Several months ago, I did an Intro to Psych course on Coursera helmed by Professor Steve Joordens, Professor of Psychology, University of Toronto Scarborough. It taught me a lot. More recently and more personally somehow, I feel, during this pandemic crisis as I was feeling “a lot” of feelings (including being overwhelmed from time to time, despite being acutely aware of my own privilege), I found that Professor Joordens had released a shorter course to deal with Anxiety in this time.
1. To start off with, could you share your thoughts for those who are feeling more anxious, given the unprecedented crisis we are all globally living through. What can you share about the anxiety itself as a response, to maybe let people know that they are not alone in this reaction?
Prof Joordens: If you’re not anxious now, you’re not paying attention. What we all call “anxiety” is actually a reflection of a special survival mode we have that is meant to be active for just a short period. Specifically, the idea is this … imagine you’re out gathering berries and such for your cave family and suddenly a bear emerges on the path just ahead. It is a threat to your existence … your brain almost immediately perceives this and activates what is called your sympathetic nervous system. The result is that your eyes dilate (letting more vision in), your heart beats faster, your breathing increases in rate and depth, your digestive process shuts down, the blood leaves your frontal lobes, you feel a lot of energy throughout your body … and you are filled with a compulsion to either run away (flee) or to take on that bear (fight). Whichever you do, you’re either dead, or the whole thing is over in a few minutes.
To our brain, COVID is a threat like the bear … we react to it the same way and all those “anxious” feelings are just your body being activated to “do something!” … its almost like your brain is screaming that at you.
The problem is, COVID isn’t going away, and it’s so ambiguous that it feels almost scarier than a bear…so we are left in this state for long periods of time. That IS NOT what this system is meant for, and if we don’t learn how to manage our anxiety our immune system becomes compromised. Clearly not a good thing with a virus around!
2. You have emphasised the importance of social relations, and emphatically said that “social distancing” is the wrong framing as we’re talking about “physical distancing”; that this is not the time to socially distance, rather to socially reconnect and restrengthen. Can you share a bit more with us?
Prof Joordens: Humans are born social creatures. We depend on other human beings from birth and for many years after. We are the dominant species we are because of how much we need one another and help one another. What’s more, in times of grief or trauma we naturally reach out to our close social connections, and connecting with them on an emotional level is one of the ways we naturally dissipate our anxieties. So yes, we need those emotional connections with others more than ever as we deal with COVID.
Physical distance, yes … but socially we should be reaching out to others and we should be using a phone or online meeting platform and they allow us to share non-verbal information (e.g., tone of voice, body posture) which is important because that’s what we use to connect emotionally, and that’s where the healing lies.
3. You have some really helpful pointers in the Mind Control course, including on how we should ideally learn a different way of connecting, not the “usually very shallow” connections on social. Can you elaborate a bit here?
Prof Joordens: Yes indeed, so many of us have relied on various forms of social media as a quick and easy way to “connect” with our network of contacts. That’s fine if you want to announce a talk, or make some minor comment … but it is a very shallow form of connection and typically it involves little emotion over and above what you try to capture with emojis. Quite simply, someone typing LOL to one of your comments is nothing like someone actually laughing out loud when you make a joke … and you hearing, no, feeling, the emotion of that laugh.
To get that emotional connection we must go deeper, at least asking one another some more caring questions, but as I highlighted above, I really believe we should connect with a phone or virtual meeting so the non-verbals also come through.
4. Can you share some of the learnings and your advice on how to deal with the stress and anxiety of this period, including the uncertainty?
I designed my course specifically to do just that, to give students the knowledge and strategies they need to manage their anxiety response. This is not really clinical psychology but, rather, basic physiology.
The anxiety response is your mind kicking your body into short term survival mode and once you understand that, there are things you can do control your mind, hence the title Mind Control for my course.
It’s simple things like:
Formally learning how to relax (you cannot be both relaxed and anxious at the same time)
Discovering activities that pull your mind away from COVID and using those activities to give yourself escapes
Learning about other activities, like singing karaoke, that may actually counter the anxiety response.
It’s simply about learning to take some control over your conscious mind and, though it, your primitive bodily reactions. Not at all different from how some Gurus learned to mentally control their heart rate, only that is MUCH harder than what I teach students to do.
5. The idea of managing anxiety by feeling like we are accomplishing something really resonated with me (and possibly drives some of the work we’re doing around to try and change the narrative around mental health in India, through story-telling and interviews, comics and columns). Can you sum up some of that advice for readers? You say in the course to find a way to contribute and have a positive role
Yeah, as I mentioned, the anxiety response is kind of like your brain screaming “Do Something!!” … so accomplishing things while in isolation is one way to respond to that. I am doing something, look at the good things I’ve accomplished! That is a natural way to answer that call and feel more in control, and any sense of control is critical given all the uncertainty. There are many free courses you can take online, you could maybe learn a musical instrument, or complete a renovation, or clean your fridge :). Accomplishing things will make you feel better.