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Worry, Anxiety & Stress in a Pandemic

With the announcement of Melbourne’s fourth lockdown came an experience of anxiety and heightened stress for many. For me the uncertainty, loss of control and my minds ability to speculate worse possible scenarios only added fuel to the fire. Thankfully my understanding of physiology, neuroscience and cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) has allowed me to calm my vigilant nervous system.

Stress can be defined as our bodies response to a perceived threat or challenge. The response can be physiological, psychological or behavioural. Anxiety is a physical response to a perceived threat. It begins in the limbic system of the brain, when the amygdala detects danger and signals the hypothalamus to trigger the secretion of adrenaline and cortisol from the adrenal glands. The body quickly becomes charged and ready for action. Interestingly anxiety may arise in response to both conscious and unconscious perceptions.

Worry on the other hand is a conscious thought process. It involves thinking of bad things that could happen, and their possible consequences. It also involves trying to protect ourselves by thinking about how we might be able to prevent them, or how we could respond if they do occur. Worry stimulates activity in the prefrontal cortex- the thinking part of the brain, which then interacts with part of the limbic system (the emotional part of the brain). When we keep focusing on possible threats, the amygdala is triggered and worry may lead to anxiety.

The process of worry can focus our mind and motivate us to look for solutions. It becomes problematic when we do it excessively or for extended periods, or when it is frequently speculative (“What if…?”) rather than a response to an existing problem. Overthinking and overanalyzing can lead us down various “rabbit holes” that lead nowhere.

In a world where we seek control and security, worry does not deliver. It robs us of control and security!

Here are three tips for working with worry to diminish it’s impact on your health and wellbeing:

Tip 1: Observe your habitual worries, then rationalise them.

Common triggers for habitual worrying are fears (what if?) and an excessive need for control.

  • ·Challenge the worry – is it really true? E.g. “Worrying allows me to prepare for negative events.” OR is it the case that “Worrying without problem solving just makes me feel bad when I could be feeling good instead.”

  • Learn from the past: what percentage of your worries were justified?

Tip 2: Ask: Is there something I can do or control regarding this issue?

  • YES? Problem solve and plan a strategy, OR

  • NOT SURE? Brainstorm possible solutions and think about taking action, OR

  • NO? Write it into your Worry Journal (see Tip 3) and set a time to review it and develop possible solutions.

Tip 3: Delay: Write down your worry, set a time to work on it, then let it go (for now)

Some tips for using a worry pad:

  • Designate a special pad for this purpose. You can also use the notes section in your phone when you are on the road and transfer it to your pad at night

  • Carry it everywhere with you. Keep it by your table at night!

  • When you identify a worry thought, write it down

  • Schedule time in for a worry session (at least 20 minutes)

  • At the scheduled time, pull out your worry pad and go through each worry one by one

  • Notice your thinking and whether there is a change to your experience of worry?

Another useful strategy is to label the worry thought as either a current problem or a “what if” thought. Current problems relate to real problems that have arisen, that might be useful to address. “What if” thoughts are speculative- the problem has not occurred but you are worrying that it might. Further more, when I find myself worrying I identify whether I can engage in practical problem solving versus futile speculation!

Through keeping a worry log, I become more aware of the proportion of real existing problems versus speculative “what ifs”. Also the time I spend in practical problem solving versus futile speculation. I find this process is great at helping me identify what is within my circle of control and acting accordingly It is my practical tool for implementing the serenity prayer: “Grant me the Serenity to Accept the things I cannot change, Courage to change the things I can, and Wisdom to know the difference.”

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