‘We’re really not alone’: A psychologist’s advice for finding calm amid COVID-19

The impulse to race out to the grocery store and stock up on toilet paper during COVID-19 could be an indication you’re listening to “the caveman” side of your brain, according to a clinical psychologist in Halifax. 

Dr. Dayna Lee-Baggley with the Nova Scotia Health Authority said our survival instincts are there for a reason, but they don’t give great advice when faced with a threat like the novel coronavirus. 

“Basically, our caveman minds are kind of on fire,” she told CBC’s Information Morning. “So they’re kind of yelling and screaming at us because there’s all this threat, but it’s important to recognize that our caveman mind doesn’t do a great job of risk perception.”

On Friday, the federal government announced measures to better protect Canadians from COVID-19, including warning against all international travel and limiting inbound flights.

In Nova Scotia, Premier Stephen McNeil said all public sector employees who travel outside of Canada will now be required to self-isolate for 14 days before returning to work.

Lee-Baggley said it’s important to acknowledge the anxiety individuals might be feeling, while also engaging in activities that give the mind a break. Her conversation with Information Morning host Portia Clark has been edited for clarity and length.

People do want to stay informed, they want to know what’s going on, they want to take precautions if they need to. How do they do that while also taking care of their mental health and not getting overwhelmed?

When we talk about how many people have died from the infection, we tend not to talk about how many people survive the infection. So that isn’t to say there’s no risk. It’s just to let us know that our caveman mind is on fire and it’s going to give us advice about how to survive, but it may overestimate the risk and what we need to do.

We kind of need frontal lobes to work in terms of following the advice from authorities in terms of handwashing and those kinds of things…. So we want to take care of our caveman mind enough to help kind of calm it down so that we can make good decisions to take care of ourselves.

With updates about COVID-19 happening by the minute, it’s important to take care of our mental health. We heard from clinical health psychologist Dr. Dayna Lee-Baggley about relieving some of the anxiety around this illness. 7:34

How do we talk to or calm down our “caveman mind,” that instinctual reaction?

It’s important to know that there’s nothing you can do to turn it on or off. As a survival mechanism, you don’t have the option. It’s going to give you advice no matter what.

Our frontal lobe, on the other hand, is kind of like a battery. And so we use it up. You can drain the battery by doing things, and so you want to think about whether you’ve recharged your battery. We talk about recharging activities, which is something that makes you feel more energetic at the end than when you start.

Toilet paper has been a popular item at grocery stores since the COVID-19 pandemic reached Canada. This photo was taken at a Sobeys grocery store in Halifax on March 12, 2020. (Richard Woodbury/CBC)

Sometimes you do kind of need a mental break from all the information. You want to find ways to try to laugh and have a good time. Connecting with other important people in your life is a way of calming down your caveman mind because it helps us recognize that we’re not alone. We’re really not alone. This is actually a global epidemic and everybody is affected and everybody is actually working on doing the right thing.

Mr. Rogers used to say when you see a crisis, he’s, like, also focus on the number of people rushing in to help. So you can think about the bad thing that’s happening but also all the people who want to help. The Maritimes is a wonderful place because it’s so community minded. It’s a great place to be sick because people will want to support you and help you and take care of you.”

What about people who have anxiety and now they’re in a situation where that can be exacerbated?

So that anxiety is coming from your caveman mind. If you already have anxiety, it’s going to be heightened. And part of this is about being compassionate — both to ourselves and to other people, which is to recognize you can’t do much about that anxiety. 

But you can also be anxious about your anxiety, right? You can be angry about your anxiety. You can be worried about your anxiety. That part we can do something about, which is just to recognize this is a normal response. This is millions of years of evolution in action kind of preparing you for a threat, preparing you for survival.

Public health officials say the best way to protect yourself against COVID-19 is regular and thorough handwashing, disinfecting surfaces and avoiding touching your face. (Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press)

The toilet paper thing is our caveman mind on fire because it’s not a logical behaviour. It’s not really going to help you. There’s no supply chain issues, but that’s our caveman mind saying, ‘Oh my gosh. We need to do something. Quick do something!’ So it’s just to recognize you will have more anxiety and that’s OK. It’s understandable. It’s normal. This is millions of years of evolution in action. Try to be kind to ourselves as well as other people. 

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