Brain Science to Help “Stay Calm” with Coronavirus

A Guide to Using Science to Relieve Anxiety by Victoria Hanchin

This special guest post was written by Kellee's dear mentor, Victoria Hanchin, LCSW, Wholistic Psychotherapist, and Author.

Staying calm during the global coronavirus pandemic is a tall order. It is helpful to acknowledge that none of us has ever gone through such a profound challenge as this pandemic before, with its physical, social and economic disruptions affecting every area of our lives. Yet there are practices based in science to incorporate into your daily routine that will definitely cultivate calm. 

This article guides you how to check in often with yourself, using science-based strategies and higher brain capacities including:

  • Higher brain/lower brain mastery as outlined below
  • Biological coherence
  • 1400 beneficial chemical reactions to gratitude
  •  “Slow practices” to relax via the vagus nerve
  • Mindfully staying present
  • Finding deeper meaning and purpose

Bottom line

Let go of the expectation that you should “stay” calm. Instead, think of it more as practicing calmness. You will need to become a Mindful Witness, observing how you are engaging calmness or neglecting calmness, as you do what you do, moment-by-moment. This is good life-training, even after the pandemic is over. All of these skills can be used during regular times when you feel anxious.

Overall strategy

Review the following basics about how your brain works, so that you can work with your fear-brain modes instead of feeling hostage to them. The point is to navigate fear effectively as it arises, then quickly access your higher brain capacities for well-being. Especially learn to shift your perspective from victim of circumstance to inner warrior. This means mastering your inner demons of fear, and learning to generate stability from within. It means harnessing the power of your awareness and purposeful intention. Then you can operate from feeling-states of calm, loving-kindness and care. 

Graphic of brain diagram mapping the 3 areas of the brains, new brain, middle brain, and reptilian brain
Understanding the three areas of your brain and how they work will help you identify when your reptilian brain takes over so you can take back control and reduce anxiety.

Leveraging how your brain works

1) Our fear-based brains run 24/7, serving our survival. These are our primitive reptilian and mammalian/limbic brains. Please don’t judge yourself (or others) for feeling fearful. After all, humans have two fear-based lower brains and only one higher brain, which are the evolutionary layers of our three-part brain.

These lower brains can dominate our functioning during crisis, and they can wear us out with excessive stress neurochemistry, like adrenaline. Yet it would not be good to turn off their protective surveillance, even if you could. Fortunately, you can work with your lower fear-brains more effectively.

2) Negative feeling-states such as fear, anxiety, anger, and overwhelm are threat alerts from your fear-brain mode. They need to be evaluated for proper action in the moment. They are not indicators that you are weak, a failure, helpless, or doomed to a hopeless future. Your negative feeling-states may compel you towards these unfortunate conclusions, and may even have you over-perceive threats. This is your cue to work with your fear, instead of believing everything you feel. Learn to evaluate your fear with discernment and fact-informed reason, in case your fear-brains’ headline may be a case of fake news!

3) Use your fear signals as REMINDERS to apply what I call the “PATS Plan”™:

Pay attention-- inwardly (to feeling-states) and outwardly (to information)

Assess with discernment what is happening

Take action for safety

Slow down, relax and re-stabilize

image of "alien" head with Earth as it's brain
Accessing your higher brain capacities will help you manage stress and anxiety.

4) Remember that your ongoing intention is to re-stabilize frequently in order to access your higher brain capacities, which shifts you from worry to well-being as often as needed. So pay attention to how you are feeling and reacting, and let your stress level provide the cues to practice re-stabilizing…often. 

Black Stacking Stones

5) Stabilizing yourself helps those around you to stabilize as well. This works because our nervous systems actually pick up on one another’s non-verbal interpersonal signals of safety or threat. Yes, we are that interconnected.

(Related information: www.RickHanson.net, author of Buddha’s Brain, and Daniel Siegel,M.D., author of Mind, www.drdansiegel.com)

profile image of woman mediating outside
Meditation and fresh air are important ingredients for balancing anxiety.

Practices for stabilizing fear and accessing higher brain

How and why they help

1) Go slower--Breathing first: As we stress, breathing gets faster and fuels anxiety. Instead, intentionally slow down your breathing. Make your exhale longer than your inhale by 2-4 counts. Example, inhale three counts, pausing briefly, then exhale 5 counts, pausing briefly before next inhale. Add imagery of your feet sinking down into Earth like tree roots as you exhale. Then try slowing breathing down a bit more, as comfortable. Then add talking slower, even eating slower. Practice breathing slow and easy before going to sleep.

These “slow” practices relay the signals of rest, relaxation and safety, to your nervous system, through your brain’s vagus nerve. This vagus nerve then communicates with all your major organs to relax and reset. Your whole body benefits (See “Safe and Sound Protocol”). 

Apps can provide good coaching, such as Calm and Stop, Breathe & Think.

2) Mindfully stay in the present moment: This is a harnessing of your awareness, activating your Inner Witness. Do this to notice how you are reacting and behaving. Observe yourself with compassion and curiosity, not judgment. This helps you remain grounded and in your body, especially when your mind is speeding ahead, worrying about future catastrophes and “what-ifs.” 

Interrupt any catastrophic thinking. Bring your full attention to this present moment. Spend some time simply observing yourself, your feelings, your body sensations, as a periodic check-in. Scan yourself from head-to-toe, relaxing any tensions, regulating your breath. Then bring your freed-up fuller attention to the tasks and people in front of you, with purposeful intention. Your choices will be more grounded. (see Donald Altman’s site)

3) Cultivate positive, elevated feeling-states: Brain science shows that, to repair from the damage of excessive stress, our brains need conditions of relaxation and positive feeling-states of well-being. Positive feeling-states include gratitude, loving-kindness, care, compassion, joy, awe, and peacefulness. Since pandemic conditions easily hijack us into chronic stress, we must generate our own elevated feeling-states. Lots of them!

Feeling deep gratitude is an extremely effective aid to brain repair and well-being. According to HeartMath Institute research, this process is different from a mental check-list of positives. Positive feeling-states activate a heart-brain synchronization called “biological coherence” that fuels optimal organ functioning. Mere mental thinking does not. And feeling gratitude shifts 1400 chemical elements in our bodies towards health.

HeartMath’s gratitude protocol, with heart-focused breathing, is good to do daily.

Steps are: 
A) Focus on breathing through your heart, several grounding breaths. 
B) Recall memories that gave you your best experiences of calmness, loving connection, peace, joy, awe, etc. and choose one. 
C) Recreate your most-cherished memory vividly in 5-sensory detail: see, feel, smell, hear and taste it! 
D) Breathe-in that elevated memory, adding the feeling of gratitude, that you were so fortunate to have experienced it in the first place. 
E) Bathe yourself in the gratitude for 2-5 minutes, especially when waking, before going to sleep, and when derailed by stress. 

Also be sure to verbally communicate your gratitude to those you love, and especially to the front-line workers at the hospitals, pharmacies, groceries, delivery services, etc!

Safe time outdoors helps reduce stress for many reasons.

4) Spend time in Nature, or if unable, gaze out your window or balcony, or view beautiful images and videos of Nature online. Brain science verifies that time spent in natural settings and sunlight decreases stress and is brain reparative. Being with water increases the benefits…even a bath, shower or being near water fountains (see Blue Mind book).  The Japanese practice of “Tree Bathing,” simply walking among trees in a relaxed, appreciative, mindful way, contributes significantly to health and well-being. 

Magnify your benefit by feeling and expressing deep gratitude to our Earth and waters for sustaining our lives.

5) Use some of your time in the pandemic-induced seclusion to ponder what really matters to you, including your deeper sense of purpose for being here. Each of us can serve something bigger than our personal needs and ego. When we operate from our sense of deeper purpose, serving what matters most, it is easier to access our higher brain capacities and not be hostage to our lower fear brain mode.

Each of us can offer kindness during challenging times, and take time to listen with compassion and understanding. We can move through the world as an intentional force of goodness, seeking to draw out the best in one another and ourselves. 

We can notice the good in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic by sharing stories of humanity’s resilience, courage, care, creativity, generosity, and compassion. We have heard about Italians serenading their communities from their balconies and the Madrid community applauding their health workers from their windows during their quarantines. In the USA a professional Disc Jockey, D-Nice, provided a digital nightclub on Instagram billed as #ClubQuarantine Party, and 100,000 danced at home in virtual connection. Daily we see the courage of front-line healthcare workers.

It helps to collect and share such stories. Not only do they fuel well-being by leveraging those elevated feeling-states, they can inspire and clarify a sense of what matters most, showing ways to step forward with a greater-good purpose. 

image of the Globe with fireworks exploding over it
The time in now to harness our collective power!

6) Harness the collective power of sharing a Big Picture perspective: We know that crisis creates opportunity for Breakdown to achieve Breakthrough

We can already see many lessons being learned by leaders and collective humanity, as we respond with higher consciousness catalyzed through fear into awareness of the truth of our interconnection:

   *We are seeing how nations’ previous economic austerity measures have broken down common-sense safety nets, resources and programs for keeping people stable, and governments are mobilizing to restore them.

   *We are seeing the woeful inadequacies of privatized elite-oriented healthcare systems. We have been shown how it serves everybody to take care of the health of all, regardless of ability to pay, because we are all in fact, that interconnected. We rely on workers to keep our life-systems going.

   *We are seeing that we are truly all in this boat together; what is good for the least-able of us supports the well-beings of all of us, simultaneously.

   *We are seeing the need for ensuring basic levels of personal income, which simultaneously supports individual stability and the economic stability of the whole.

   *We are seeing that Federal and local governments can mobilize and quickly change policies to provide for the well-being of all, regardless of cost.

   *We are seeing what it looks like for international science and governments to unify in collaboration towards a common goal of well-being for all, regardless of cost.

This is an impressive (and incomplete) list of consciousness-shifting and behavior-altering upgrades towards well-being, catalyzed by an invisible little virus!

I see no irony here that the virus, which accomplished all this, is wearing a crown. “Corona” virus literally means “crown” virus. The crown also represents the “crown chakra” of higher consciousness in the human chakra system.

Not to minimize the very real suffering, death, disruption and fear—which effectively commanded the attention of every single human on Earth—I see a place for thanking coronavirus for providing the catalyst for a necessary and huge activation of humanity.  We are moving through fear into undeniable awareness of how interconnected we are. We are changing habits and taking bold actions fueled by compassion, care, and greater love, far more grounded in what really matters.

We are still in process. We must maintain these life lessons and the practices for working with our fear-brain mode so that fear and separation do not dominate. We will not benefit by back-sliding into modes of pitting groups of people against each other, now that we see how interconnection really operates as an invisible web of life.

We must solidify our mastery to skillfully navigate through fear, to re-stabilize and continue accessing our higher brain capacities for making choices and policies based on remembering the truth of our interconnection. Mastery means moving from fear to love.

Victoria Hanchin © | Bio

vikki@vikkihanchin.com

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Victoria Hanchin

Victoria Hanchin, LCSW, is a Wholistic Psychotherapist and author.
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