Many of us are suffering from various degrees of COVID anxiety: Will I still have a job? Will I get COVID? Will it come back next flu season? Will I be one of those “vulnerable” people? What is this “new normal” we hear about? One of the largest studies from Harvard University, called the GRANT Study, showed that persons who are overly anxious and under resilient in being able to handle life’s stresses are four times more likely to get illnesses such as viral infections, mental unwellness, and even cancer.
Uncertainty feeds anxiety – if we let it! Because “feeling anxious” is as individual as your personality, the tips below are the brief high points of mental wellness. To go deeper into the neurochemistry of calmness, read our newest book, The Healthy Brain Book. Here are some anxiety-alleviators our family has learned over the past several decades, and especially during this time of high COVID stress. Most of these tips are based on a lesson in life that I have tried to imprint into our children:
Dr. Bill’s 7 Tips to Manage Anxiety
- Believe in your immune system. One of the mysteries in medicine is the proven fact that the better persons believe they will heal the more likely they will. Like you’ve learned in our previous posts on the COVID crisis, the better you believe in your body’s ability to fight this virus, the better your immune system gets your belief-effect message and says, “Because you believe in your army inside, we’ll fight better for you.”
- Stay positive. Often easier said than done, yet negativity promotes anxiety. If you dwell upon the sad and bad news and you worry-wort yourself into becoming a pessimist instead of an optimist, your resultant anxiety and stress weakens the ability of your immune system to fight for you and it sets you up for a vicious cycle – the more negative you are, the more you worry, and the less energy you’ll have to muster up your own anti-anxiety personal peace recipe. This is why medical studies have long confirmed the fact that people are more likely to get sick, such as with the flu, within a week after suffering a stressful event that overwhelmed their ability to handle it. Keeping positive promotes resilience, helping you to make wiser decisions, and self-regulate your stress during this pandemic. So, say goodbye to bad news – as they say, “If it bleeds, it leads”. Our New Normal for news broadcasts can be to register a LIKE for stories of heroes, caring people doing caring things for the vulnerable.
- Nature nurtures. Yes, the medical mandates of “shelter in place” and “stay at home” are necessary to slow the spread of the virus, yet it is a question of balance. Being outdoors in nature is medicine for the mind. A saying that we have had in our family is: “The more darkness in your life during the day, the more darkness is likely to enter your mind.” One of the reasons you feel less anxious when looking outdoors, and even better being outdoors, is that the natural colors of nature – the sunlight, the blue sky, the green trees – dial down your anxiety-producing hormones. Neuroscientists call the beauties of nature “visual valium.” Seeing the beauties of nature travels from the eye to the pleasure and calming centers of your brain. Not only does sunlight boost your spirits, but it also helps your body produce more vitamin D which can boost your immune system and help prevent getting COVID. Even If you do have to “stay at home,” spend as much time as possible looking out open windows, sitting on your balcony or porch, and chasing the kids around the backyard. Fortunately, parks and beaches are now open and with the social-distancing guidelines in place, you can take anti-anxiety walks as often as possible.
- Meditate more, agitate less. Many of us are suffering from the sudden change of being on overload and having to multitask just a couple of months ago, to being on underload (aka boredom) from various levels of quarantine. Yet, during this time when your brain is relieved somewhat of overload is when you have the luxury of time. How do you spend this extra time? This may be the only time in your life you have so much “time on your hands.” One of the biggest stress management and anxiety-control mechanisms we teach in our medical practice is learning your personal meditation techniques. In fact, the neuroscience of meditation has shown that those who meditate more suffer less anxiety and enjoy an increased level of inner happiness. Why? As we discuss in “Building a Happier Brain” in The Healthy Brain Book, new technology has shown that people who meditate enjoy better blood flow to their brains, an increase in happy hormones, and a decrease in stress hormones. Meditation puts the brain back into balance – not too high on overload where you become anxious, not too low, and flat that you become depressed. Read more about how to develop your own personal peace recipe in our Healthy Brain Book, especially on how to enjoy frequent “mini-meditations” throughout the day – frequent pauses to rest and refresh your brain, which gives you a much-needed “time-out.” In fact, meditators often start with a problem and finish their meditation having found a solution to cope with an anxious situation. Meditation unclutters your brain to help you make wiser decisions. Another good remedy for anxiety is to simply deep-breathe anxiety away. See our book, The Dr. Sears T5 Wellness Plan, for how to do deep breathing.
- Move more, sit less. How movement makes your own medicines – especially anti-anxiety medicines – is one of the top teachings in our Dr. Sears Wellness Institute. (See how movement makes your own medicines.) Walk while you work. Working from home is likely to continue for at least the next several months. When you work your body, you work your mind. Walking gives you a doubly good benefit. While you work your body you work your mind, helping you to do the problem-solving parts of your job better. Movement, especially a good walk in nature, relaxes your mind so you can think better – and happier. The guideline of “stay at home” does not mean continuously “sit at home.” During this time-out of the COVID crisis, I have enjoyed scheduling “meetings while moving” as I walk around our backyard. Movement lowers anxiety about solving the problems that we daily face.
- Reframe and refresh. While this will take a lot of practice, it really works. As soon as an anxious thought (“what if…”) enters your mind, quickly reframe it into a happy thought. Trashing toxic thoughts is Anxiety-Prevention 101. You can do in your mind what you do with unwanted emails. As soon as you see a disturbing “mind-mail” that you don’t even want to open, quickly drop it into the trash-bin. Get into the habit of “think this, not that” as you replace the anxiety-producing thoughts in your mind with better thoughts. Daydreamers are particularly good at this thought-reframing exercise. As soon as a toxic thought enters their mind, they quickly trash it and dream about a favorite wish or dwell upon a happy scene or memory from the past. One of the tips I give patients in my practice about not letting toxic thoughts take up real estate in their minds is “don’t dwell.” The more you dwell, the deeper your well of anxiety.
- Enjoy music for your mind. Imagine what is going on in your brain on music. Music, especially melodies that trigger beautiful associations such as special vacations or film scores from favorite your movies, stimulates the pleasure and anti-anxiety centers of your brain and calms the overanxious areas.
During the COVID crisis, there will be moments and days when life truly does seem scary. But the quicker you can think-change from that, to “what I have to be thankful for,” the more the calming center of your brain can light up and the anxiety center dial down. The neuroscience of the grateful brain is simply to have an attitude of gratitude regardless of circumstances that can sometimes look bleak. My wish for you and your family is that in the uncertain months to come you will have mastered your personal peace recipe. Read more about alleviating anxiety in The Healthy Brain Book: An All-Ages Guide to a Calmer, Happier, Sharper You.
Dr. Bill Sears
Dr. Sears, or Dr. Bill as his “little patients” call him, has been advising busy parents on how to raise healthier families for over 40 years. He received his medical training at Harvard Medical School’s Children’s Hospital in Boston and The Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto, the world’s largest children’s hospital, where he was associate ward chief of the newborn intensive care unit before serving as the chief of pediatrics at Toronto Western Hospital, a teaching hospital of the University of Toronto. He has served as a professor of pediatrics at the University of Toronto, University of South Carolina, University of Southern California School of Medicine, and University of California: Irvine. As a father of 8 children, he coached Little League sports for 20 years, and together with his wife Martha has written more than 40 best-selling books and countless articles on nutrition, parenting, and healthy aging. He serves as a health consultant for magazines, TV, radio and other media, and his AskDrSears.com website is one of the most popular health and parenting sites. Dr. Sears has appeared on over 100 television programs, including 20/20, Good Morning America, Oprah, Today, The View, and Dr. Phil, and was featured on the cover of TIME Magazine in May 2012. He is noted for his science-made-simple-and-fun approach to family health.