not be always there to keep a check on their patients, this can help. If we have sufficient RINGS, maybe we can be there when the thought of suicide crosses someone’s mind. Maybe, we can be there for some one at the moment he needs us the most.
This pandemic has challenged us in more ways than we thought, mainly affecting our mental health. Let’s together fight against the social stigma associated with mental health. Let’s be kind to each other, take care of ourselves and every one around us. Asking for help does not make you vulnerable, it makes you strong. It inspires hundreds of others to seek help. Mental health is as important as any other form of physical health. Just as a heart condition requires cardiologist, a mental health condition requires psychologists and psychiatrists. Let’s not treat our mind any different from the rest of our body.
- Whole-brain mapping of socially isolated zebrafish reveals that lonely fish are not loners – Hande Tunbak, Mireya Vazquez-Prada, Thomas Michael Ryan, Adam Raymond Kampff, Elena Dreosti – eLIFE https://elifesciences.org/articles/55863.pdf