‘Fear Is Healthy. Anxiety and Panic Are the Opposite.’
Daily insights on life in the face of uncertainty, by psychiatrist and habit change specialist Dr. Jud Brewer
Welcome to One Day At A Time — a daily column offering science-backed help for living through uncertainty.
I’m an addiction psychiatrist and neuroscientist specializing in anxiety and habit change. Each day, I’ll cover a new topic to help us all stay mentally healthy, calm, and connected as we navigate our new world order.
We’re all experiencing some level of fear and anxiety right now. Let’s start by talking about what’s going on inside our brains. Do you wonder why people have been buying what seems like a decade’s worth of toilet paper at the grocery store? What’s more, do you wonder why witnessing this gives you the sudden urge to do the same?
Here’s the science.
Our most basic survival mechanisms are based on fear. When something scary happens to us, we note the experience and learn to avoid it in the future. We inherited this from our ancient ancestors. It is called reward-based learning and it has three elements: a trigger, a behavior, and a reward. We see the saber-toothed tiger — that’s the trigger. We run away — that’s the behavior. We live to tell our kids to avoid that part of the savanna — that’s the reward.
At some point over the last million or so years, our brains evolved a new layer, called the neocortex. This “new” brain includes the prefrontal cortex, which is involved in thinking and planning. There’s a catch to that addition. Our prefrontal cortex needs accurate information to plan for the future. A lack of information causes uncertainty, and uncertainty coupled with fear leads to anxiety. That’s key to understand: fear + uncertainty = anxiety.
As we know, there is a lot of uncertainty around the coronavirus right now, which is leading to a lot of anxiety. Anxiety can spread just like a virus through what is called social contagion. Think of social contagion as emotion infection. What do I mean? If you talk to someone on the phone who is anxious, you might get anxious too. If you read social media posts where people are panicking, you might panic too. To use a viral metaphor, it’s akin to someone sneezing on your brain. So anxiety + social contagion = panic. When this happens, your prefrontal cortex goes off-line. Your thinking brain can’t think. That’s why you see so many people at the grocery store buying up all the toilet paper. Many likely weren’t planning to buy a lot, but when they see someone else with a cart piled high, they panic and follow suit.
Your feet aren’t the place in your body where you feel anxiety, so they’re a safe place to help you contact the here and now.
So in addition to practicing daily hand-washing hygiene, how can you practice good mental hygiene? Knowing how this process works is a good first step. Fear is healthy. Anxiety and panic are the opposite. They lead to us doing stupid things. You need a simple way to keep your prefrontal cortex online so you can think.
I offer two simple practices for this that you can play with today.
1. Take a deep breath (or three). This helps you literally calm your nervous system so your brain can have time to stop spinning out and get back online.
2. Ground yourself in the present moment by feeling into your hands or feet. Your feet aren’t the place in your body where you feel anxiety, so they’re a safe place to help you contact the here and now.
Rinse and repeat. Practice short mindful moments like these multiple times throughout the day. Experiencing short moments many times is how you build the new habit of being present and calm.
I’d like to end on a personal note. A friend introduced me to a great children’s book by Charlie Mackesy called The Boy, The Mole, The Fox and The Horse. My wife and I have been reading a few pages together for the past few nights as a way to stay calm and connected. Here are two pages that are perfect for today.
“What is that over there?” asked the boy.
“It’s the wild,” said the mole. “Don’t fear it.”
“Imagine how we would be if we were less afraid.”
The wild is analogous to all of the uncertainty currently swirling around the coronavirus and the future. If we can all practice being less afraid, we can keep our thinking brains thinking, and move forward together — calm and connected.
Onward together. I’ll have more to share tomorrow. If you’re interested in a video recording of this material, I’ve created one here.