COVID-19: What a psychologist wants you to know

7 steps that will help get anxiety under control
A man staying at home and wearing a mask during the coronavirus outbreak.

The COVID-19 pandemic has triggered a lot of anxiety. Understanding what’s happening in your brain can help you manage your emotions and cope better.

Psychologist Dr. Dayna Lee-Baggley describes two parts of the brain that play a role in managing anxiety. What she calls the “caveman” part of the brain is responsible for emotions. It is key to our survival – it takes over when we are under threat. But the fight-or-flight response isn’t necessarily helpful in dealing with the coronavirus threat. But coronavirus is a significant source of our anxiety right now. 

The brain’s frontal lobe controls our behaviour — and reins in the “caveman.” 

Dr. Dayna Lee-Baggley, Clinical psychologist

Physical distancing is absolutely necessary but can be hard on our mental health.

Dr. Dayna Lee-Baggley Clinical psychologist

During the current pandemic, our frontal lobes are overwhelmed by all the changes we are experiencing during physical distancing — self-isolation, working from home, worrying about loved ones, lost income and more. The challenges can be even greater for people and families living with heart disease or the effects of stroke.

Dr. Lee-Baggley sees the frontal lobe as a battery – the more you use it, the more it runs down. We need to recharge it regularly to keep the anxiety from the caveman brain under control.

Here are Dr. Lee-Baggley’s tips for recharging your battery.
  1. Build a routine. Put structure into your day so you don’t have to think about organizing your time. That will take some of the pressure off your frontal lobe. Get up at the same time, eat the same healthy meals, go for a walk, and socialize with friends on a schedule. Include activities that recharge your battery in your routine so it will take less of your frontal lobe to make good choices. 
  2. Connect with family and friends. People are social creatures and the best way to recharge your battery is to use whatever technology you have to stay connected. 
  3. Go on a media diet. Limit your exposure to a couple of times a day and make sure you are listening to reliable news sources. Listening to news all day keeps the caveman brain on fire. 
  4. Focus on what you can control. What we have the most control over is our own behaviour. It can be frustrating when other people aren't following the physical distancing recommendations, but focus on what you are doing instead. 
  5. Try to be in the present moment. It is overwhelming to problem-solve a hundred steps ahead. There are too many unknowns so you end up problem-solving things that might not happen. Come back to the present moment and just problem solve the next step, which might be something like “what will I have for lunch?”
  6. Be kind to yourself and others. You aren’t at your best right now – and neither is anyone else. 
  7. Think of this as a war, but with everyone fighting on the same side. We are in it together. We will make it through if we cooperate, reach out to others, make connections and be kind to ourselves and others.

Dr. Dayna Lee-Baggley is a clinical psychologist and researcher with the Nova Scotia Health Authority and Dalhousie University who specializes in mental health and chronic disease.

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