February 16, 2021

How Do You React to Uncertainty? Understanding Your Body’s Response

In many parts of the world, we are closing in on a full year of the Covid-19 pandemic.  While there may be a light at the end of the tunnel with increasing vaccine availability and distribution, we are certainly not yet out of the woods. 

Whatever this year has brought you personally, you’ve likely been dealt a heavy hand of disruption, uncertainty, and change.  In this article, we’ll explore our reactions to uncertainty from a brain-body-behavior standpoint, as well as look at strategies to cope through consistency and routine, positive wellness and self-care, and social connection.

“Compared to U.S. adults in 2019, U.S. adults in April and May 2020 were more than three times as likely to screen positive for depressive disorders, anxiety disorders, or one or both, with more than one out of three screening positive for one or both.”

NCBI

The History of Human Response

Our bodies have evolved over hundreds of thousands of years primarily with a drive towards safety. 

Our nervous system does a great job of keeping us safe from perceived risks through the fight or flight system.  Essentially, an occurrence that is perceived as “risky” by the brain results in the sympathetic nervous system sending signals throughout the body that aid in protection. 

Our heart rate increases to bring energy to our large muscle groups so we can fight or flee from the perceived risk. 

Our brain also hyper-focuses on risk. 

Deemed negative cognitive bias, this tendency of the mind keeps us aware of potential risks so that we can avoid them and problem-solve them.  Behaviorally, we then take steps to mitigate risk: largely, avoidance activities.

Humans co-evolved with an environment with specific threats in place.  As such, our bodies are great at responding to these clear-and-present dangers: a rustle in the forest that could be a predator, or a warring faction of humans trying to take our resources.  These are situations in which fight or flight is particularly useful.  However, a situation like a microscopic virus creating a very real risk to health and well-being is a situation for which our nervous system’s fight or flight response falls short. 

It is difficult to physically fight or flee an aggressor that we cannot see and can easily transmit between people.  

However, understanding our bodies’ safety response can help us intervene and decrease our stress response. 

The Role of Self-Care

Engaging in excellent self-care is a helpful way to mitigate stress.  Particular attention to consistency with nutrition, sleep, and exercise is important for both physical and mental well-being.  Relaxation strategies can also help relieve stress held in the body.  Meditation strategies can help to bring us out of future “what-if” thinking and ground us more firmly in the present moment.  Regular meals and attention to sleep routines can also be of benefit when life feels uncertain.

Understand What is Happening Mentally

Mentally, our brain seeks to predict and control for safety. 

Understanding any potential risk helps us, from a safety perspective, to avoid or decrease risk.  When the risk is a virus, our attempts to control might include hyper-focusing on gaining information and attempting to make plans for response.  We might attempt to do this by consuming a large amount of news media, which can have the unintended consequence of increasing the sense of risk.  Managing exposure to news can be helpful to decrease anxiety in these situations. 

Another strategy is to remain focused on what you do have control over, rather than what you do not control.  For instance, during a pandemic, you may not be able to go to the gym and exercise or eat out at your favorite restaurant.  But if these activities reflect important commitments and pastimes, you could exercise at home or outdoors, and you could try recreating a favorite meal in your kitchen.

Mindfulness meditation, in which the goal is to bring non-judgmental attention to the present moment, also helps us to pull the brain out of states of anticipatory stress and back to the moment.

Understand What is Happening Behaviorally

Behaviorally, our response to stress is typically avoidance or attempts to end or minimize the source of stress. Avoidance can look like physical avoidance: not going to places or surrounding ourselves with the things or people that seem to trigger the stress.  We can also avoid by working to change our emotional states, sometimes in healthy ways and sometimes in less healthy ways. 

Avoidance can take on the appearance of overworking, hyper-focusing on other areas of our lives, using substances, and immersing ourselves in activities that release dopamine such as games, exercise, or shopping.  While some of these, some of the time, may be perfectly fine within our coping repertoire, over-focus in any one of these areas may not be the healthiest option.  

Further, avoiding the root source of stress does not help us to address, problem solve, and form a plan for managing the stress moving forward.  And while most of us do not have the ability to change the source of stress when it is related to a pandemic, we do have the option to change our reaction to the stress and make plans for how our behavior will change to optimize our safety and well being.

The Consequences of a Disrupted Routine

When our life is disrupted, our routines are also often disrupted. 

Changes in how we work, school, or socialize can shake up those routines: we shift our sleep schedule, perhaps eat meals less regularly, and access exercise and socialization opportunities in different ways. 

Working to build a consistent routine back into our lives during times of change and transition is an important step in self-care.  Behaviorally, when we change a standing routine (for instance, I get up, go to the gym, arrive at my office, then eat a healthy breakfast I packed the night before) to a new routine (I wake up, I drink coffee while logging into the computer in the corner of my bedroom).  

When life suddenly has you working or schooling from home, try to recreate your routine as much as possible.  Get up and get prepared for work in a similar fashion (sure, yoga pants are ok, but get up and dressed, eat breakfast, and work at a desk if possible). You might problem solve how to manage the inevitable interruptions that come up when we work from home so that you can remain as focused as possible. 

Alternatively, figure out the chunks of time when you can work uninterrupted, and shift your work day, when possible, around these times.  Finally, don’t neglect “the commute.”  Typically, we have at least a little commuting time to and from work.  This is time that lets us decompress, let go of the workday, and move into home-mode.  Flipping immediately from work to household issues can leave your head spinning. 

Need an easy commute to allow your brain to switch gears?  Plan out a short walk (even on the treadmill). When you hit your walk’s halfway point, intentionally release your workday worries and begin to focus on the evening ahead.  

The Power of Social Connection

Another way human beings manage stress is through social connection.  On a physiological level, connecting with others through eye contact, shared emotional expression and experience, and physical touch releases oxytocin.

Oxytocin is sometimes referred to as the “hug drug.”  It’s a hormone our bodies release during times of social connection. Oxytocin has a large role in childbirth and nursing, and the hormone’s presence plays a key role in mother-infant bonding.  Outside of childbirth, oxytocin creates an all-around pleasant feeling, reduces stress, is connected to social recognition and trust, and provides protective effects within the body (notably to the heart muscle).  

During times of stress, seeking out social connection can be an extremely important coping strategy.  This can be particularly difficult when the source of the stress is keeping people apart. 

Obviously, during a pandemic when people are staying apart from one another for health and safety reasons, being close and giving hugs is not possible. But we can still find social connection and release a burst of oxytocin by connecting by phone or video, by looking at family photos, through physical touch (even if you are giving your own self a hug), and through exercise. 

Got a furry friend?  Petting your dog, cat, or other household critters will also release oxytocin.

Focus on What You Can Control

While we can not always control the stressors in our lives, we can always control our response and our reactions. 

Recognizing the limitations of our ability to change the source of stress, when it is outside of our control, can often help us refocus on what we do have power to change. 

When we are living in times of uncertainty, we can focus on re-establishing our routines, balancing our home life and work life, and exercising control in our own response to stress. 

Taking good care of our bodies includes a focus on:

  • positive sleep hygiene strategies
  • managing our nutrition and eating regular meals
  • engaging in regular exercise for physical and emotional wellness

Using meditation and relaxation strategies and limiting exposure to media can help the mind to relax and decrease stress.  It’s important to be aware of tendencies to engage in destructive avoidance strategies and find healthier alternatives.

Social connections release oxytocin and mitigate the stress response in the body. Even the best self-care sometimes falls short, and if your well being or that of someone you love is suffering, reach out to a trusted medical or mental health professional for additional support and guidance.

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Disclaimer: This information is not specific medical advice and does not replace information you receive from your healthcare provider. This is only a brief summary of general information. It does NOT include all information about conditions, illnesses, injuries, tests, procedures, treatments, therapies, discharge instructions or lifestyle choices that may apply to you. You must talk with your health care provider for complete information about your health and treatment options. This information should not be used to decide whether or not to accept your health care provider’s advice, instructions or recommendations. Only your health care provider has the knowledge and training to provide advice that is right for you.

You must talk with your health care provider for complete information about your health and treatment options. This information should not be used to decide whether or not to accept your health care provider’s advice, instructions or recommendations. Only your health care provider has the knowledge and training to provide advice that is right for you.

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