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This is Your Brain on Quarantine... and How to Cope

"Why do I feel so anxious all the time when I'm just safe in my home? Other people have it so much worse. I should be fine." Certainly, if you're able to work from home during COVID-19 in quarantine, there's a lot to be grateful for. At the same time, there may be a nagging unease, anxiety, and a sense of helplessness. There's a number of reasons that being in quarantine may feel anxiety-provoking or even traumatizing to your brain.

Fight, Flight or Freeze

Your brain's job is to keep you safe. The amygdala, in particular, functions as a threat detector, and it's great at it. When the amygdala detects a threat, it signals your body to go into Fight, Flight or Freeze mode. Your body prepares to fight back, run away, or stop and hide. Quarantine and shelter-in-place puts us closest to the Freeze mode of responding to the threat. While the Freeze option is most logical choice in this situation, it also feels the worst. The Freeze response can feel like helplessness and powerlessness, even when it's the best choice. Research shows that a Freeze response during a traumatic event is the most associated with developing PTSD symptoms when the event is over. This is true even if it's the best choice for survival.

Scary Images and Stories

The amygdala searches for threats in the environment largely by relying on sensory information (e.g. images) and emotionally significant information (e.g. stories). The amygdala treats images that you see on TV, online or even in your imagination as the same as in-person events. So any scary images or stories you see, hear or even imagine will stick with you and set off the alarms in your brain.

Social Isolation

When your amygdala becomes activated by a threat, it no longer responds well to logic or reassurances. It's hard to talk yourself down when you become really anxious. What does work is compassion, nurturing, or empathy from another person. When we experience social bonding, our brain releases oxytocin, which makes us feel calmer. Being afraid and alone makes us feel worse.

Lack of Structure and Predictability

In any kind of traumatic situation, structure and predictability calm our minds. The world we live in lost much of its familiar structure fairly quickly, and many people lost their individual daily structure as well. This makes it hard to feel safe. Your brain constantly makes predictions in order to assess danger, and when it can't predict what's coming next, it triggers the alarm. Without any structure, it can be hard to know even what your next hour looks like.

How to Cope

While many things are out of our control right now, there are some things you can do to ease anxiety, and calm your mind.

  • Limit News

Try limiting news to 30 minutes per day. It's good to stay informed, but try sticking to what's helpful. If it won't change what you're doing, it might not be helpful. If it puts you into a panic over things that are out of your control, it might not be helpful.

  • Talk on the Phone or on Video (not just through text)

Oxytocin is the chemical our brains release during social bonding. It helps us feel calmer and less anxious. Research suggests that oxytocin is released when you communicate through telephone or video chat, but not during written communication such as texting, emailing or reading social network sites. Hearing the familiar voice of a friend or family member seems to be the key to feeling calm and reducing stress. Try connecting with a friend through voice or video at least once per day. Petting or sitting with your dog or cat helps too! Connecting with your pet through touch or eye-gaze also releases oxytocin and reduces stress.

  • Get Outside

If you're able to, find some time to get outside each day for at least 20-30 minutes. Even sitting on a porch or in your backyard can be helpful. A recent study conducted in 2019 found that just 20 minutes of sitting or walking in a place that makes you feel in touch with nature lowers your cortisol levels significantly.

  • Move Your Body

Sitting still is associated with the feeling of helplessness of the Freeze response. So feel your body's strength instead. Be sure to do at least 30 minutes of physical activity each day. It might be walking outside, running, doing yoga videos, lifting free weights at home, or an online dance class. Exercise causes your brain to release oxytocin, dopamine, and serotonin, all of which improve your mood.

  • Create Structure and Routine

Set a regular routine for yourself. Get up at the same time every day, even if you've gotten off your normal sleep schedule. If you keep getting up at the same time, eventually you'll be tired enough to go to sleep earlier and fall back into a regular cycle. Decide what you'll do each day and set a schedule that includes meals, work, exercise, getting outside, talking with friends or family, household chores, and hobbies that make you feel good.

  • Focus on Hobbies that Put You in Flow

Flow is the state of being fully present and engaged with what you're doing now. If you're fully present right now, you're not lost in your anxious thoughts of worry, what-if's, or worst-case scenarios. Find what puts you in flow. It could be doing puzzles, reading, running, dancing, drawing, painting, cooking, gardening, working on a home project, or even organizing.

  • Start Meditating

If you've ever thought, "I'd like to try meditation, but I don't have time," now might be your opportunity. Meditation is training your brain to let go of thoughts and come back to the present over and over and over again. This allows you to learn to let go of the what-ifs and come back to the present moment, where you are safe, right here, right now. It's completely normal for meditation to feel very challenging at first, but research shows that 10 minutes a day of meditation is enough to change your brain. Consistency is key. It takes about 60 days to start to fully realize benefits. I recommend meditation to all my clients with anxiety because it's so beneficial in the long-term. Learn more about how to meditate and why you should.


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