Your brain on the news

pandemic anxiety

It’s difficult these days to escape the news about the COVID-19 pandemic and the associated anxiety that it is provoking. I have been pondering a lot about this unprecedented situation. After watching a video by Dr. Erica Poly, an Italian psychiatrist, I decided to do a series of blogs on this topic inspired by the video, to offer here some support and reflection points.

Let’s start with the fear and anxiety we are all experiencing to various degrees. And to address them, first we need to talk about our nervous system.

Our nervous system is basically divided in two main parts: the sympathetic and the parasympathetic system, through which we relate and respond to the environment.

When we perceive our environment as a safe and secure place, we are using the parasympathetic system, and specifically something called ventral vagal complex, which is connected to our heart and to our prefrontal cortex, the locus of rational thought. We are therefore able to regulate our emotions, to calmly reflect and assess the situation, and respond flexibly to whatever challenge we experience in our environment. When we are in the ventral vagal complex, we are resilient and primed to survive – not only from a psychological point of view, but also from a physical perspective. Not only our heart rate and breathing slows down but also our hormones and, most importantly, our immune system are regulated and primed.

When we perceive our environment as threatening and dangerous we’re using the sympathetic system, formed by the limbic system and the reptilian brain. The limbic system is the seat of emotions; it monitors danger and involves a sort of activation either towards escape or fight. It is the part of the brain that, in these days, keeps us in high alert, in fear, continually checking the news. The reptilian brain is the most ancient part of our nervous system and highly responsive to danger… it is the part that kicks in when we fight over packs of toilet paper in supermarket. Together, the limbic system and the reptilian brain see the environment as a dangerous place and other people as competitors to our own survival.

Fear excites and seduces the reptilian brain, keeping us in a anxious loop that ultimately has negative impacts on what we need most if we do get infected with the virus: our immune system.

The more we indulge in the anxiety exuding from the news and the more we let ourselves be sucked in to the collective fear of these days, the more we are acting from a psychological and physical place that is actually far from what we need to face the pandemic.

So the best thing here, as Dr Poli confirms, is to monitor the situation and keep informed in a responsible way, but without getting sucked in; practice all the safety measures (and some) that the government is asking of us; and cultivate and maintain a safe space inside of yourself. A space where silence replaces the noise of the news, where you can feel safe and secure, a space where you can allow yourself to observe the fear and how it manifests in your body, a space where you can breathe through your thoughts.

How? Meditation and creativity are amazing tools in difficult times. Mandala painting is incredibly effective to create a peaceful and meditative state that allows you to witness and express what you are going through. It connects you with beauty, with your capacity to create your own reality, with your passions and desires. It brings you back to the part of your brains where you can feel safe amidst the turmoil.

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