How to overcome stress and anxiety in times of crisis

This one is a special episode, in a different format, about how you can overcome stress and anxiety in times of crisis. How to deal with isolation in a productive and happy way? How can you maintain healthy relationships and keep in touch with the people you love? 

In times of crisis, we are stunned by an avalanche of worrisome news and fake news, and this may further increase our restlessness.

To answer all of this, I want to assure you that positive psychology has great guidelines that help us maintain good mental health to get out of the crisis better than we entered.

What is the crisis? Imagine the following scenario. You are living your life normally when, suddenly, something completely unexpected happens. A disease begins to spread where you live, a natural catastrophe destroys much of your city or your country’s financial system breaks down and you run out of money overnight.

How can you act in these cases? How to stay calm, rational and even mentally healthy in the face of serious moments of crisis?

Many people believe themselves to be centered, calm and prepared in theory, but when the crisis really comes, they end up not knowing how to act in practice. However developed a person is, he will hardly be able to overcome a moment of serious crisis without any obstacle along the way.

In this special conversation today, we will analyze some strategies to minimize problems, so you know how to act in extremely delicate moments in the best possible way.

It is important to clarify that during a crisis, the problem is real and therefore needs to be addressed. This clarification is important because when you make a conscious effort to take care of your mental health, you can be misunderstood. 

If you decide to distance yourself a little from the overload of bad news, someone might think you are being alienated or reckless. If you take a few minutes in the morning to exercise, meditate or read a book, it may give the false impression that you are not taking the problem seriously or that you do not have compassion for all the victims of the tragegy.

This type of confusion can cause major problems. It is because you take the problem seriously that you must know how to take care of yourself, your mental health, to draw a limit on the amount of news you allow to enter your life, to prioritise the minimum amount of well-being you need, with physical exercises, with mental clarity, with good nutrition, with a productive day, with learning, with restful sleep.

Only when you are strong and healthy then you have the ability to face a crisis. Because of this, all the cares for yourself that we will present in this special episode in no way mean that you are ignoring real problems.

You need to know how to face problems in the best possible way within your reality. And for that we will start by understanding the importance of taking care of your mental health during these times of crisis.

Let’s do an experiment to understand how your brain works.

I’m going to ask you to join an experiment now. Let’s divide ourselves into two groups, depending on our year of birth. If the year of your birth is an even number, then please close your eyes now. If the year of your birth is an ODD number, you can keep your eyes open. All ready?

Very well. Now let’s do the opposite. Whoever was born in an odd year please close your eyes. And those who were born in an EVEN year keep their eyes open. Ready?

Ready. Very well. Now everyone can keep their eyes open, see this scribble that will appear quickly on the screen.

Now and use the comments to write if you are from the EVEN or ODD group and what you saw in the scribble. Pause the video now.

Ready? It is likely that a larger proportion of people who were born in even years interpreted the drawing as being a duck. And whoever was born in an odd year interpreted the drawing as being a rabbit, because these were the previous images that may have influenced your interpretation.

Your mind can be a more serious problem than the crisis.

This simple example of the optical illusion shows us how fantastic the human mind is. It may be your greatest ally, but it can also be your worst enemy. However big the crisis you are going through, your mind has the capacity to make everything even worse, depending on the way you interpret reality and depending on the sources of reference that are influencing your head.

One of the skills of our mind is the ability to anticipate problems. We imagine what can happen in the future and we seek to act accordingly.

This is a very useful skill for our survival. The problem is that our mind may end up exaggerating. We may end up anticipating so many problems that the result is anxiety, nervousness and unnecessary agitation.

In times of crisis, this is very common. It is difficult to think of anything else, we see and hear all day news and comments about what is happening, we are in a constant state of alert. Many people end up having trouble sleeping, which only makes the problem worse.

The solution in this case is not to remain alienated from what is happening. Staying well informed during an epidemic, flood or economic depression is essential to making good decisions and minimizing damage. Trying to pretend that nothing is happening is a process of denial, of escape from reality. And this denial can also bring more anxiety and nervousness, in addition to causing several other problems for you and those around you.

The way out is to turn your mind into your greatest ally.

The way you react to events is under your control.

Moments of crisis are absolutely beyond our control. There is no individual action that we can take to completely prevent a virus from spreading around the world, an earthquake to happen or an economic bubble to burst.

The only thing that is under our control is the way we react to these events. Most people react impulsively, exaggerating emotions such as fear, anger or even panic. This is common and even natural at first.

But as soon as that initial shock passes, we need to be very careful that our mind does not turn the problem into something bigger than it really is. We need to accept reality and find a way to face the problem in the best possible way.

The first step in this is to replace destructive thoughts that cause discomfort with useful and constructive examples, references and stories.

At the same time that a crisis brings horrible events, it also generates positive stories.

Stories of people helping each other to overcome isolation, disease, hunger. Stories of people who dedicate time, energy and money to help others recover what they lost. Stories of creating solutions that were unthinkable before the crisis.

You can intentionally set aside time in your day just to find inspiring stories. When you find examples of overcoming, whether in the current crisis or in similar situations from the past, you strengthen your hope and psychological well-being.

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Our mind works very much based on stimulus and reaction. If you only feed your brain with bad things, your reactions will also be bad. If you feed your brain with good stories, your actions will also be good.

So be very careful with your sources of information. Follow one or two serious sources that bring useful information for you to get through the crisis, but don’t follow sources that do you more harm than good.

Take it one day at a time.

In long-term crises, experts begin to outline future scenarios and predictions of what may happen in a while. They count the number of people who will die, how much investments will fall, how long it will take for everything to be as it was before.

This information is important for making some strategic decisions at the political and economic level. What you always need to ask yourself is whether or not this information is useful for making day-to-day decisions.

One strategy that reduces your anxiety levels is to focus on the present moment and live one day at a time.

The best way to train your brain to focus on the present moment is to use meditation techniques. It is quite simple and I will explain to you the least you need to understand to get started today.

Meditation is a training in your attention control. Do you know when you try to study or concentrate to read a book … and in a few minutes you start thinking about other things to do? This is a type of situation that is difficult to keep track of your attention. You would like to dedicate your attention to the study, but it seems that the attention goes elsewhere. Then, you can do attention training by paying attention to your breathing.

Use your breath consciously, trying to focus your attention exclusively on the air entering and leaving your nostrils. Eventually, your mind will start to think about other things, like how the crisis will unfold. As soon as you realize that your mind is no longer focused on your breathing, gently bring your attention back just to the air entering and leaving your nostrils. You don’t have to force yourself to not think. What you are going to do is just train the ability to observe your thoughts and mostly let the thoughts go.

Ideally, your mind should be already trained to do this even before the crisis happens. But it’s never too late, you can start practicing meditation, presence, and conscious breathing today. These are skills that, like any other skill, improve little by little, day after day, every time you practice.

Acknowledge, accept and learn to deal with your emotions.

The most common emotion to feel in times of crisis is fear. We almost always classify fear as a bad emotion, but the truth is that fear has the function of protecting us from situations that put our lives at risk. Fear is an evolutionary advantage in how human thinking works, as we become more aware of the dangers and increase the likelihood of staying alive.

The absence of fear is not a virtue, but a vulnerability. Without fear, you would take reckless actions like driving without a seat belt, facing a rabid animal or exposing yourself unnecessarily to contamination in the middle of a pandemic.

There is no use trying to deny your fear. Instead, acknowledge that you are afraid and accept that the crisis will really make people afraid. That is, do not deny your fear, but learn to deal with it.

Fear becomes a bad thing when it starts to arise in situations where you are not at risk. Once again, here we have our mind anticipating problems that today, now, at this moment, do not yet exist. If you are in the middle of a pandemic, it is natural to be afraid of getting sick. The problem is this fear getting out of control, making you suffer as if you were already sick.

The way out is the same as we mentioned before: focus on the present moment. Are you sick today, right now? If not, take precautions to decrease the risk of becoming ill. Wash your hands properly, for example. If you have already fallen ill, take steps to heal as quickly as possible and not to contaminate others. What you cannot do is to be suffering exaggeratedly, as if you already had a disease that you don’t actually have yet.

Many of our fears are based on traumatic situations that we go through. For example, the illness or death of a loved one can alter the relationship we have with our emotional world. This brings the fear that similar situations will happen again, even though there is not much logic behind this fear.

The best way to manage your anxiety in these cases is to listen to the message of your fear. This requires a pause, a reflection, a certain self-knowledge. Look for a quiet place and start to wonder why you are feeling that fear, if any past trauma may be influencing, if your reaction is not being exaggerated. You can even write your questions and answers, as writing is a way to better organize your thoughts. We now have at Arata Academy the Happiness course in which we have activities using expressive writing that is proven by positive psychology as a great practice for your psychic well-being.

When fear is absolutely out of control, we have a situation that can be classified as panic. Panic is different, it is a fear that comes from all directions and is everywhere, without knowing exactly why. Since it is something bigger, panic requires a different response with professional monitoring.

Panic and other mental disorders need professional monitoring.

If you fell on the floor and broke an arm, what would you do: would you look on the internet for ways to fix your broken arm or go to a hospital so an orthopedist would take care of your arm?

The answer seems quite obvious when we are dealing with physical health problems. But when it comes to mental health, it seems that people tend to want to heal themselves or just pretend nothing is wrong.

If your fear during the crisis is absolutely out of control, causing panic attacks, severe anxiety attacks or even obsessive compulsive behaviors, do not try to resolve it all yourself. Look for a mental health professional like a psychologist or a psychiatrist, ask your friends and family for help, admit to the world that you are experiencing a health problem that needs professional monitoring.

Of course you can use the internet to find out about your condition. There is a collaboration between doctor and patient. The patient needs to be informed in order to be able to report the symptoms correctly and also to make conscious choices together with the health professional. This means that there is a collaboration for the treatment, which is conducted on a case by case approach by the health professional who has the experience of having already helped other people.

In crises that require social isolation, such as quarantines imposed during an epidemic, you can still consult with healthcare professionals remotely, using the internet or the phone.

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Keep in touch with the people you love.

During a serious crisis, practically everyone around you is affected. An epidemic affects everyone, a flood damages an entire city, a banking crisis leaves everyone without money.

This means that everyone is experiencing similar problems. If everyone is having similar problems, this is a great opportunity for you to open up more to the people you love. You can share your feelings, say how much you love each other, think of creative solutions for practical daily challenges.

Cultivating good relationships is always a good idea, but is even more valued in these moments of crisis. Call your relatives, your friends, people you haven’t seen in a long time.

First, offer help. Ask how they are doing, what they need, how you can help. Then share your emotions. If you need to, state clearly that you are in need of help, without fear of exposing your vulnerability.

If you don’t want to talk about the crisis anymore, try other topics. Remember positive stories from the past, show gratitude for everything you have been through together, comment on any book, series or movie you have seen.

Video calls can be a good way to reduce the feeling of isolation that a crisis causes. Today it is possible to put even several people on the same call, making a kind of virtual meeting of friends or family.

Shared activities can also help. You can arrange with some people to read a book together, to watch a series together, to follow an online course together. And then make periodic calls to comment on the last chapter, episode or class.

If you are one of those who says you have no friends and no family to talk to, then offer to work in groups of online volunteers who are available to chat with the elderly, the sick or people in need. In this type of action, while you are helping other people, you are also helping yourself by feeling useful during the crisis.

This can also be done with your neighbors. If you have more financial, physical or psychological conditions than others, offer help to buy groceries, to keep the house in order, to carry packages.

The crisis can physically isolate you, but luckily we are at the best technological moment in history so far to keep in touch, albeit remotely.

Taking actions like this, you create a kind of community in which everyone helps each other, creating bonds of friendship and solidarity in difficult times. That was how humanity overcame many crises and that gives us an excellent clue as to what we should do now.

Look for evidence of reality and reliable sources.

When the crisis is really serious, it seems that everyone just talks about it. Many people start to freak out and fall into scams, over-the-top alarmism and fake news. Social networks potentiate all this and, if you are not careful, you may end up in a cycle of paranoia that will worsen what was already serious.

Therefore, you must be very careful with the information you are going to consume. First, carefully select your sources of information, prioritizing sources with high credibility, scientific data and official communications. Look in these media for practical information, those that will really help you, in your day to day, to overcome the crisis in the best possible way.

Second, set aside one or two specific blocks of time in your day to consume this information. This is a smart strategy, because without it you will end up spending the whole day seeing information about the crisis, which will affect your mental health.

Third, rethink your use of social media. Review who you are following, silence words that make you feel unwell, leave groups that spread fake news, hide the options for current topics. If so, even consider deleting your accounts.

Don’t think you will be uninformed without social media. Your information must come from the sources we speak of: vehicles with high credibility, scientific data and official communications. If none of these informed the cure for the disease, catastrophe or crisis, it will not be the a random person on Twitter who will inform. Look only for facts, not rumors and misinformation. Do not be the amplifier of fake news: do not share information without checking two, three times, and only send links to extremely reliable sources.

Spending all day connected and consuming information will not necessarily make you better prepared to deal with the crisis. There is a limit of information that we can consume. Excess will only unnecessarily increase your sense of risk, your nervousness. Instead, divide your time. Take time to read, to talk to other people, to tidy up the house, to do physical exercises.

You cannot confuse the need to stay informed with being hyper-alert. It is not necessary that you know absolutely everything about the crisis, that you read the opinion of all experts, that you see all the videos available on the subject. Too much information makes you always think of the worst case scenario, bringing the impression of an imminent threat that things will fall apart at any moment.

When we are nervous, anxious or worried in this way, our body releases adrenaline, which can cause inflammation and induce a stress response in our body. Under the right circumstances, stress is an important evolutionary tool for staying alive. However, prolonged stress damages your immune system, making you more susceptible to disease.

The problem is that it is difficult not to be stressed when we are constantly bombarded with scary information. So choose your sources of information very well and set aside specific blocks of time in your day to read those sources.

Make isolation a learning period.

In our ordinary day-to-day life, we always complain about the lack of time. We are always running from side to side, without time to be with the family, without time to clean up the house, without time to learn new things.

If there is any benefit during the isolation caused by a crisis, it may be that. Now you have time to learn something you wanted to learn, to spend more time with your family, to do small repairs at home.

If you are going to be forced to go through a period of isolation without leaving your home, what are you going to do? Spend the day complaining, consuming negative information and getting more and more anxious? Or take the time to transform this isolation into something minimally productive?

Remember: you don’t control the facts, but you control how you react to the facts. The fact is isolation. The reaction is represented by the tasks that you will perform during the isolation. Ideally, these tasks are not merely passive. That is, do not spend all day in front of the cell phone consuming news or wasting too much time in front of the television watching multiple episodes of every possible series. To feel better, ideally, you should have active tasks that require some physical and mental effort from you.

This can include teaching something to your children, relatives or even strangers over the internet. It includes learning a new skill that you can do at home, such as cooking, exercising with your own body weight or learning a new language. It includes tidying up your home, donating clothes and other goods to those in need, learning how to make small repairs to water, electricity or carpentry.

Create a daily routine and take the time to do the things you like, but that usually, due to lack of time, you cannot do. Use these pleasurable activities as a way to emotionally regulate your fears and anxieties about what is happening.

Remember to include physical activities in this routine. You can practice yoga, calisthenics, dance, treadmill, any activity you can do at home with little or no equipment. The goal is to maintain your fitness, improve your immune system and take care of your health in general. Taking care of food is also extremely important for all of this.

Accept that in crisis situations, your life will be different. There is no point in wanting to deny this. The best you can do is keep your brain busy and challenged. Luckily, you have access to the internet and a virtually endless world of useful knowledge.

The challenge is to get out of the crisis better than you entered.

Moments of crisis are moments of great challenge. You can see people in pain, friends or family dying, your finances melting, your city being destroyed. If this is the reality, then the best thing to do is to learn to adapt and deal with reality in the best possible way.

What you can do is do your best to get out of the crisis better than you did. You will not be able to stop an epidemic, a natural catastrophe or a financial crisis on your own. But during that time, you can become an even better person than you were before. This is the basic concept of antifragility, of strengthening yourself in the face of difficult times.

You can get out of the crisis by mastering the art of staying present, of practicing gratitude. You can learn new lessons, new skills, new languages. It can increase your connection with other human beings. It can be useful for your community.

Perceive things from a new perspective. Suddenly, what you once considered to be a big problem, now you realize that it is not so serious. What does it matter that you don’t have a six pack abs? What is the lack of not having millions of followers on social networks? What good would it be to have a more modern car, cell phone or television?

The crisis has the power to throw in our face the few things that really matter: our family, our friends, our health. If you have something to eat today, a house to take shelter in and especially loved ones, you already have just about everything. Give thanks for that, take the necessary practical steps and move on as best you can.

Crises are terrible times. It is part of our human development to know how to deal with reality. It would be a mistake to suggest an escape from reality. It is a mistake to close your eyes and just use positive thinking to hope that everything will be fine overnight.

You can strengthen yourself. This strengthening begins with self-knowledge and the ability to deal well with reality. This is how you prevent your own mind from becoming an even bigger problem than the crisis.

Positive psychology has already found a number of proven practices to elevate our emotional state. I want to invite you to access a special class on the Happiness course on this by visiting the link here.