Dr. Heidi Hanna, Senior Researcher at the Brain Health Initiative in San Diego, shares her experience and the insights she gained while healing her body and mind from COVID-19. She explains how we can shift the negative energy and stress many of us are experiencing during this crisis by prioritizing self-compassion and practicing empathy.
As a scientist researching the impact of stress on the brain, I’ve found that these unprecedented times provide a living laboratory to quickly expand upon my life’s work. Perhaps the most extraordinary element is the fact that I am navigating this deep learning experience as I try to heal my own body – and mind – from COVID-19.
Each day provides me with dozens of “ah-ha” moments based on the foundation of information I’ve collected over time. From the beginning of this crisis, I’ve felt strangely excited – even as I have struggled to regain my own health – because I felt like an athlete who has been training for this my whole life.
It turns out that excitement and anxiety feel quite similar. And when we slow down enough to be responsive instead of reactive, we can choose to acknowledge our automatic fear-based thoughts and shift them in a more positive direction. This doesn’t mean we should ignore our feelings – quite the contrary.
When we ignore, minimize or try to manage away our emotions, we usually end up making things worse. The energy gets trapped in our nervous system, where it hijacks our logical mind and creates negative feedback loops. Pushing down our uncomfortable feelings so we can push through our struggles quickly doesn't make us superwomen (or supermen); it weakens our immune system and can make us physically ill.
In addition to breaking down our own bodies, we carry the stressful energy with us and spread it to others through our dysfunctional biological rhythms. These stress-related patterns are the most contagious disease of all, because we can share them without physical contact, through a voicemail, an email or a text.
This may be one of the best lessons I’ve learned through all this chaos: that we don’t need to be diagnosed with anything to be contagious.
The great news is that, just as we can spread stress, negativity, panic and fear, we can just as easily spread gratitude, optimism, hope, love and kindness.
With that in mind, think about what you might be spreading, intentionally or accidentally, then consider the following ways you can shift your stress for good.
- Practice self-compassion. Stress and struggle are part of our collective human experience. Instead of listening to the inner critic pointing out all the things you should be doing differently, try offering yourself the type of support you would extend to a friend or loved one. The more you learn to treat yourself with patience, kindness and grace, the better equipped you will be to extend compassion to others.
- Prioritize self-care. When we don’t get what we need physically (what I call my “Fab 5”: nutrition, physical movement, adequate sleep, consistent mental breaks and social connection), the brain perceives it as a threat and triggers our survival-based reaction patterns (irritability, aggression, anger, fear, etc.). Keep your mind adaptable by keeping your energy tank full.
- Put yourself in their shoes. When you find it hard to be kind to others, take a moment to imagine what may be happening in their world. We don’t have to justify people who are unkind, but staying open to the possibility that others are struggling may ease the frustration of trying to calm them down or changing their mind to see your point of view.
By recognizing that our energy is contagious, prioritizing self-compassion and self-care, and practicing empathy, we can build a more flexible brain and shape a new lens through which to see the world. Although it won’t take away our pain, it can certainly make our experiences in life more curious and hopeful, so we can grow better as a result.
About the Author
Dr. Heidi Hanna is a New York Times bestselling author of several books, including “The Sharp Solution,” “Stressaholic” and “Recharge.” Ms. Hanna is the “Chief Energy Officer” of Synergy Brain Fitness, the Founding Partner of the Academy for Brain Health and Performance and a Fellow and Advisory Board Member for the American Institute of Stress. She is a performance coach, keynote speaker and nutritionist specializing in applying the science of personal energy management, health and wellness to improving business performance.
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