Everyone’s feeling the stress of the viral pandemic. How do we deal with anxiety? For this month’s blog, let’s continue our examination of resiliency strengths and how having a unique, personal, personally meaningful, fairly reliable means of dealing with life’s constant worries amounts to a core resiliency strength. We call it “PLATA”, or: “Philosophical and Logical Approach Toward Anxiety.” What’s your PLATA and how well is it working for you?
Philosophical and Logical Approach Toward Anxiety (PLATA): competence to handle one’s emotions in general, including anger, frustration, guilt or shame, is a valuable resiliency strength. But one emotion in particular, anxiety (or fear, or worry), is endemic to the human condition and trumps them all. Anxiety is so pervasive and powerful that coping with it requires separate treatment in any survey of resiliency skills. Anxiety will always be a part of the human condition because it has survival value, alerting homo sapiens to potential dangers in the environment, and has therefore evolved whole brain structures programmed into the deepest parts of the brain, with well-known functions to detect and respond to potential threats to survival.
From the evolutionary point of view, could the reason the brain is a vital organ be because it’s vital function is that of “threat detection?” We all know the term “vital organs” and it’s pretty straightforward what is the vital part about the function of most organs. The heart is the organ of blood circulation. The lungs are the organs of air exchange. The kidneys are the organs of filtration and water regulation, etc. But what was the huge, complex, energy-consuming brain designed to do? As a vital organ, what’s it’s vital function? Most likely, the brain is the vital organ of threat detection: The senses alert our brain to potentially troublesome sights or sounds. The brain’s memory banks recall similar situations and whether dangers were similarly present. The frontal lobes or analytical parts of the brain analyze all this data to make sense of whether a threat exists and what actions to take in response.
Brain structures devoted to threat detection include the amygdala for alerting us to potential dangers, the hippocampus for storing salient memories, the locus coeruleus for ramping up fear-based arousal, the hypothalamus for coordinating memory, perception, emotion, the pituitary for stimulating secretion of Adrenaline, and the pre-frontal cortex for weighing risks and inhibiting the fear response. Vast anatomical regions of the brain are, in fact, devoted to the initiation, enhancement, management, remembrance, or inhibition of anxiety. So much so that the entire brain can reasonably be thought of as one giant ciphering machine for the calculation of whether a situation is safe or threatening.(1) Because anxiety is programmed intrinsically into the human brain, it’s never a question of whether anxiety is a “good” or “bad” emotion, or whether anxiety is a sign of a “strong” or “weak” person, but rather a question of understanding what is the source of our anxiety, and what use we shall make of this emotion in confronting danger or threat of loss.
Moving away from the scientific perspective on anxiety to a biblical perspective, Rabbi Harold Kushner points out that the very first thought uttered by man after his creation by God was an expression of anxiety: “Responding to God’s question ‘Where are you?’ Adam says ‘I heard your voice in the Garden and I was afraid.’ (Genesis 3:10).”(2) In the New Testament, the angel’s first words to Mary are, “Do not be afraid.” In fact, when God speaks to man in the bible, He tells people not to be afraid more than 80 times! Surely this is a testimony to the ancient, historical – even prehistorical – roots of anxiety in the human brain.
Much of psychology, religion, and philosophy, from the schools of the ancient Stoics, to the teachings of the Dalai Lama, to the counseling of the cognitive-behavioral therapists, is devoted to the perennial human problem of anxiety. Each of us develops our own variation of a philosophical and logical approach to anxiety but there are some common elements. These common elements include acknowledgement and ultimately acceptance of the ‘worst case scenario’, as evidenced by soldiers in war who felt their death was such a sure thing that accepting so freed them to focus better on the combat tasks at hand (thus paradoxically improving their odds of ultimate survival). Another common element of most PLATA includes identifying those elements of a situation that are outside of one’s control (and thus not worth expending worry over); when I arrived in Anbar province, Iraq, for a tour of duty in a combat support hospital in 2005, my fellow officers advised me to view the incoming mortar fire as “fate”, meaning that the first round would either hit you or not; it was totally out of your control and therefore not worth worrying about (after that first round, however, it was totally within our control to get to cover as quickly as possible!). Managing anxiety is especially acute for the person trying to avoid relapse to alcohol or drugs. The Serenity Prayer, a consummate expression of PLATA, is often invoked to maintain calm, by reminding ourselves of what’s in vs. outside of our control. (3)
One of the most common ways to increase your PLATA – your ability to tolerate anxiety – is to invoke a resiliency role model. A resiliency role model can be anyone including friends, family, teachers, or fictional or mythological characters. Often it’s a reassuring parent or grandparent whose steadying calm, and cautious optimism, kept your worst fears in check. Or a book or movie protagonist whose perseverance or daring sets an example. Sports figures, at least back in the day when I was young, were often positive role models in general. On a societal level, legends and folk tales suggest resiliency role models for the culture as a whole. How did George Washington, commanding the poorly trained and poorly supplied Continental Army against the mighty Redcoats, contain his anxiety? What strengths did Jackie Robinson invoke in order to focus on playing the game of baseball as he became the first African-American to break the color barrier in that professional sport? And so on. A role model sets the example of how to get through tough times.
The ability to handle, manage, or overcome anxiety is a central problem of being human. Devising a successful strategy for dealing with anxiety, your own PLATA, allows all the other mental work of handling adversity to proceed. Without PLATA, anxiety inhibits positive emotions and disrupts sleep; in brain science terms, an alarmist amygdala and limbic system literally inhibit the frontal lobes from calmly thinking things through. This is a common aspect of many psychiatric diagnoses called “relative hypofrontality”. Anxiety is most often the basis of negative behaviors such as social isolation, fear-based aggression, or suicidal impulses. It is more difficult to maintain perseverance, the mother of all resiliency strengths, unless anxiety is kept in check. Whether the task is rebuilding after a flood, dealing with a cancer diagnosis, living in the age of Coronavirus and “social distancing”, or just sending your young child off to school every day, your personal PLATA provides a way of containing or neutralizing what would otherwise become a paralyzing state of anxiety. As a core resiliency strength, PLATA, whose acronym means “silver” or “money” in Spanish, is truly worth its weight in gold.
Bringing this back around to the crisis of the day, how do we manage our anxieties about the Coronavirus pandemic? I can only tell you how I’m managing, and you can see how much of it you can apply to your life situation. First, I don’t believe that the world as we know it is ending. The virus will pass through society; many will die and there will be pain and sadness. We’ll develop new tests and treatments and practices and then we’ll get through it. Ready for the next crisis, I should probably add. Second, I am doing what is in my power to do including frequent handwashing, social distancing, staying calm and encouraging others, and redirecting some of the negative energy into pitching in and helping others when opportunities arise. Third, I am checking for updates on the virus – but not more than once a day, if possible; mainly I’m looking for evidence that the “inflection point” on the curve of new cases is making a turn. Fourth, I’m taking it one day at a time; in my mind, a few weeks back I decided that we’ll probably be through the worst of it in 90 days or so. So with that framework I’m taking it one day at a time, doing the best I can for myself and others each day, counting each day and that gives me a sense that the crisis is time-limited and not forever. I arrived at my 90 day figure based loosely on the spread of the illness and other viral epidemics in my lifetime and I realize it’s just an educated guess, but at least it helps me remember that the crisis is time-limited and not the end of the world. Fifth, I’m also invoking other resiliency strengths. The list of other resiliency skills in addition to PLATA that I’m tapping is long, as befits a major and infrequent life challenge such as Coronavirus. It includes the following, some of which I will write about in future blogs:
- PAR (“Perseverance and Resolve”, perhaps the mother-of-all resiliency strengths, because the opposite of PAR is hopelessness).
- WHIP (Wit, Humor, Irony, and Playfulness, a necessary resiliency strength enabling us stave off despair and to laugh in the face of calamity; see, for example:
- HASH (“Healthy and Sustainable Habits.” Daily, get some exercise and/or significant body movement, good nutrition, financial spending discipline, and give your body the gift of a good night’s sleep. For me and my family, I’ve increased our dietary intake of garlic, mushrooms, onions, and supplements including vitamins C and D, curcumin, and other plant-based sources of polyphenols, which can significantly boost immunity).
- PINE (“Powerful Influence of Natural Environments”), appreciating the spring blossoms and the stars in the night sky. From our natural world – what remains of it – we draw perspective, strength, and beauty; I’m grateful that winter is largely over and we’ve got another spring on this earth to appreciate.
- SOP (“Sense of Perspective”) – I remind myself that exactly one century ago we faced a killer virus known as the Spanish Flu, and back then we didn’t have any of the scientific understanding nor medical treatments that we have available today – yet somehow the human spirit prevailed over that deadly contagion). And,
- FARSS (“Furnishing And Receiving Social Support”) – connecting to, and checking in on others, is comforting and strength-giving we’re all in this together. Good luck and good health to everyone!
- David Rock, Your Brain at Work: Strategies for Overcoming Distraction, Regaining Focus, and Working Smarter All Day Long, Harper Business, 2009.
- Harold Kushner, Conquering Fear: Living Boldly in an Uncertain World, Knopf, 2009 (p. 23).
- Reinhold Niebuhr (1892–1971), “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”