March 24, 2020

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Guest Author

Understanding COVID-19 Anxiety From An Evolutionary Perspective

If you are feeling overwhelmed with anxiety during this unprecedented time in history, you are not alone. There is absolutely nothing wrong with you. In fact, from an evolutionary perspective, your body is doing what it should be doing when there is a threat. It’s a sign that your body has adapted to survive.

If you are feeling overwhelmed with anxiety during this unprecedented time in history, you are not alone.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with you.  

In fact, from an evolutionary perspective, your body is doing what it should be doing when there is a threat. It’s a sign that your body has adapted to survive!

Let’s take a step back for a minute and look at how your body is programmed to respond to stress and why that programming makes it difficult for us to regulate our stress responses in 2020.  

Our ancestors lived during what researchers call an Immediate Return Environment, which means that their actions have an almost immediate outcome. Imagine for a second that you are an early human out hunting for food to bring back to your family. You see a lion, you feel stressed, and you flee. The lion disappears. Your anxiety disappears, and you feel relieved.

The purpose of anxiety was to protect our ancestors from short-term threats. Anxiety evolved as a way to protect us from danger by solving a short-term problem that ensured our survival as a species.

This is all well and good, but the problem is that we no longer live in an Immediate Return Environment. Instead, we live in a Delayed Return Environment. In our modern world, our choices and actions rarely yield immediate results. For example, we might spend months applying and interviewing for a new job before we get an offer.

The Delayed Return Environment that we live in breeds anxiety and chronic stress. In many ways, the human brain has yet to adapt to modern society and is still hardwired to favor an immediate return environment.

Let’s apply this difference to our current situation. COVID-19 might have triggered an increase in your anxiety. You may be feeling uncertainty and stress.

We can get stuck in this stress response because there is no solution right now. While there are a lot of theories about how COVID-19 will run its course in America, no one really knows for sure.  

So, what can you do to get out of this stress response?

Great question!

During periods of stress, your sympathetic nervous system - commonly known as your “fight or fight” response - is highly activated.   This is a complex system that essentially triggers a flood of hormones (including cortisol) that results in physiological symptoms that are commonly associated with anxiety. These include restlessness, increased heart rate, sweating, and worry.

To get out of the “fight or flight” mode, you need to activate your parasympathetic nervous system, which is commonly known as your “rest and digest” system. There are many ways to activate this system, the simplest being breathwork, and yoga.  

How to activate your parasympathetic nervous system during times of stress:

1.     Square breathing

Inhale for 4 seconds. Hold for 4 seconds. Exhale for 4 seconds. Hold for 4 seconds. Repeat until you notice your body slowing down. As you breathe, you can also trace the corners of a square with your finger.

2.     Five senses countdown

Name 5 things you see. 4 things you hear. 3 things you feel. 2 things you smell. And 1 thing you taste.

3.     Take an online yoga or meditation class.

A number of yogis and studios are offering online classes that you can take at home. Here are a few places to start:

·      Shakti Barre – Livestream yoga classes

·      AlexJoyYoga – Livestream yin yoga, gentle stretch and meditation

·      Nicole Rutsch – Livestream reiki and sound healing

·      Yoga 216 – Livestream yoga

4.     Call a loved one.

Have a conversation about a topic that is unrelated to what’s causing you stress and anxiety.

During times of uncertainty, activating your parasympathetic nervous system can help you manage anxiety and self-soothe.

You cannot change what is happening in the world. You can, however, take care of your physical and mental health.

Wash your hands.

Practice social distancing.

And activate your parasympathetic nervous system.

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About the author

Salina Grilli specializes in working with New Yorkers who want to better manage their anxiety and stress, improve their interpersonal relationships, thrive in their careers, and cultivate greater self-confidence. Salina’s clients often come to therapy because they feel like something in their life isn't working or they want space for self-exploration. She helps her clients identify and explore barriers to growth, tap into their internal strengths, and feel empowered to make changes.

To learn more about Salina and schedule a free consultation, visit her profile.

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