Re-framing our thoughts to stop anxiety spirals around COVID-19
Many of our lives have been turned upside down amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. Many of us find ourselves unable to stop worrying or turning our brains off when it comes to COVID-19. Saying things like "I can't cope, I am stuck inside, the world is falling apart, the economy will never recover" But the words we use matter more than we know.
Science shows that using catastrophizing language (yes, even during catastrophic times) can negatively impact our mental health and even our ability to focus. Although our brains are hardwired to worry (a survival function called the negative bias), focusing on a single negative word can ramp up activity in the amygdala — the “fear center” of our brain — releasing neurotransmitters that interrupt our cognitive functioning, especially with regards to logic and reason.
On the flipside, focusing on positive words and reframing can be a simple and powerful way to improve our mood and even boost our energy. For example, instead of saying, “I am stuck at home,” we could reframe by saying, “I am safe at home.”
Our mind starts to accept and believe what we are saying to ourselves, so positive messages can be powerful. In fact, it can even prime our brain to see the world in a more positive light. Reframing what we say doesn’t mean pretending things aren’t hard. But whenever possible, it’s important to be mindful of the language we’re using — for our own mental well-being and for those around us.
Here are four simple steps to reframe our language:
1. Pay attention to your words. We say a lot of things automatically and subconsciously, so the first step is to simply be more mindful of our words. If you catch yourself saying a dramatic negative statement like, “I’ll never survive this,” stop, take a breath, and listen. Become aware of the words you are using. Don’t worry or judge yourself, just pay attention to the statement you made.
2. Challenge the catastrophic statements with 3 facts.
Mostly, the dramatic negative statements we make, like, “It’s too much to bear,” are not true. We’re very resilient as human beings and can handle much more than we think. Take a moment to acknowledge your resilience by thinking of 3 things you’ve persevered through in your past.
3. Course-correct with different words
Right away, in your mind (or out loud if you’re having a conversation with someone) tell yourself what is true using more positive words and framing, for example: “Things are challenging, but I’m strong and I’ve overcome a lot. I can handle this.”
4. Keep practicing and spread the word
It takes practice to change habits, so be patient with yourself. You can make a shift in the way you express yourself, make it a challenge to find alternate words in your vocabulary that will be more positive and supportive. The more you do it, the more you’ll find it will help you stay calm and stop your anxiety from spiraling.