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  • Carol J Sherman

Good advice from the Amen Institute on calming your brain in this (or any other) scary time

Yes, You Can Feel Safe in a Scary World


April 8, 2020

The coronavirus, raging wildfires, mass shootings—the world has become an increasingly scary place. You may be filled with anxiety about the latest threat—COVID-19—or wracked by obsessive worries about what might occur in the future. In our modern world, it seems like there is always a threat looming. Can you ever feel safe? You can’t stop what’s happening around the globe, but you can change what’s going on inside your brain to prevent fear from ruling your life. Your thoughts are hardwired to be negative. Given our ancestry, negative thoughts protected us from early death or becoming supper for more powerful animals. From our earliest times on earth, being aware of and avoiding danger was crucial to survival. Unfortunately, even when the world became safer, negativity bias remained in our brains. Researchers have demonstrated that negative experiences have a greater impact on the brain than positive ones. People pay more attention to negative news than to positive news, which is why news outlets typically lead broadcasts with floods, murders, political disasters, and these days, coronavirus. Studies from the content marketing website Outbrain.com found that the average click-through rate on headlines with negative adjectives was an astounding 63% higher than positive ones. Negative emotions outweigh positive emotions, which is why it is critical to discipline your natural tendency toward the negative and amplify more helpful thoughts and emotions to help you feel more safe and secure regardless of current events. Here are 7 ways to retrain your brain to fight fear. 1. Change the B stuff. We are not controlled by events or people, but rather by the perceptions we take of them. Perception is the way we, as individuals, interpret ourselves and the world around us. The view that you take of a situation has more reality than the actual situation itself. You don’t need to try to change the outside world, but rather to change your inside world. Take a look at the following A-B-C model: A is the actual event. B is how we interpret or perceive the event. C is how we react to the event. Other people or events (“A”) can’t make us do anything. It is our interpretation or perception (“B”) that causes our behavior (“C”). Questioning the “B” stuff is so important. It can make the difference between feeling secure and fearing that your life is about to end. 2. Focus on what you can control. So many external events are out of our control. Natural disasters, terrorist attacks, and health threats like the current COVID-19 pandemic can come out of nowhere and have devastating effects. Rather than letting your thoughts spin out of control about what might happen, shift your focus to the things you can do to prevent a problem or react to it if it affects you. With the coronavirus, the CDC and WHO have shared many strategies to protect yourself. Keep those top of mind, and repeatedly tell yourself you’re doing the right things to stay safe. 3. Disconnect from 24/7 news. Staying glued to the TV or scrolling endlessly on news sites on the internet can fill you with fear. Allowing yourself to be constantly inundated with scary headlines can keep you mired in a sense of panic. Research shows that just 14 minutes of negative news has been found to increase both anxious and sad moods. Minimize your exposure by setting time limits for viewing and internet browsing. Stick with about 5 minutes during the day, and skip it at night completely when it is more likely to interfere with your sleep. 4. Adopt rational thinking. Developing the habit of accurate, honest, and disciplined thinking is essential to feeling safe in times of stress. This is not positive thinking, which can actually inhibit feeling better over the long run. In fact, people who live by the philosophy “don’t worry, be happy” die the earliest from accidents and preventable illnesses. Killing the ANTs (automatic negative thoughts) is one of the best strategies to change your thinking and conquer overwhelming feelings of fear and anxiety as well as obsessive worries. You can learn to eliminate the ANTs and replace them with more helpful thoughts that give you a more accurate, fair assessment of any situation. Simply notice your thoughts when they are negative, write them down, and talk back to them. If you can correct negative thoughts, you take away their power. This skill alone can completely change your life if you embrace and practice it. 5. Start every day with “Today is going to be a great day.”  As soon as you awaken or your feet hit the floor in the morning, start the day by saying these words out loud. Since your mind is prone to negativity, unless you train and discipline it, it will seek out stress in the upcoming day. When you direct your thoughts to “Today is going to be a great day,” your brain will help you uncover the reasons why it will be so. You have a choice in where you direct your attention, even in times of uncertainty. This simple strategy can make a powerfully positive difference in your life. 6. End the day with “What went well. Another exercise that has been shown to quickly increase your feelings of well-being is called “What Went Well.” Research has shown that people who did this exercise were happier and less depressed at 1-month and 6-month follow-ups than at the study’s outset. Right before bed, write down 3 things that went well that day, then ask yourself, “Why did this happen?” In a 2017 study, this simple exercise has been found to help people in stressful jobs develop a more positive sense of wellbeing. 7. Calm a panic attack in 5 minutes. If you find yourself overwhelmed by anxiety, and your heart starts racing and you can’t catch your breath, take heart in knowing that you can calm a panic attack. Here is a 4-step prescription to fight panic:

  • Breathe! Take slow, deep breaths to boost oxygen to your brain to regain control over how you feel.

  • Don’t leave. If you leave wherever you are, you’ll start to associate that place with panic, and you’ll give it power over you.

  • Write down your thoughts. If your thoughts are distorted, talk back to them.

  • Take calming supplements or medications if needed. Remember that this is the last step to be used only if the first 3 aren’t effective


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