The COVID-19 pandemic, anxiety and a curious response
The COVID-19 pandemic has already disrupted all of our lives in ways we never thought possible. I find myself often grieving for how things used to be (and we are only a week in) but grateful that I have my health and my family around me.
But I wonder if like me, you have also noticed a strange, lingering sense of unease that seems to have taken hold, I can’t quite put my finger on what it is - and then there's an annoying and almost constant craving for cake (and related items). Friends report that sleep feels fitful and interrupted, incomplete. Others feel a loss of concentration, distracted, have irrational outbursts, or feel tearful and overwhelmed. On a larger scale, we've seen panic buying in the supermarkets despite an assurance that there is plenty to go round - we decide to ignore them, irrationally - and persist in overloading our trollies. So what exactly is going on and why am I craving cake?
One thing is for sure, this pandemic jumped us from behind. No warning. Bam. For how long? No –one knows. Who will it affect? No-one knows. Will my loved ones be caught up in the pandemic? What effect it will have on my life? So many questions and no answers This lack of control and constant sense of fear and unease looks a lot like anxiety. This crisis is threatening our very existence. Most of us have switched to survival mode. And that is really the problem.
Threats and the Amygdala
It’s this threat, this unknown - that is causing the cake problem. Did you know that when we are exposed to threats our brain instinctively takes over - more specifically the amygdala steps up, overrules everything else and firmly takes charge. Not bad for a tiny walnut-sized gland that specialises in survival! It is an ancient bit of kit and its sole purpose is to keep us safe. So far , so good. Primitive and driven, the amygdala has only two settings: on or off. It’s job is to spend each day scanning the horizon for threats. Previously that would be in the shape of a very angry large animal. Today, very angry large animals are not so frequently encountered in Ilkley but we do throw in the occasional wobbler, like this current pandemic. And boy, are we on overdrive at the moment!
Locked and loaded
Remember, the amygdala spots threats and our constant tuning into the news and current affairs is giving access to information about an ongoing threat - the pandemic. This means that for many of us, the amygdala and is now on full alert and ready for appropriate action to ensure survival. It offers two solutions. Fight or flight and it prepares the body to do either one of these by flooding it with chemicals like cortisol and adrenaline - each of which has a specific function: to raise the heart rate, flatten breathing, sharpen focus – all locked and loaded ready to respond – to help us stand and fight or run. BUT these chemicals can also trigger other strange responses which means that the body is ready to respond instinctively but without thinking it all through – after all there was no time for overthinking when that T-Rex appeared round the corner just a split- second in which to take flight and RUN. LIKE. HELL! Life or death. Skedaddle! Scarper!
The end result is a lot of stress that is just sitting there. And a lot of chemicals circulating around our body with no easy release. Because it is not possible to fight or run from the virus pandemic. We just have to sit it out. So we remain in a constantly vigilant and anxious state. We can feel overwhelmed and wanting escape and more often not reaching out for comfort - which brings me neatly back round to cake (or any other distraction such as alcohol, sex or drugs or researching conspiracy theories on the internet could just as easily be inserted into this space) ! An easy fix.
And it’s difficult to think straight with so much adrenaline pumping through – remember we are not supposed to take time to think through our response when faced with a threat but to respond instinctively, fight or flight – and so, if we are not careful, we are all going to become great at making some very instinctual but poor decisions around food (and more) and the choices we make. So now you know why this cake thing is happening, how can we make a difference?
How do I stop eating cake?
Well for the most part, regarding the virus spread, follow current Government advice. For everything else, the focus must be on trying to turn the amygdala switch to "off" by lowering the immediate threat level. Easier said than done! But let's start with a quote :
“Between stimulus and response there is a space in that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and freedom”
Viktor E Frankl
Learn it and tape it to your fridge for inspiration when struggling - its a good one and might just buy you the few seconds that you need to make a difference. And breathe. Breathing is probably the one thing that we do have control of when the amygdala kicks in. Catch an awareness of the breath and ride it in and down and out and up and buy yourself a little bit more time to become mindful and more aware of the choices up ahead and for that read to cake or not to cake/sex/drink/shoot up/conspire
Awareness creates distance and perspective and from that point, a chance to move out of that instinctive response to something new. We are simply trying to reduce the threat level and turn off the amygdala's response. No more adrenaline, no more cortisol. You're welcome!
In my next blog we will look at ten helpful ways to dial down the stress during these difficult times. But if that's too long for you to wait, I highly recommend Bridgette Hamilton's book "Break the Crave System" which tells us all about the amygdala and how to break free from unhelpful craving. Or why not sample one of Bridgette's short online hypnotherapy sessions that Bridgette shares on her FB page at My diet-less Life, like this happy hypno session
And if all else fails, be kind to yourself as Geneen Roth says and when you get up to the refrigerator to reach for your cake, pull up a chair, hey pull up two and I'll come and join you - its a tough old world out there!
Keep strong, keep the faith and look after yourself and your family during these dark days. Just do what you can, and this too will pass, Kate x