How to Inoculate Yourself from Pandemic Emotions
How to Inoculate Yourself from Pandemic Emotions
Pandemic emotions are a thing. According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, 30% of U.S. adults have experienced symptoms of anxiety or depression during the pandemic. That number was 11% prior to the pandemic. Children and adolescents have not been immune. The same study indicates that 20% of school-age children have experienced a decrease in mental health.
For millennia, Western culture has believed that emotions are reflexive: An event happens and emotions follow. These emotions often arise quickly and uncontrollably, like someone just flipped a switch. Speak to anyone who is quick to anger or experiences high anxiety and they will often describe it exactly that way.
But, in the past 10 years, neuroscientists have begun to find that emotions really don’t work that way and that we have more influence over them than previously thought. We can use this new knowledge to “inoculate” ourselves against depression, anxiety and other negative feelings caused by the pandemic.
What We Had Wrong About Emotions
Recent research indicates that the way we used to think about emotions was exactly backward. We once assumed that emotion came first and then triggered the physiological reaction. For example, if you were hiking in the mountains of Colorado and saw a mountain lion, you would feel afraid. Then your brain would flood your body with adrenaline, cortisol and all the chemicals triggering a fight, flight or freeze reaction to help you live another day.
But that’s not actually what happens.
In reality, seeing the mountain lion triggers the physiological response, and then emotion follows. The physiological response prepares the body for action. The emotion is how the brain predicts how to handle the current situation and the imminent future.
To make an accurate prediction, the brain uses your memories of past experience and information. So, if your knowledge of mountain lions comes from national news of mountain lion attacks on people or pets, your brain will most likely interpret your flood of adrenaline and cortisol as fear. This emotional response will ensure you do what you need to do to put distance between you and the mountain lion and accomplish your brain’s #1 objective: keeping you alive.
But if your experience and knowledge of mountain lions comes from another source, the International Union for Conservation of Nature, you know that mountain lions are an endangered species, rarely seen by people because they fear humans. Then you might have the same physiological response – your body flooded with adrenaline and cortisol — but you might interpret that response as excitement or awe instead of fear.
A ‘Shot’ of Positive Emotions
All of this means that we can influence and modify our emotions in very direct ways. I am NOT suggesting that we try to suppress our negative emotions. Nor am I suggesting we should criticize ourselves or others for their emotional experiences. What I am saying is that we can load our emotional deck in our favor. We can plan ahead and prepare for times that challenge us.
As the coronavirus pandemic continues, you can inoculate yourself to the negative emotions by ensuring you practice and experience more positive emotions. How?
- Take care of yourself physically. Your brain makes predictions based on the physical sensations it receives from your body. You have read this advice before, but it bears repeating: Eat well. Get enough sleep. Be active.
- Your brain uses your emotional experiences from the past to create emotions in the future. Cultivate emotions today that your brain can rely on to predict and create your tomorrow.
Practice, Practice, Practice
You’ve heard the saying that three things that are important in real estate: Location, location, location. Similarly, three things are important in changing complex human behavior: Practice, practice, practice. Practice positive emotions, a little bit, every day. Two of the most immediately accessible: gratitude and awe.
There is a growing body of literature that keeping a gratitude journal can help you sleep better, lower stress, improve relationships, decrease materialism and be more generous. It has also been associated with healthier eating, lowering your risk of heart disease and lowering symptoms of depression for some people.
Based on research, an effective gratitude practice would include writing down three things you are grateful for daily and reviewing what you’ve written once a week. Bonus points for doing this exercise with a friend or partner and sharing your results.
Awe is an emotion that is difficult to define but it is often described as experiencing something extraordinary that we can’t explain. When we feel awe, the extraordinary event makes us pause, just for a moment, to try to figure it out. That pause calms us by activating our parasympathetic nervous system. Awe can be created by something as big as a sunset or a full moon rise or as small as the perfectly round black circles on the back of a ladybug. It’s about slowing down and letting yourself register the things outside of ourselves in the world. When was the last time you looked at a ladybug?
To practice awe, take a five-minute “awe walk” daily. Leave your cell phone behind. (It’s only five minutes!) Focus on the small details in the world around you that are hard to explain and unexpected.
For example, I live in downtown Denver. Today, I was walking Sahara (my Dachshund) and I saw a tiny plant growing from a small crack between a brick and the mortar above it on a wall of my building. How did it get there? No one planted it! Life always seems to find a way. That fills me with awe.
Tend to Your Emotional Health
We are all living through a pandemic like the world has not seen in more than 100 years. We have more influence over emotions we experience during the pandemic than we previously thought. How we navigate the remainder of the pandemic and the emotions we experience through it are subject to how we think, what we say and what we do. Prepare. Practice. Stay healthy and be well.
I’d love to hear your questions and comments. If you would like to discuss this topic further, just drop me a note.
Until then, let’s keep cultivating our culture, together!