The Covid-19 crisis is not over yet but in many parts of the world, restrictions are starting to be lifted, causing a lot of fear and anxiety, just as they did when they were first put in place. In most countries, reported incidents of high anxiety levels rose sharply due to Covid-19.
We’ve all had to adapt rapidly to a new and uncertain normal that has involved curbs on our movements, the wearing of face masks, social distancing, and an ever-present bottle of hand-sanitiser in our pockets. Let’s face it, it’s been tiring.
As restrictions ease, however, what was tiresome for many has become the new certainty and emotional security blanket for others. Lifting the limits on our freedoms, especially as Covid-19 is still a certain threat, can make the idea of going back to work, socialising in groups, and hugging people you don’t live with, scary for some.
Covid-19 is of course not the only source of anxiety that we routinely face. Stress from work or in personal relationships or in the state of our finances can also cause anxiety. Even the side effects of medication. Anxiety disorders are the most prevalent mental health condition in the world. In 2017, well before the impact of Covid-19, there was an estimated 284 million people globally experiencing some form of anxiety disorder.
How Mindfulness can Help in Beating Anxiety
Mindfulness meditation can help. Jon Kabat-Zinn defined mindfulness as “paying attention in a particular way, on purpose, in the present moment, and without judgment.” Because of the way that mindfulness impacts the brain, mindfulness may be the best way to deal with chronic stress or anxiety.
When the mind becomes fixated on something disturbing due to the triggering of our negativity bias, there is a particular part of our frontal lobe called the Anterior Cingulate Cortex (ACC) which becomes overactivated. This has the consequence of increasing beta and high-beta brainwaves which lead us to become stuck with particular thoughts and feelings that can feed into our state of anxiety. Preoccupation with fears about the future and how things will affect us, and our family can become heightened.
We’ve all found ourselves fixated on an insult or criticism that someone has thrown our way or focused heavily on a mistake we’ve made. Our negativity bias ensures that these moments in our lives have a much greater impact on us than the positives. It’s just the way we’re hard-wired and it can have a very powerful impact on our behaviour, decisions, and even our relationships.
It might seem as if our negativity bias is something that we could happily do without. Wouldn’t life be much better if we weren’t constantly predisposed towards fixating on all that goes wrong in our lives and the world around us? This highly skillful response mechanism has evolved however for a very good reason. Our negativity bias is there to keep us safe and the resultant anxiety that arises when it’s triggered is a critical part of our protection system. It’s there to warn us of dangers when driving in heavy traffic, walking along dark streets or when we fall behind with a deadline at work. Gone are the sabre-tooth tigers that it would have had to alert us to in earlier periods of human history, but it is still there, firing up at every perceived threat to our safety or existence.
We can, however, take control of the negativity bias and thus the arising of anxiety. In these uncertain Covid-19 times it's an opportunity to take advantage of the social distancing restrictions and quarantining that so many are subject to and use that time to develop our mindfulness ability. We can, by changing our mindset, turn what appears to be a negative situation into an opportunity.
When we start to practice mindfulness, theta waves increase in the ACC. Theta waves are associated with relaxation, spacious and gentle attentional awareness. With sustained practice, we start to shift into an observer role with a more expansive awareness of the situation, rather than being personally embedded in the situation, experiencing it as personal.
The observer role allows us to acknowledge and feel worries, irritations, and painful memories without the need to analyse, suppress or encourage them, allowing them to dissipate more easily.
As we gain the ability to simply relax into a state of open awareness of our problems insight into what is driving our emotional state can arise. This can create a sense of spaciousness and a feeling of freedom.