As I write, the year of COVID is still raging, though hope is on it's way, the numbers are still there and the threat isn't over. In the early days Iowa was just behind North and South Dakota while Linn County ranked third in the state for positivity cases. The numbers were staggering, and still visible for our minds and emotions to grapple with regarding the effects on our communities and families.
If this were not enough, our community experienced another unexpected and invisible threat as a
result of the Derecho which ravaged several areas of the state, and largely the city of Cedar
Rapids. There was no way to prepare for the immediate impact of the storm. Recovery efforts
are still in process from the August devastation.
Threats to our livelihood and quality of life take a toll on our mental health, particularly when it
comes to managing symptoms of anxiety. However, invisible threats, such as natural disasters or
global pandemics are particularly prone to increasing symptoms. Neuroscientists provide some
insight to this phenomenon in how our brains respond to both visible and invisible threats.
In a 2016 study by a team of neuroscientists, functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) was
used to study which regions of the brain were engaged while individuals were exposed to a
visible or hidden threat via virtual simulation. According to the study, invisible threats increased
the region of the brain (hippocampus, ventromedial prefrontal cortex and the amygdala )
involved in anxiety (Rigoli et al., 2016). In contrast, visible threats activated the part of the brain
(periaqueductal gray) associated with fear.
What this tells us is that symptoms of anxiety or fear are not only normal, but at times, can serve
a purpose in helping us cope with immediate dangers or threats, whether invisible or visible,
such as an invisible virus. However, with prolonged exposure to invisible or future threats, such
as a pandemic, it’s important to find ways to manage increased levels of anxiety, to avoid
overfunctioning which can exacerbate symptoms and create feelings of panic.
According to clinical psychologist, Louis Cozolino, “Our complex neural systems have all been
sculpted to serve the prime directive of survival,” (Cozolino, 2017). Anxiety then serves a
function in survival at a very primitive level which helps assess the numerous conscious and
unconscious cues which tell our brains how to respond-often in less than a second.
Psychotherapists proport that when our brains perceive a visible threat from a past experience,
avoidance prolongs the anxiety. Therefore, a conscious effort to work through them, rather than
rationalize the avoidance is recommended (2017).
So, how does one minimize anxiety if an individual is unable to confront an invisible threat? It’s
true that we cannot mitigate all risk, however, understanding that our anxieties and fears are not
just “in our head” but our response and defense mechanisms to threats are subconsciously
hardwired within our physiological and neural pathways from a very early age. The good news
is, our brains have what is called neuroplasticity, meaning, we have the ability to create new
pathways in learning to manage life stressors by what we give attention to (Siegel & Bryson,
2011). With this said, there are several ways to navigate on-going symptoms of anxiety. Here are
just a few:
1. Reduce exposure to news and social media.
2. Focus on what you can control rather than the parts you cannot control.
3. Practice relaxation techniques such as deep breathing, sensory awareness, or
mindfulness-based meditation exercises.
4. Keep a journal focused on gratitude, or celebrations from the day.
5. Find creative ways to stay connected with others, even virtually.
In the current pandemic of Covid-19, our social connectivity is strongly impacted. Stephen
Porges, a neuroscientist and author of the Polyvagal Theory, states, “Social separation and
isolation for humans, regardless of age, leads to profound disruption in the ability to regulate
physiological state and compromises both physical and mental health,” (Porges, 2011). With this
said, it is unknown the long-term impacts of social isolation, especially from loved ones, during
the threat of a pandemic. It’s important to remain deliberate in finding ways to stay connected,
even if physical proximity is not an option.
Coping with symptoms of anxiety, especially when dealing with impending invisible threats, is
not only normal, but expected based on how our brains are wired in responding to outside
stressors. The trick is learning how to manage symptoms without them managing us.
If you are needing further assistance in learning how to manage feelings of anxiousness and fear
during this time, please contact your local mental health provider. Telehealth options are now
also readily available at the Olson Marriage and Family Clinic and other local providers.
Cozolino, L.J. (2017). The neuroscience of psychotherapy: Healing the social brain . New York:
W.W. Norton and Company.
Expert Quotes: Social Isolation & Mental Health During COVID-19. (n.d.). Retrieved November
15, 2020, from https://www.sciline.org/covid/expert-quotes-social isolation-mental
How to cope with anxiety about Novel Coronavirus. (n.d.). Retrieved November 15, 2020, from
http:// https://idph.iowa.gov .
Iowa COVID-19 Information. (n.d.). Retrieved November 15, 2020, from
Porges, S.W. (2011). The polyvagal theory: Neurophysiological foundations of emotion,
attachment, communication, and self-regulation. New York: W.W. Norton.
Rigoli, F., Ewbank, M, Dalgleish, T., & Calder, A. (2016). Threat visibility modulates the
defensive brain circuit underlying fear and anxiety. Neuroscience Letters , 612, 7-13.
Seigel, D.J., & Bryson, T.P.(2012). The whole-brain child: 12 revolutionary strategies to nurture
your child’s developing mind. Brunswick, Vic.: Scribe Publications.