Many people have discovered that, in addition to being a smart way to reduce the spread of Covid-19, social distancing has some negative effects that include feelings of isolation, loneliness, and increased stress.
And that increased stress can cause other problems such as changes in sleep patterns and difficulty concentrating.
It doesn’t have to be that way.
The deliberate, mindful choices we make can have a measurable effect on how we cope with stress.
That’s the research-based conclusion of Dr. Paul Napper and Dr. Anthony Rao, psychologists who have spent years studying agency, the ability to respond actively rather than passively to situations that impact our lives.
In other words, agency is what people can use to feel in command of their lives.
During this time of pandemic, it’s more important than ever that we learn to cope with stress. But many people are struggling. According to data from the World Health Organization, as many as 40 million Americans are now diagnosed with an anxiety disorder.
To repeat: it doesn’t have to be that way. Napper and Rao offer some smart—and non-pharmaceutical—treatments for anxiety in their book The Power of Agency: The 7 Principles to Conquer Obstacles, Make Effective Decisions, and Create a Life on Your Own Terms.
Rodger Dean Duncan: Many people felt overwhelmed and anxious even before Covid-19 swept around the globe. How has the pandemic affected that state of mind?
Anthony Rao: The pandemic is like a global human stress test that exposes our vulnerabilities, physical as well as emotional.
We can expect more stress reactions—such as high irritability, anxiety, fatigue, and problems sleeping. But the pandemic also raises the stakes on what people’s minds can process and integrate. There will be more moments of acute stress, or what is commonly experienced as “overwhelm.” These are moments where we experience mental confusion, lose access to our critical thinking and make poorer decisions. In response, our frustration tolerance is taxed and we may fly into fits of anger or be immobilized by fear. Behind the scenes are elevated levels of adrenalin and cortisol.
On a more human level, during periods of overwhelm, our personal agency is under assault. We can lose self-confidence and give up control over what’s in our power to change. Through enhancing our agency, we stay grounded, build resilience, and move ourselves onto higher mental and physical ground to address the challenges that lie ahead.
Duncan: It’s estimated that about 40 million Americans are now diagnosed with an anxiety disorder. What are the tell-tale signs of that level of anxiety?
Rao: Anxiety takes many forms. It can range from vague, nagging worries to highly intense phobias. It may show up as incessant obsessions and rituals, or sudden intense fear that causes heart palpitations and shortness of breath.
Professionals rely on clinical criteria to make a formal diagnosis.
Consider these factors in deciding whether you should seek professional help to manage anxiety. How frequent and how debilitating is the anxiety? If it’s interfering with daily work and productivity, straining your relationships, keeping you from reaching your goals, and most important, adversely affecting your mood and level of enjoyment, it’s serious enough to seek help.
Second, when anxiety symptoms remain high week after week, it may signify you’ve gone beyond normal reactions to common daily life stress. You could be neurologically stuck in an unrealistic, negative pattern of thinking and behaving that is serving to exaggerate and perpetuate the anxiety. It can be a vicious cycle.
During this time of widespread disruption, it can be a good opportunity for all of us to pay attention to our mental weak spots and put helpful resources in place— like therapy, coaching, more positive social supports, and mind-body practices.
Duncan: When parents suffer from anxiety (even if they don’t realize or acknowledge it), what’s the effect on their children?
Rao: Anxiety is a highly contagious emotion. We have mirror neurons that automatically pick up and mimic the strong emotional signals of others around us. When parents are anxious, it transfers easily to their kids.
We’ve all experienced what it’s like to be in a tense meeting or around highly anxious people. We often absorb that angst and come away with higher levels of stress. Younger children are especially vulnerable to picking up anxiety signals from their parents because their coping skills aren’t well-developed. Children rely on parents to protect them and keep them calm, to prevent them from feeling that their world is unsafe and unpredictable.
It’s helpful to think of parenting in leadership terms. Good leaders work to stay calm and keep others calm during times of stress. They monitor their emotions and reactions. They communicate calmly, clearly, and concisely.
Even the best of leaders will struggle with strong emotions and make mistakes. When this happens, it’s helpful to acknowledge those moments openly and model for others how best to adapt and problem-solve in the face of disruptive change and uncertainty.
Duncan: How can people develop higher levels of agency to take more proactive command of their lives?
Napper: Agency is our capacity to define the situation we find ourselves in, make effective choices, and put our decisions into action.
Human agency allows us to effectively adapt to uncertainty and change. Certain behaviors and ways of thinking allow us to develop greater agency.
On the behavioral side, it’s important to manage the quality of and the amount of stimuli you take in. This is the first Agency Principle (Control Stimuli). If your brain is overstimulated and full of inaccurate information your personal agency declines.
Second, it’s crucial to surround yourself with positive, supportive people you can learn from (Associate Selectivity). The final behavioral principle we call “Move” which is taking charge of your overall level of physical health.
From our study, we have isolated 4 thinking practices that build agency.
First, actively position yourself to learn in every situation you find yourself in (Position Yourself as a Learner).
Second, take charge of your personal emotions and beliefs (Manage Your Emotions and Beliefs).
Third, understand the important role that intuition plays in your thinking process and become better at using it wisely (Check Your Intuition).
The final agency building principle is to learn how to effectively deliberate before taking action which requires you to learn how to think more critically (Deliberate, Then Act).
Duncan: How did you identify those seven principles?
Napper: We identified the seven principles that build greater agency from a process of intensive review of existing theory and research combined with decades of experience working with high-agency populations. Building on this, we conducted in-depth interviews with more than 100 people across the country who are making a difference in their lives and demonstrating great personal agency.
From this we learned what underlying mechanisms were at work behind the scenes for this diverse swath of individuals. This full process enabled us to distill a multitude of discrete techniques and practices into a clear and comprehensible set of principles that build human agency in any and all situations.
Duncan: How do those seven principles operate in concert with each other?
Napper: The seven principles work in a synergistic fashion. Used in concert, they support agency through keeping you balanced, grounded and focused—primed to face whatever situation presents and make good choices.
Practicing one principle supports your ability to practice others. We suggest starting with the Behavioral Principles as these are the easiest to begin practicing. The four Cognitive Principles of agency require more skill to master and are more readily achieved when you are practicing the 3 Behavioral Principles.
Duncan: Because of shelter-in-place and work from home mandates, the global pandemic has increased people’s involvement with media-related distractions. Your first principle calls for more control over such stimulus bombardment. What special challenges does this bombardment present?
Anthony Rao: No doubt, the pandemic has kept us housebound. And with that, we’re on our devices much more.
There are risks we take by not controlling our exposure to this type of stimulation. Prolonged use of devices affects posture, can increase neck and back pain, causes eye strain and nearsightedness in children. Attentional problems, obesity, and disrupted sleep have also been linked.
It’s important to acknowledge that the type of digital stimuli consumed, not only the quantity, matters. More time on social media has been related to increased anxiety and depression in young adults.
We’re also experiencing widespread problems caused by misinformation tied to social media and other unreliable news sources. Frankly, there’s so much bad stimuli surrounding us every moment of every day that many people’s thinking capabilities and personal agency is being eroded. Yes, it’s that bad.
We suggest that you choose wisely. During the pandemic, we recommend that people identify (and limit) information that increases negative emotions as this can confuse and overwhelm cognitive systems. When we are less emotional and our minds are in a calmer state, we make better decisions.
These days it’s tough to achieve a healthy balance. Most of us are required to be on devices while working remotely. Our children’s education is mostly virtual. These are times to leverage the incredible technology we have available to us to keep working and learning.
But, when feeling bored or frustrated, reconsider reflexively reaching for your device. Instead, consider devoting your mind and body to something non-digital—an experience you have to create, one that nourishes all your senses. It will recharge your sense of self and make you feel more alive.
This column was first published by Forbes, where Dr. Duncan is a regular contributor.