In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, many of us are experiencing fear and anxiety. This is completely legitimate. In fact, our brains are hardwired to fear the unknown. But, when we're in a state of fear or anxiety, our attention is hijacked by that fear or anxiety: It prevents us from acting in a more thoughtful way and making concrete plans to deal with the uncertainty. Authorities are telling us to remain calm. But how do we calm our negative emotions?
When we experience extreme stress, such as during a time of crisis, the brain releases large amounts of norepinephrine (noradrenaline). This strengthens the amygdala, the brain region that processes emotions especially fear and anxiety, and weakens the prefrontal cortex, the brain region that regulates thoughtful behaviour. The prefrontal cortex is effectively taken off line so it can't influence the amygdala and our responses become instinctive and reflexive rather than thoughtful. This is exactly the opposite of what we want: We want to make informed decisions. It also reeks havoc with our psychological and physical wellbeing at a time when we need these resources more than ever.
How we often deal with uncomfortable emotions is to resist them: We actively try to sweep them under the rug or hope they'll go away. But, as we know, this doesn't reduce their intensity. Here are a couple of simple ways to decrease the intensity of your fear or anxiety. In fact, these strategies work for reducing the intensity of any negative emotion, even anger.
Slow, rhythmic deep breathing
When we're in a state of fear or anxiety, our breathing becomes quick and shallow. This type of breathing activates the sympathetic nervous system which allows us to fight or to flee the situation. This is helpful when we meet a bear in the words and we want to make a quick exit. But it's useless and can even be dangerous when we can't flee and need to make plans for how to deal with a crisis.
When we slow down our breathing and make it rhythmic, we activate the parasympathetic nervous system which is our rest response. This type of deep breathing calms down our nervous system and allows us to make the rational decisions we need in difficult times.
Label and reframe
Labeling (naming) and reframing the fear or anxiety calm the amygdala and reduce the intensity of the emotion. Matthew Lieberman and his colleagues used fMRI to investigate what happens in the brain when we label (name) or reframe negative emotions. One of the brain regions that they specifically looked at was the amygdala an area that, as we've seen, is involved in processing emotions, especially negative emotions.
In this study, the participants looked at negative emotionally-moving photos. One of the images was of a snake which elicits negative emotions in many of us. The participants were asked to reframe the photos so as to decrease the emotional reaction that came up for them. For example, they could reframe the photograph of the snake as “It’s just a photo, it’s not real” or “There are no snakes near where I live”, etc. In another condition, they were asked to label the emotion that came up for them as they looked at the photograph of the snake, such as anxious, disgusted, or another label. In a third condition, they were asked to just passively observe the photograph.
Compared to passively observing the photograph, both labelling and reframing the emotion reduced amygdala activation, meaning that both strategies were effective in down-regulating the emotion at the neural level. And both labeling and reframing also reduced the subjective distress of the participants to the images.
And when we reduce our amygdala activation, we allow our prefrontal cortex to takeover and we generate a reflective response, allowing us to plan for the crisis in a thoughtful and informed way.
These are two ways to reduce the intensity of fear or anxiety. However, when our fear or anxiety is particularly intense, we are often unable to use cognitive strategies such as labeling and reframing. In that case, you can calm down your nervous system first by slowing down the breath and then move onto labeling or reframing.
Burklund,L. J., Creswell, J. D., Irwin, M. R., & Lieberman, M. D. (2014). The common and distinct neural bases of affect labeling and reappraisal in healthy adults. Frontiers in Psychology, 5, 221
Heartmath Institute (n.d.). Science of the heart: Exploring the role of the heart in human performance. Retrieved March 8, 2020, from heartmath.org.