Coping with Anxiety during COVID-19 Isolation

By nature, humans are social creatures. As the species has evolved, being in groups has proven beneficial not only for behavioral development and education, but also for survival. Studies have shown that social interaction influences us in a neurobiological sense, releasing or enhancing certain hormones and physiological responses. With the recent “shelter-in-place” mandates in New York State and elsewhere, this newfound isolation and suspension of common routines has thrown the population into new and uncharted waters, the impact of which we are only just now beginning to realize.

“Humans thrive on routine,” explains Sociology and Psychology teacher Rose Gorman, a VENT Fitness member who teaches at Troy High School. Her efforts in the recent shelter-at-home environment have been primarily focused on keeping her students engaged in the new online teaching environment, while simultaneously turning their attention to both the societal and historical impacts of the COVID-19 outbreak. “This dramatic break in routine can not only cause anxiety for people who are already prone to it, but can also manifest in people who don’t typically deal with it.”

While most scientists can agree that social interaction is crucial to the human existence, there is little known about the neural (read: functions of the brain) factors that are behind that need. And while the advent of video chat has been helpful in connecting humans in times of distance, the simple facial recognition doesn’t provide the same depth of connection (see also: how much your kids text). The early results are in — human interaction in person produces hormonal responses in us, and this new isolation has put a new twist on things, generally labeled as “anxiety.”

Symptoms of anxiety are wide-ranging, Gorman explains, and the evidence isn’t always clear. “Sleeplessness, irritability, the inability to focus, these are all common but sneaky examples of anxiety,” she explains. And while the Capital District and beyond are a week or more into sheltering in place, the disruption in routine is likely to affect the entire household. “Even your pets may act a little differently,” Gorman says. But there are ways to cope that are simple, and easy to adapt into your new stay-home-schedule.

First, Gorman suggests a 20 minute break. “Yoga, a walk, a focused relaxation exercise, you can pick anything so long as you leave your technology behind. The idea is to give yourself a real break.” She suggests paying special attention to the sights and sounds around you, rather than the technology of our devices. Your brain needs this time to recalibrate.

Meditation, either via an app, website, or self-guided, can prove invaluable. The effects of meditation are well-known, and even if you’re new at it, there are still benefits, such as improved concentration, attention span, and overall well-being. And evidence suggests meditation can actually change the structure of the brain. A study out of Harvard University found that after just eight weeks of targeted meditation, subjects saw increased cortical thickness in the hippocampus, the area of the brain that governs learning and memory, while also decreasing the brain cell volume in the amygdala, the center for fear, anxiety and stress responses (think Anger from “Inside Out.”) Try an app like Calm or Headspace if you need some additional guidance.

Another way Gorman suggests to overcome your concerns is doing things for others — think of it as volunteerism, but close to home. Got a partner who hates doing the dishes? Got a mountain of laundry to do? Working together while doing something helpful can derail some of your stress. Plus, organizing and cleaning can have mental health benefits as well, by allowing some control over your otherwise topsy-turvy environment.

“Try a gratefulness exercise,” Gorman says. “Take one or more of the suggested prompts and reflect on the answers. Better yet, try writing your answers down.” Writing — or journaling, its free-form cousin — as it turns out, is a great coping tool. Committing words to writing, and the actual process of putting them down on paper, forces the brain to organize the information differently than it would when speaking or typing. Evidence also suggests the physical process of writing actually sends electrical currents through portions of the brain that regulate emotions, pathways that aren’t used when typing. Think of the handwriting process as a built in opportunity to reflect on anything that you can think of, whether it be positive or negative. This will pave the way to re-organize your thinking, your priorities, and your focus.  

And the idea that your brain retains handwritten information more than other styles of documentation is not just the preference of your old English professor. A study from Princeton and UCLA demonstrates that note taking, with an old-fashioned pen and paper, allowed students to retain more factual detail and conceptual comprehension. And, given the historically significant phenomenon that COVID-19 presents, there is plenty to document.

Stuck for something to write? Gorman has a handy list of prompts. “Document what the government has announced, and record your reaction to it. Does it makes sense to you? Does it impact you or someone you know? How did you and your family respond?” Then, she suggests investigating your surroundings — what portions of your neighborhood are open? What kind of people are out? Do you see things that give you hope?

“Right now it’s ok to explore your feelings of concern, or fear, because humans are developed to have these responses,” Gorman says. “If you can identify them, you can also overcome them. And by re-routing your thoughts into more positive, optimistic avenues, you can help strengthen your sense of well-being.”

Rose Gorman has taught in the Troy City School District for the past seven years at both Troy High School and Troy Middle School. Currently, she teaches Psychology and Sociology courses through the University at Albany through the University in the High School program at Troy High. She is also the Work-Based Learning Coordinator and one of the College and Career Liaisons, where she partners with community members and businesses to place students in internships.