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The Psychology of Uncertainty: Control What You Can and Accept What You Can’t

sujathasamynathan April 15, 2020
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Written by, Sujatha Samynathan
Psychologist, Mindfulness Practitioner, Consumer Experience Intern at Shapa Health

Feeling unprepared .. Not in control… Caught up in an endless snowball of worry cycle? – You are not alone. 

Since the pandemic started, we are all doing things we have never done before and going through new routine challenges like working from home, practicing social distancing, buying a decade worth of supplies etc. There is a sudden gear shift and a lot of “WHAT IF” situations. 

Want to know the reason why we behave the way we do? Curious about what goes on in our brains? Is anxiety contagious than the virus? Want to get over this worry cycle? 

Let’s take a moment to fill our brains with facts!! Challenging worry cycles with facts helps with anxiety!

BRAIN AND ANXIETY

What is anxiety?
In small doses, anxiety helps us get in close proximity with what we need. When anxiety overwhelms and blocks us – IT IS A PROBLEM!

Reward Based Learning by Dr. Jud Brewer
Most basic survival mechanisms are based on fear. When something scary happens we learn to avoid it in the future. We inherited this from our ancient ancestors. It is called reward based learning.

It has 3 elements. 

TRIGGER – – – BEHAVIOR – – – REWARD

Tiger – – – run away – – – we are safe and tell others to do the same thing.

Prefrontal cortex

Our brains do not like uncertainty. Our thinking brain needs accurate information to plan which is done by the prefrontal cortex. It needs accurate information to plan for the future. Lack of information causes uncertainty. 

UNCERTAINTY + FEAR = ANXIETY

Which one is more contagious? Anxiety or Virus? 

Anxiety can spread just like a virus, but instead of physical contact, it gets spread through what’s called a SOCIAL CONTAGION. Think of social contagion as emotional infection. Example: If you read social media posts where people are panicking, you might panic too. Here someone basically sneezes on your brain from a distance. 

So, ANXIETY + SOCIAL CONTAGION = PANIC

That’s when your prefrontal cortex goes offline, leading to panic and we follow suit. 

STEPS TO MANAGE THE WORRY CYCLE

Steven Covey’s book “7 Habits of Highly Effective People”, explains that proactive people focus on the “Circle of Influence” and reactive people spend their time thinking about things beyond their control – “Circle of Concern”.

Step 1: Circle of Control (“I”) : FOCUS ON THE THINGS YOU CAN CONTROL. You have an opportunity to act, so ACT NOW.

Create a morning routine
Calm and relaxing mornings can create a happy tone throughout the day. Establishing routine helps calm down anxiety and creates a sense of normalcy. Fill your routine with activities we feel to be the most meaningful. Simple actions can make a difference. Make your bed, sip on warm tea, make time for breaks, go for a light walk, breathing exercises, stretching or yoga, make a wholesome breakfast or play some enjoyable music. Stick with your regular sleep, eating habits and work schedule.

Refrain from overindulgence
When anxious, we tend to crave for information with hopes of finding the right news source or article or social media post that we think might reduce our worry cycle. But end up overloading our brain with more than required. Choose reliable sources and limit the amount of indulgence to, may be, two 30 minute chunks in a day.

Journal your thoughts and feelings
Spilling or pouring down in words on a paper can reduce anxiety. As you write them down, begin to accept by saying, “It is okay to feel anxious”. Letting go of our thoughts gives a sense of clarity and awareness. Through this process of self-reflection it helps to keep our focus on the present moment. Write down any specific worries, make a list of possible solutions, focus on the things that can be solved and let go of things beyond control.

Prioritize self-care
After spending all day with family, work, kids, let’s not forget ourselves. Practicing self-care will help us unwind and feel refreshed. It can be a fun bubble bath, a cup of tea, nap, daily gratitude. Check out the 10-day self-care challenge on Shapa blog.

Create space between you and your anxiety
Make a list of to-dos and circle three to-dos you want to start. Invest in yourself. Remind yourself that “solitude” is not “loneliness”, but it is being the best company for yourself. Learn a new skill, read a book/listen to an audiobook, play puzzles or games, take an online course, organize your home or cook something new. If you don’t get other to-do’s done, it’s fine, don’t beat yourself about it. Reward yourself for the accomplishments and say goodbye to the worry cycle!

Mindfulness meditation
A 5 minute practice in the midst of uncertainty can make a huge difference. “You have the power to control your breath”. Practice “count your breath” or S.T.O.P method. Sit comfortably, as you inhale, count 1, exhale for 2, inhale for 3, exhale for 4. Repeat until you feel calm. Observe the difference in your shoulders, jaw muscles, heart rate and stomach. Embrace the feeling of here and now.

Design positive coping mechanisms
When anxiety kicks in, we tend to develop unhealthy habits. It is important to identify the triggers and channelize with positive coping mechanisms. Overeating, eating less,  forgetting to eat, sleeping too much, or too less are not healthy coping mechanisms. Question your thought pattern, write down the thoughts and present yourself positive mechanisms of coping. Accept that you can’t control everything, replace it with a positive attitude, go for a walk/jog, practice meditation, count to 10 or do yoga

Challenge your thoughts with gratitude
Anxiety creates thoughts of not being prepared, feeling overwhelmed and being thrown into a worry cycle. Practice gratitude lists. Appreciating and recognizing the little things in life can help to boost your mood. List 3 things you feel grateful for, we start actively searching for things and end up finding more than intended. Embrace the sense of flow and joy! Shift your thoughts from “I can’t handle this” to “I’m doing the best I can in the moment.”

Stay connected
Isolation and loneliness can increase anxiety. We all need reassurance and good listeners. Prioritize time with friends and family. Scheduling time on your calendar to make regular calls helps build a strong support system. While in-person chats are limited, add social vitamins to ease stress and anxiety. Refrain from talks about the pandemic. Share smiles and create memories!

Step 2: Circle of Influence (WE) – The more we work together, be kind to each other, we can get through this easily by MAKING A DIFFERENCE.

Donate
Buying and hoarding have created a drastic decrease in supplies at food banks. Helping others makes us feel happy! Help older adults or low-income-families by donating food or cash.

Follow guidelines
Stay at home and follow the CDC guidelines. This is a huge help to the community and healthcare system. (washing hands, social distancing, precautions)

Spread kindness vaccine
Kindness is the opposite of anxiety and anger. “Short moments – many times” is how we make kindness a new habit. You can wish people well at the grocery store, make a playlist for a friend, make calls to friends and family, thank your family or co-worker working in healthcare, watch a kindness movie with family instead of contagion or play the role model for others to follow.

Seek professional help, when needed
Accept that you need help and it’s okay to ask for help. The sooner you seek help, the easier it is to deal with your condition and is essential for your long-term well-being.

Ready to get started? Start using these practices today with these home exercises to track the worry cycle!

Looking to sleep better, eat a bit healthier, move more, build a practice of self-care, or just want to feel more energy each day? Let Shapa be your virtual coach. Shapa focuses your program based on YOUR lifestyle and YOUR goals so you can build healthy habits and achieve lasting results. Learn more about the Shapa difference.

About the author:
Sujatha completed her Bachelor’s in Psychology and Master’s in Clinical Psychology from India. She furthered her academic skills in Applied Behavior Analysis from Ball State University, Indiana, USA. She currently resides in Chandler, Arizona. She has 4+ years of expertise as a mental health professional trained in psychometrics and psychotherapy working with children, adolescents and adults. She has developed a passion for mindful living, neuroscience research, human behavior and decision making, and is driven by curiosity and gratitude. She is currently working as a Consumer Experience Intern at Shapa Health, designing personalized missions by utilizing behavioral science and mindfulness techniques to improve the personal health journey of the Shapa community. When not at work, she enjoys baking, hiking and spending time with family. Connect with Sujatha on LinkedIn.

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3 Comments

  1. Shashwath Sudha May 12, 2020

    Thanks for this write up. It’s helpful especially in the current scenario we are facing right now!

    Reply

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