In this stressful time of global pandemic, most of us have experienced some degree of fear and anxiety thanks to the overwhelming uncertainty and insecurity that COVID-19 has evoked in us. It is scientifically proven that fear and anxiety counteract healthy resilience and, when prolonged, will undermine the immune system. They are lethal emotions that can contribute to heart attacks, strokes and stomach ulcers, to name just a few anxiety-related health issues. It is blatantly clear that an impaired immune system can place us in great danger during a disease outbreak such as this, as the evidence irrefutably points to immuno-compromised and elderly people as the most vulnerable demographic. The fear of the virus has led to an unprecedented, prolonged global lockdown that has subsequently resulted in secondary anxiety responses that only serve to further impact our immune systems. Anxieties of isolation, deprivation, loss, uncertainty, fake news and insecurity are all around us, but we cannot allow fear and stress to further weaken our immune systems.
Understanding Fear and Anxiety
The first step in overcoming fear and anxiety is understanding how these feelings work. The more we know about them, the less power they will have over us. We can gain a superficial understanding by studying what experts have to say on the subject. According to Abnormal Psychology by David H. Barlow and V. Mark Durand, fear is a reaction to a specific observable danger, while anxiety is a more diffuse, continuous, imagined and usually future-oriented feeling of distress. Our own experience is, however, a far better tutor, and by engaging our reflective minds we are able to examine our own experiences with fear and anxiety. To start, simply think about an occasion when you were feeling particularly anxious about some aspect of the pandemic. As your mind recalls the anxious experience, picture where you were when it happened, and then be mindful of the emotional response that it elicits within you. You may notice that your body responds by tightening muscles, holding the breath, speeding up your heart, and causing a dry mouth, to name a few. Then let go of this inner experience, and reflect on what you felt.
You will probably notice both a bodily and an emotional response, which you may be able to describe quite clearly. Ask yourself what caused this response – was it an external or an internal trigger? If possible, name it. Why do the body and mind respond in this way? Do you remember other similar inner experiences? Your answers may lead you to the cause and effect of this specific stress syndrome. They may also lead you to discover the deeper meaning of your fear responses. You may find that fear is both the trigger and the response of the reflexive, adaptive body-mind, as this fear-induced stress can activate self-protective mechanisms that allow you to meet and survive threats. Or maybe you will realise that this experience is very familiar, and that it is the same response that has been there from early childhood.
The Fear and Anxiety Stress Syndrome
The biological fight or flight response was first described in 1915 by neurologist and physiologist Walter B. Cannon. In 1936, Dr Hans Selye published his research on ‘General Adaptation Syndrome’, i.e. the body’s response to stress. Further research has explored the neuro-hormonal and immunological effects of the stress response and, over the past two decades, psycho-neuro-endocrine immunology has conclusively linked the psychological dimension to these physiological responses.
A psychological trigger such as an anxious thought, memory or perception, coupled with anxious emotional feelings about the threat to one’s security, induce a complex cascade of physiological reactions that involve the autonomic nervous system and a neuro-hormonal system called the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis. The all-inclusive biological and psychological human response to threatening demands and challenges is what we may call the stress syndrome.
The one arm of the autonomic nervous system – the sympathetic nervous system – elicits the fight-flight reaction through the release of adrenalin from the adrenal gland which, moments later, also receives signals to secrete cortisol (sometimes know as ‘the stress hormone’). These two hormones - adrenalin and cortisol - have a far-reaching impact on the entire body, activating the alarm signals and adaptive responses needed to meet the stressor. The heart beats faster, blood pressure rises, breathing slows down and oxygen levels drop, the chest tightens, muscles become tense, the body cools down, blood sugar rises, and the immune system is on hyper-alert. As your whole system gears up to meet the challenge and inflammatory chemicals are poured out to combat the threatening aggressor, your body is put under strain. When this adaptive state is sustained for a prolonged period of time, it becomes highly damaging to the body itself, and weakens the immune system. This is the perfect set-up for viral invasion, which thrives on poor respiration, low oxygen, hypothermia, raised blood sugar and an impaired immune system.
But what is the aggressor in the case of anxiety? It is not the virus, but your own thoughts, memories, inner perceptions and emotional reactions. These are all self-imagined, self-harming, and unnecessary impairments to the immune system that only serve to increase the chance of infection.
My Journey with Fear, Anxiety and the Stress Syndrome
I learned about the stress syndrome through my own experiences as an anxious child, and I have been exploring the effects of stress on the body and mind for over four decades as an integrative medical specialist. My special focus on child health, addictive patterns and the cancer syndrome led me to understand how critical the stress factor is in illness, and that fear and anxiety form a major component of many diseases. This journey opened many doors for my work, and encouraged me to investigate the management of stress through an integrative health perspective. This led to the development and practice of a psycho-medical modality called the PATH Method. The method empowers the participant to access and manage inner self-harming emotions such as fear and anxiety by tapping into inner resources that can help to overcome these reactions. The easy-to-learn practice involves creating a partnership between the anxious part of one’s psyche and the stronger, compassionate other self that participates - with heightened awareness - in addressing, transforming and healing the stress-creating issues. Hence the name PATH – Participatory Awareness for Transformational Healing.
Stress Research and Assessments
There is an entire field of research devoted to searching for a comprehensive and valid stress assessment tool that would allow for the accurate determination of stress levels that could then be managed with a number of stress-reducing interventions. As a response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Path to Health Centre is offering a free Compassionate COVID Stress Assessment that will inform participants of their stress levels. If they appear high, a number of lifestyle interventions may be suggested to reduce stress. These include:
- Daily exercise
- Sleep improvement
- Breathing exercises
- Creative pursuits
- Connecting with nature
- Intravenous vitamin C infusions
- Dietary restrictions on inflammatory foods (e.g. refined sugar, alcohol, coffee and foods containing gluten or lectin)
- Mindfulness-based stress reduction programmes (such as the PATH Method)
These techniques can also be used for preventative strengthening of the immune system.
Managing Fear and Anxiety
By understanding and naming fear and anxiety, we have come one step closer to dealing with it effectively. Ultimately, the goal is to step away from the emotional experience of stress and tap into the part of ourselves that can approach anxiety-inducing problems in a logical, stable and calm way. It is essential to stay present and engaged with this logical part of ourselves if we are to manage our anxiety. We can now begin to interact with our new-found partner. Choose the role you want to play in order to guide and support the anxious self in whatever way seems appropriate: a wise counsellor, healer, mentor, friend, parent or protector. Practise becoming this resource, and stay connected to it throughout stressful times. We can intensify the partnership if we express our anxiety physically, and then step away from and visualise the image we have created in order to better understand our psyche. You can visit www.pathmethod.com to learn more about the strategy or book a session in which it is taught and supervised by a facilitator.
The Gift of Fear and Anxiety
While fear and anxiety have the potential to weaken the immune system and create a predisposition to serious illness, the process of overcoming these aggressive emotions has the ability to enhance the immune system, enabling one to deal more effectively with the transmission and infection of viruses. The COVID-19 pandemic has given us the opportunity to gain deep insight into the story of our fear and anxiety, and to find our inner power and resilience to transform these dangerous emotions into forces for compassion and courage. Through this, we can strengthen our immunity and ourselves, allowing us to move swiftly and safely into reconnecting with the world around us in a renewed, regenerated and purposeful way.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Dr Raoul Goldberg graduated with his M.D. from Wits University in 1974, and was left with a desire to expand his knowledge and understanding of the full human existence and experience. He decided to continue his studies, and spent seven years training in integrative medical clinics in Switzerland. He has remained a life-long student of homeopathy, acupuncture, nutrition, botanical medicine, anthroposophical medicine and functional medicine. He is currently completing his PhD in Integral and Transpersonal Psychology (with a focus on the study of stress) through the California Institute of Integral Studies. He has authored articles for several health journals, and has published books on addictive behaviour and holistic human development. He is an active medical doctor at the Path to Health Centre in Cape Town, and supports patients all over the world through telemedicine.
To find out more or get in touch, visit www.syringahealth.co.za or www.pathmethod.com.