I recently heard a question posed:
What spreads faster; a physical virus or an anxiety virus?
Sound weird? I thought so at first. But what this question brings up is the power of social contagion.
Social contagion is a type of social influence. It refers to the tendency of a person to copy a certain behavior of others who are either in the vicinity, or whom they have been exposed to. And in the age of social media, it can be incredibly challenging to keep anxiety from going viral; from becoming contagious.
As fast as COVID-19 is spreading, the anxiety surrounding it can spread faster. Think of it this way; physically, you can keep your distance. A person can sneeze on you and after that you would probably isolate yourself to limit the spread. Online, we spend hours of scrolling through peoples “sneezes” and articles and brain dumps about their own fears and anxieties. And a lot of us do this until the anxiety of others, becomes our own.
Hold on to all that. Let’s take a moment to backtrack slightly.
Right now we are in a climate of chaos and anxiety. And before we talk about ways to manage that, I think it helps to take a deeper look at why this time in our lives can be so upsetting and create so much fear.
To begin to understand all of this, we have to take a look at how our minds work. Let’s start with understanding fear. Fear is a survival mechanism that helps us not get killed. Fear can be helpful. When you are getting ready to cross the street, you are scared of getting hit by a car. To avoid that, you look both ways. You develop a habit that saves your life over and over again. And that habit was founded on fear. Again, fear can be helpful.
In the last million(ish) years, humans evolved a new layer on top of our primitive survival brain, called the prefrontal cortex. Because it is involved in creativity and planning, the prefrontal cortex helps us think and plan for the future. It predicts what will happen in the future based on past experience. If information is lacking, our prefrontal cortex lays out different scenarios about what might happen, and guesses which will be most likely by running simulations based on similar scenarios.
Defined as “a feeling of worry, nervousness or unease, typically about an imminent event or something with an uncertain outcome,” anxiety comes up when our prefrontal cortexes don’t have enough information to accurately predict the future.
Now enter COVID-19.
Anxiety is so high because we don’t fully understand COVID-19. There are lots of unknowns in play and that keep us from being able to plan and not being able to plan creates fear. Fear plus uncertainty leads to anxiety.
And interestingly, science shows that even if the outcome is the worst possible, people are less anxious. Because knowing what to expect, no matter how good or bad it is, lowers anxiety.
This brings us back to social contagion. Most of us have already seen or know for ourselves how powerful the internet is and how you can build a belief or lose a belief quickly because of others. And in a time where people are continuing to “sneeze” on others via Facebook and Twitter, the anxiety virus is spreading quickly.
Once we start to see all of this, there are 3 things we can do to start to build mental resilience and finally break the habit loops of fear and worry. And it boils down to learning how your own mind works. Because if you don’t know how it works, you can’t work with it.
1.Map out your habit loops. And in a time like this, we could label these as “worry” habit loops. The Habit Loop is a neurological loop that governs any habit. The habit loop consists of three parts: a cue, a routine, and a reward. Understanding these elements can help in understanding how to change bad habits or form better ones. But you can read more about those HERE.
2.Once you have established the worry habit loop, ask yourself what you’re getting out of it. Chances are that you will start to see what your “reward” is in this habit loop, and in this habit loop you can identify that the reward doesn’t benefit you. You can begin to see how unrewarding worry is. And when the reward isn’t satisfying, you become un-excited to move forward. So now…
3.Bring in something that is more rewarding. Bringing in curiosity is generally a good place to start. Ask yourself, “How does this anxiety feel in my body?” Then bring in kindness. Instead of beating ourselves up for being anxious again, step back and give yourself some grace. “I am human, this is my brain stuck in a habit loop.”
From there, you can begin to build mental resilience in a time like this. And if all of this seems like too much in the moment, just try grounding yourself. You can ground yourself mentally by taking a few deep, conscious breaths. Or you can try physically grounding yourself. Simply taking a moment to see how your feet feel in your shoes or on the floor allows you to start practicing mindfulness. And those short moments of mindfulness have proven to be really powerful in managing anxiety.
The world is chaotic right now. There are many unknowns and many un-answerables. There’s a lot that is out of our collective and personal control. And the bad news? You can’t control the things around you. The good news? You can control your response.
And from the bottom of our hearts, the entire Roux Krewe wants to take a moment to acknowledge and thank all of our members and those in the community that are medical professionals and first responders that are at the front line of this. We see you and appreciate you more than we could ever say. THANK YOU.