Progress Washed Away During Lockdown

Along with the threat of the disease itself, one of the great challenges of the COVID-19 crisis is how it has washed away people’s progress in different areas.

– Savings eroded or gone.
– Businesses run to the ground.
– Carefully planned projects that need to be abandoned, maybe never to be picked up again.
– People who have just started to become healthier in some way, physically or mentally, only to find themselves slipping (or crashing).

One person I know who has social anxiety made some efforts in recent months to get out of the house more. She started attending meetings of some local groups that share her hobbies. Since the lockdown, she has been struggling in isolation, and the gains she made regarding her anxiety feel largely illusory, as if they happened to someone else.

(Although there are video tools for connecting with people, and these tools may be better than nothing, they aren’t a substitute for in-person interaction. I’ve found this to be the case myself. Also, video calls can be mentally draining – the Harvard Business Review offers some advice on how to deal with “Zoom fatigue.”)

To the heartbreak, frustration, or despair that may result from the COVID-19 crisis – including its social and financial effects – there are obviously no simple answers. It can be stressful enough if your daily schedule has changed or you had to cancel certain plans. But I’m thinking right now about people whose hold on the world may be made more fragile because of the crisis. People cut adrift, with relationships severed, major opportunities lost, and progress seemingly reversed.

One thing that may help (at least a little) is to provide yourself with written reminders – in a journal, for example – about who you are, what you have done, what you hope for, and how you promise to give yourself time to get through this day by day. When there’s a massive amount of stress in your life, it’s easy to lose sight of many things, to disregard yourself, and to forget your capabilities and potential. Your current emotions may be so terrible and overwhelming that you can’t think of how they’ll ever end, even though they won’t last forever. You may not be able to see how your current situation could ever improve, but you don’t have all the answers (even though discouragement or despair may offer you answers that seem definitive).

Reminding yourself of who you are can also help you remember the ways in which you’ve been healing and the ways you have met particular goals in the past. Even if you’re feeling lost now, you aren’t starting from absolutely nothing. You may be struggling with the types of problems that have dragged you down before, but you bring with you more wisdom from your previous experiences and some evidence of how things can improve – if not immediately, then one day. You’ve managed to do it before. Will it be harder the second (or third) time around? What will restarting look like? Are you trapped? Write down your thoughts, and keep your thoughts flexible. The answers may change over time. You don’t know for sure.

If you’re keeping a journal, and you don’t think you can write anything about yourself at the moment, then maybe just write today’s date. Then tomorrow’s date. Maybe a short line with each entry. I’ve done that on days when I didn’t think I could write more, and sometimes that’s how you mark the day and step forward into the next one.

Keeping a journal doesn’t put food on the table. It doesn’t magically restore a lost job or shattered career. But if it helps in any way – helps you fight off bouts of despair or cope with the feeling that your life is horribly unreal – it could be worth a try. In ways you aren’t able to picture clearly or even conceive of at the moment, you may be able to regain at least some of what you’ve lost or discover or create something new.

(It’s also worth mentioning that you can rant on paper if you need to. Some people sit for 10-15 minutes and write down their anxieties, their rage, their grief, and then tear the paper up into tiny bits and throw it away. This exercise could become an outlet for releasing some of what’s in you, removing and destroying it so it possibly has less of a hold on your mind.)

Excessive Negative Thoughts: Coping Strategies

This video from Psych2Go starts out discussing the terrible effects too much negative thinking may have on your health. After that onslaught of negative thoughts, it lays out several coping strategies (starting around two and half minutes in).

One important point that comes up during the suggestion to use distractions: these strategies aren’t meant for avoidance. Even when you distract yourself with a book or a movie, the goal isn’t to keep trying to escape from a problem in your life. The goal is to help yourself become less stressed so that you’re able to deal with the problem more effectively after you’ve become more calm.

Good luck! (I can tell you that the tip about paying attention to body language caught me off guard. Jaw unclenched, for the time being…)

Synaptic Sunday #12 – Developing resilience in the face of stressful circumstances

Before getting to these three good posts/articles on resilience, stress, and the human brain, please take some time to find a reputable charity to donate to in support of the recovery from Hurricane Sandy. Here are tips for finding a reputable charity and avoiding scams (the site, Charity Navigator, rates charities on a number of factors) – and here’s a recommended list of Hurricane Sandy charities from another site, Charity Watch, which also rates charities.

1) Summaries of talks on stress and resilience given during Day 2 of the Culture, Mind, and Brain Conference
I love how these talks highlight the interplay of genes and the biology of the human body with social and cultural factors. Some surprising findings (for instance read about the first talk on rat pups separated from their mothers for an 18 hour stretch, and how a simple change in the environment helped mother-pup relations proceed on normal terms afterwards, leading to no long-term negative consequences for the pup).

2) Can people learn to adapt better to highly stressful circumstances?
Some of the factors common to people who adjust better to life after a traumatic event include:
a) realistic optimism (knowing and accepting what you can change and what you can’t, and focusing all your efforts on what you can change)
b) social support
c) good regular health habits (e.g. eating well, exercising, getting enough sleep, and taking up meditation).

While there is a genetic component to resilience, Southwick said its influence is less important than one might expect.

“The biggest insight that we have realized is that many people are far more resilient that they think and have a far greater capacity to rise to the occasion,” he added.

3) 10 Tips for Developing Resilience
These suggestions have some overlap with what’s been discussed so far, and it’s a good list to start with if you’d like to change the way you react to adverse circumstances. Keep in mind that these tips refer to mental habits – they can be cultivated, but don’t produce instantaneous or 100% consistent results. They take time and patience to work on.

Synaptic Sunday #11 – Adolescence and Anxiety Edition

1) Learning to Overcome Fear is Difficult for Teens

Compared to younger and older individuals of their species, both adolescent humans and mice on average have a stronger tendency to keep exhibiting a fear response to a threat even when the danger is gone.

In the human experiment, the fear response was initially elicited by pairing a visual stimulus (one of a sequence of yellow or blue images on a computer screen) with a harsh startling sound; in subsequent trials the same images appeared without any startling noise – leading to an extinction of the fear response in children and adults, but not in the adolescents, who kept showing a fear response to whatever image had once been paired with the noise.

As for the animal experiment, the article reports that the experimenters “used standard fear conditioning common in these types of animal studies.” (This is vaguely worded… did they use loud noises? Or pain?) The experimenters also measured neuronal activity in the mice:

… the research team found that the prelimbic region in the prefrontal cortex, the brain region that processes emotion, is activated during acquisition of fear, and the infralimbic prefrontal cortex is used to extinguish this fear association.

When compared to younger and older mice, adolescent mice didn’t exhibit the kinds of neuronal activity associated with fear extinction (this corresponded to their behavior – they continued to show a fear response over time, regardless of the fact that the danger/unpleasantness was no longer present). Even as they got older, the adolescent mice didn’t lose their fear response.

Related data from other studies with humans:

It is estimated that over 75 percent of adults with fear-related disorders can trace the roots of their anxiety to earlier ages.

It’s not clear how the persistent fear response in this experiment fits into the complex puzzle of excessive anxiety and its sources, people’s predispositions towards it, the reasons it persists (or doesn’t) into adulthood, and the ways in which it disrupts mental and physical functioning (also, adolescents with anxiety disorders have often reported that their symptoms started in childhood). And how do these results tie into other findings with teens that show a greater tendency for them to do something dangerous even if they understand the risks?

2) Anxiety Disorders in Children and Teens

An overview of different types of anxiety that can become excessive and interfere with daily life (e.g. social anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, etc.)

3) Blogging May Help Teens Deal With Social Distress

Most of the study participants were girls (though the experimenters reported that the results for the boys weren’t significantly different).

Maintaining a blog had a stronger positive effect on troubled students’ well-being than merely expressing their social anxieties and concerns in a private diary, according to the article published online in the APA journal Psychological Services. Opening the blog up to comments from the online community intensified those effects.

Maybe the effects were stronger for a public blog because the teens felt less isolated with their problems and felt relief that they could be heard; it turns out that when they opened the blogs up to comments, the response from other Internet users was almost always positive and encouraging (few to no trolls). I’m assuming the blogs were anonymous, making the teens less vulnerable to disruption in their lives offline and maybe helping them write more freely about their worries.

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Incidentally, the photo that was at the top of the post linked to a relevant write-up on “stressed out lab rats” – how rats living in chronic stress tend to make decisions out of habit, as if their constant stress doesn’t allow them to be more mentally flexible. There are definitely parallels to stressed out humans.

10 tips to managing frustration

Some of the advice in this short piece – Six Great Ways to Vent Your Frustration – could have come in handy as I moved from one city to another this week, but I’ll share with you the techniques I called on to manage frustration during the move itself:

1) Scold inanimate objects
When a drawer is stuck, your table won’t fit through the door, and your backpack refuses to accommodate the dozen books and folders you’re trying to cram into it, let them know exactly how disappointed you are.

2) Hum under your breath
For me it was mostly Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony.

3) Picture an end point
I kept thinking of myself at the end of the day in bed with a book after a long shower. Feelings of peace flowed through me.

4) Make jokes
The laughter might have an edge of hysteria to it, but it’s still laughter.

5) Take moments here and there to rest
Sit down, lie down, stop for a drink (of water, not liquor), look around at how much stuff you have left to do how much you’ve accomplished.

6) Make note of progress
Look around and remind yourself that however much is left you really are getting things done. The room is emptier and tidier, half the furniture has been cleared out; there’s progress, bit by bit. That was my mantra: bit by bit.

7) Have concrete plans for what you need to do
Spelling out a list of steps you need to take and a schedule to follow makes life more manageable. Then if you get done with things ahead of time you’re rewarded with a good feeling of being efficient and effectual (and if you don’t get done ahead of time, scold some more inanimate objects). It’s also best to de-clutter as much as possible beforehand, a lesson I’ll take to heart for any future moves.

8) Tear things up
I had to tear up a lot of papers. It was satisfying.

9) Thank other people
Thinking about others and how they’re helping you counteracts the tendency to stew silently.

10) Count your blessings
A few things went unexpectedly well during the move, and I’ve got much to be thankful for – not least, having a home to move to.

Assessing total cognitive burden

Here’s an interesting post to read about assessing and possibly reducing your risk of age-related cognitive decline, Alzheimer’s and other kinds of dementia.

Some questions posed there:

Do you have ongoing stress in your life, or have experienced significant amounts of stress at some period during middle-age?

Do you rarely engage in exercise?

Do you spend most evenings blobbed out in front of the TV?

Reading through the possible risk factors you see some that you can’t control, such as genes and family history and your early childhood circumstances (for instance if you grew up in a very stressful home), but the list also emphasizes modifiable risk factors: amount of exercise, drinking habits, sleep habits, mental stimulation, etc. How all of those interact is still an open question. But when you think about it there never seems to be one trick, one magic way (or magic pill), that improves your long-term cognitive and physical health (which are closely intertwined). Instead it’s about making your life as healthy as possible all around, in multiple areas.