Toilet paper hoarding. Obsessive cleaning. News bingeing. Sometimes panic can be as contagious as a virus. Dr. Judson Brewer, a neuroscientist and psychiatrist at Brown University, is doing his part to help us manage coronavirus anxiety with practical advice in his daily YouTube updates.
Life Kit host Shereen Marisol Meraji spoke with Dr. Jud about what's going on in the brain when we're anxious, how to get our "thinking brains" back online and how not doing anything can actually be helpful to those around us.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Dr. Jud, everyone, including me, has been saying, "Take a deep breath" or "I need to take a deep breath" way more lately — to the point where I feel like it's becoming a little bit cliché. But you say this actually works?
Yes, this is how our brain works. Fear is a normal adaptive response, but fear plus uncertainty makes our brains spin out in anxiety. And the best way to get our physiology calmed down and our thinking brain back online is literally to take a deep breath.
If we can understand why fear is a helpful adaptive response, we can understand how taking a deep breath can help. Fear helps us learn. For example, if we step out into the street and we almost get hit by a car, but step back just in time, our fear response here reminds us to look both ways before crossing the street.
We get revved up [and anxious] when the newer parts of our brain, the thinking and planning parts of the brain, don't have accurate information. And [the newer parts of the brain] start spinning out into these "what if" worry loops. You know, "What if this happens? What if that happens?"
If we can notice that we're starting to spin out and take a step back and see that our brain is just trying to get control where there's uncertainty, we can try and get our thinking brain back online. We can try to literally calm our nervous system down by taking a deep breath or feeling our feet as a way to ground ourselves in our direct experience.
You've talked about how the prefrontal cortex in our brains needs very clear information. And we're in a place right now where information is changing rapidly. So what's going on in the prefrontal cortex while all of this is changing?
Well, sometimes there's not a lot going on in the prefrontal cortex. Let's say we're afraid and anxious and maybe we go on social media to try to get more information. We can actually catch something that's even more contagious than a virus — [we can catch] panic and fear. [Panic and fear] can spread through social contagion, which is simply the transmission of affect or emotion from one person to another. And that actually makes our prefrontal cortex shut down. You can catch a virus from somebody by being near them, but someone can "sneeze" on your brain from anywhere in the world.
We can also see this playing out not only on social media but when we, say, go to the grocery store. If someone goes to the grocery store and sees somebody else hoarding toilet paper, suddenly their scarcity brain kicks in. They might think, "Maybe I'm not going to have enough toilet paper." So they run to the toilet paper aisle and buy all the rest of the toilet paper, even though they probably have enough at home. So when this scarcity mode kicks in, it can also spread panic and fear through social contagion.
People are trying to control this situation that we absolutely have no control over, right? I'm just cleaning everything that I can get my hands on and I'm never stopping, which makes me feel like I have some sort of control over everything. Is it ever helpful to try and control things in the ways that we can?
Well, it depends on what we're doing. So if we're afraid or panicked and we try to control things, we're going to actually fall back into old habit patterns. For example, if our habit pattern is to clean, we might start cleaning obsessively in a way that's not helpful — it could use up cleaning supplies. If we start cleaning our house and nobody's been in our house for a week, the likelihood that something infectious is going to suddenly show up on our countertops is pretty low.
So here, if our brain is anxious and our thinking brain is offline, the likelihood that we're going to have any wisdom show up is pretty low. So again, it comes back to grounding ourselves and then asking ourselves, "What am I about to do? Is this actually helpful?"
For example, in my psychiatry training, I learned this great phrase, "Don't just do something — sit there." The idea is, if I'm sitting with a patient and they're anxious, I could catch their anxiety through social contagion. Here, I become anxious, and then I try to do something to fix them to make myself feel better when, in fact, the best thing that I could do is simply to listen. And I think that applies to all of us.
All of this feels simple and fairly easy — take deep breaths, feel your feet, take some time to just notice where you're at and what's going on around you in this very moment. But how do we make these into habits?
There's this phrase, "short moments, many times." If somebody is going to create a habit of anything, they need short moments of repetition and they need to repeat it over and over and over. So it's not just about trying to force ourselves not to check the news — that actually fails. You can't think your way out of a bad habit. But we can tap into the strongest parts of our brain, the reward-based learning parts, which feed on reward. For example, when we worry, we get more anxious. But if we can see that when we calm ourselves down — maybe we hug a loved one or pet our dog or take a deep breath — we feel less anxious, then we can start to change our habits.
How are you talking to people to make them feel better about staying home? What are you telling people to make them feel empowered when they're not allowed to leave the house?
Two feelings I'm noticing here are guilt and shame. Guilt is feeling that we should do something when everybody else is doing something. This then can lead to shame about ourselves. So guilt is about a behavior and shame is about ourselves. So I think, again, the first thing to do is recognize what you're feeling. Are you feeling guilt? Is that leading to a shame spiral where you're beating yourself up? This can make our thinking brain go offline. We tend to do things that are not helpful when we're not thinking.
If we can step out of that process, we can see that the best and most helpful thing to do is stay home. Because that's what's going to stop the spread of this virus. Running out there and trying to do something could actually make this worse. If we can step out of that shame spiral, our thinking and creative brains come back online, and then we can think about what skills and talents we have that can be useful.
We'd love to hear how you're coping during the coronavirus pandemic. Leave us a voicemail at 202-216-9823, or email us at LifeKit@npr.org. Your tip could appear in an upcoming episode.
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The audio portion of this story was produced by Clare Schneider.