Pandemic-Related Anxiety and How to Break the Cycle – Part 2
We know that negative behaviors (like addiction) persist because we receive some kind of highly desirable reward for doing them (e.g. the “high” from drug use). I listened to an interview with Dr. Jud Brewer recently where he proposed that both anxiety and addiction follow similar brain patterns. The negative behavior of anxiety persists because the reward is feeling like we have control over a situation.
Of course, this is a false sense of control. The example given in the interview is of a worried parent staying up until their teenager comes home at night. The parent feels a sense of control over the situation which gives them a reason to continue their worrying. With the pandemic, there were (and still are) many unknowns, and the virus has been fatal for some people. In this potentially life-threatening situation, a sense of control, even a false sense of control, could certainly be a desirable reward!
Dr. Brewer suggests that you can break the anxiety loop by increasing your awareness. Ask yourself, “What am I getting from worrying in the present moment?” Is it a false sense of control? It is then important to substitute a reward that will give you greater satisfaction than your false sense of control. Here is a pandemic-related example.
At the start of the pandemic, we were told to stay at home, which turned the place where we live into a “safe zone.” However, if a person stays in their safe zone for too long, then they may panic when they are forced to re-enter the world. Over the past year, the media (social and otherwise) has reinforced this panic. Perhaps the sense of satisfaction one can feel from getting past the panic and experiencing the outside world is rewarding enough to help a person overcome their panic and anxiety. Please start the process by getting a vaccine. The vaccines are safe, but contact me if you have questions. Then, you can start doing lower risk activities in ways that are fun for you.
Go for a walk along the river with the reward being the beauty and calmness of nature. Go to the grocery store with the reward being that you are doing an activity that you considered normal pre-pandemic. Go clothes shopping at times when the stores are not as busy with the reward being a sense of happiness that you used to feel when shopping, even if you don’t buy anything. Did you feel better afterwards? Focus on that feeling as a way to motivate yourself to do these activities again. You will feel rewarded for crawling out of your safe space which will encourage you to start to expand your safe zone.
The world constantly changes, and being able to adapt to change despite uncertainty will help you live a more comfortable and healthy life. I hope that this discussion gives you food for thought on your journey to conquering pandemic-related anxiety!
Resources used for this article:
Dr. Brewer’s book is called Unwinding Anxiety.
Have a good week! Feel free to contact me with any questions.
Melissa Boylan, MD, FAAFP
Family Physician and Owner of Noreta Family Medicine