Coronavirus Anxiety: Your Brain’s Search for Certainty

Coronavirus Anxiety: Your Brain’s Search for Certainty

Mike Niconchuk, Beyond Conflict Senior Researcher
As an applied neuroscientist, I spend much of my time writing for lay audiences about the brain, including writing The Field Guide for Barefoot Psychology, a psychoeducation tool to help trauma-affected communities explore how stress affects the brain and body and develop skills to manage post-traumatic stress, anxiety, depression, and hopelessness.

For the past ten years, I’ve worked in communities whose traumas are big, loud, and obvious: war, forced displacement, community violence. Yet today, the entire world is spinning in an extended traumatic moment, dealing with a microscopic threat that has shaken otherwise stable societies to the core. 

I firmly believe in the adage that knowledge is power. That is why I spend so much time making the neurobiology of stress and trauma accessible to those who can most benefit from that knowledge. 
Mike Niconchuck teaching mechanisms to deal with trauma and stress at the Zaatari Refugee Camp in Jordan.

As is often the case, this work started out as “me-search” (i.e. research about me and my issues), about my own life-long struggle with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). In my investigations, one of the first things I came across was a wealth of literature exploring the antiquated term for OCD: the doubting disease

OCD is very much about doubt; doubt only temporarily relieved by acts, facts, logic, and reason. A doubt that falsely suggests that you, the owner of the brain in question, can control your own fate by thinking and re-thinking certain thoughts and scenarios (i.e. compulsions) and doing and re-doing certain behaviors (i.e., compulsions). 

OCD exploits a central feature of the human brain—the love of certainty.  Our brains love certainty because it helps us stay alive. 

Your brain is constantly making predictions about possible threats to your safety, about what you’re seeing and might see, about what you’re feeling and might feel. It predicts threats at the level of milliseconds by relying on associations it has made based on past experience and inferences, and then by coordinating the best response to meet those risks and stay alive. 

For example, fight or flight responses to stressful situations are, in the moment, logical adaptive strategies to confront a threat. In most cases, our brains have neat mechanisms-to calm down, to temper our responses to threats real or imagined. 

Importantly, though, the ability to calm down is largely dependent on the threat disappearing, or the knowledge of what will happen next, or of when safety will come. 

The brain can only know what’s coming by having enough relevant information. 

From the brain’s perspective, then, this pandemic is terrifying to all of us because no one really knows what is coming next. We all run the risk of sustained stress and fear responses (including anxiety), as the information we have is insufficient, incomplete, or inconclusive. Many of you, I’m sure, have gone down the rabbit-hole: 

What happens if supply chains shut down? 

What happens if the internet breaks? 

What if I have an underlying condition I didn’t know about?

What if I run out of money?

What if I never see my elder loved ones again?

As I’ve long lived with OCD, the “well, that escalated quickly” chain of thoughts is par for the course. I’ve grown to recognize it. I’ve also had to find ways to manage it.  Thought spirals like the one above are almost never productive. But, they are understandable efforts of a brain frantically trying to keep you alive. With that understanding, we can perhaps be a little less harsh with ourselves, while also working to prevent legitimate consequences for loved ones and front-line health care workers. 

The novel coronavirus has been an intense and volatile time for me, as it has for many. So many are collectively and uniquely affected by stress, fear, and anxiety. It is a normal response to an abnormal event. Let me say it again. What many of us are feeling is a normal, understandable, logical response to an abnormal event. 

That doesn’t mean we should let our brains run rampant and unchecked. We have both a responsibility and ability to ensure that our stress and fear do not damage ourselves or those around us. 

I recently chatted with Samer, one of our Field Guide facilitators in Za’atri Refugee Camp in Jordan, where people are living under one of the world’s toughest lockdowns in Jordan. Our team works daily to combat misinformation and produce educational content to calm the racing thoughts of mothers and fathers living in close quarters, worried about what happens if COVID-19 spreads in the refugee camp where they live. 

As we talked, Samer noticed me motor-mouthing facts and figures about COVID-19, way more than he needed or wanted to know.

With a somewhat victorious smile, he said “You’re spiraling. Do you need to breathe? Tell your lungs to tell your brain to calm down.” 

Sam continued, guiding me through one of the breathing exercises featured in The Field Guide for Barefoot Psychology, an exercise that uses breath as a sort of kick in the pants to calm the brain: 

“You know that the brain signals to the body. But the body gives feedback signs and signals to the brain, too. For example, your brain interprets rapid, shallow breaths as a danger signal. Basically, when your body is breathing as if under stress, your brain is receiving signals that it is in danger, thus creating a feedback loop. Stress shortens breath, and shortened breath signals further danger. By slowing the breath and focusing on the exhale, we can increase the response of the parasympathetic nervous system, which will slow the heartbeat and signal to your brain and body to relax.”

I cut him off short, admitting that he was right, knowing that I—like all of us—have some innate tools to deal with the uncertainty that is inevitable right now. 

So, I began to breathe. I began to use one thing that is still certainly, if mostly unconsciously, under my control—my breath.


The Field Guide reflects a unique collaboration between Beyond Conflict and Questscope to address the emotional and psychological burdens associated with forced displacement, trauma and violence.

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