If you are feeling anxious these days… | Blog Post by Karen Lankford, PhD, Neuroscientist Yale University

If you are feeling anxious these days, it is because you have been paying attention.  Anyone who had not been worried about their health, the health of their loved ones, their jobs, or their retirement savings is probably either under the age of three or has been in a comma for the past month.  These are worrying times and it is normal and rational to worry when there is something to worry about.  However, chronic anxiety can take a toll on your body, especially your brain. 

When physiologists think about stress, they are thinking about stress hormones, primarily, adrenalin and cortisol.  When your body experiences a major physical trauma or your brain perceives a threat to life and limb, it produces hormones that reset your body into a so-called fight or flight mode to prepare yourself to defend yourself form an imminent physical threat with direct physical action.  This is all just fine when you are running away from a tiger or battling an army, but it is not so useful when the threat is microscopic and cannot be escaped or battled with physical force.

If stress hormones remain elevated for a long time, they can have very damaging effects on your overall health, but especially your brain health.  Keeping your body in fight or flight mode is not conducive to the routine repair and maintenance activities necessary to keep your brain and the rest of your body functioning well over the longer term and it can worsen underlying health conditions, including mental health problems. 

So, what can you do to protect yourself from toxic levels of stress?  There are three very simple things you can do to help your body reduce these stress hormones and cope with stress better.

  1. Get at least few minutes of vigorous exercise a couple of times a day.  The byproducts of muscle activity send a signal to the unconscious parts of your brain that regulate these stress hormones, telling them you have done something about the threat and hence they can reduce stress hormone production.  It is a lie of course, but since the stress hormones aren’t really doing you any good in this case, you just want to shut the production down.
  2. Perform slow breathing exercises.  The one way that you can directly and intentionally tell your system to produce less adrenalin and more of the counteracting noradrenalin is to force your breathing to slow down.  One of the standard recommendations for this is the 365 approach.  Slow your breathing down 3 times per day to 6 breaths per minute, for 5 minutes.  This is harder than in sounds.  Just do the best you can on the first few tries.  It gets easier with practice.
  3. Talk to someone; anyone about anything.  Humans are social animals.  Social distancing has reduced the kinds of face to face conversations that our social brains crave and which produce an unconscious signal of “safety in numbers.”  People cannot really get together with friends these days, but you cannot get COVID-19 over the phone.  Texting just does not have the same positive effect on the brain as a back and back conversation where you hear the vocal intonations and breathing of the other person.  Give someone a call.

Also try and remember that while the often-repeated phrase “All good things come to an end” may have some validity, the converse is equally true.  “All bad things also come to an end.” Eventually, hopefully sooner rather than later, this pandemic will be brought under control.     

By Karen Lankford, PhD, Neuroscientist Yale University, AMWA’s Science Adviser