The evolution of anxiety and COVID-19


Now, more than I can ever recall, people all around the world are simultaneously experiencing levels of fear and anxiety that are higher than normal. COVID-19 has brought about a feeling of worldwide hysteria that has people ‘panic buying’ simple grocery items that will bear no impact on their survival if they were to contract the virus.

Why is it that humans respond to fear and anxiety this way?

The sensations of fear and anxiety are survival mechanisms that stem all the way back to the earliest humans who were living lives in an ‘immediate-return environment’. The earliest modern humans, Homo sapiens sapiens, lived approximately 20,000 years ago and were the first to have brains relatively similar to ours. The big difference between life then and now is the idea of immediate vs delayed return.

Immediate-return environments are ones where fear and anxiety are helpful responses to situations. Imagine you are tasked with the role of keeping your tribe safe while searching for food in the Savanna. While hunting, a lion appears in the distance. You feel stressed which brings about a ‘fight or flight’ sensation. Without much thought, this reaction drives you to run away and almost instantaneously your stress levels are reduced because you have removed yourself from the situation. The instant or immediate return has helped you to deal with the stress you encountered and you move on with your day.

The sensations of fear and anxiety are driven by the amygdala, made up of two small almond-shaped structures and found in the temporal lobes of each hemisphere of the brain. The amygdala’s role is to process fearful emotions to identify threats and send signals to the hypothalamus to initiate fight or flight responses. As you can imagine, this was essential in an immediate-return environment where situations needed to be dealt with… and fast.

Fast forward five hundred years and the environment in which we are living has changed drastically. Come another 400 years closer to today and in the last 100 years we have seen changes occur so dramatically that nearly everything that makes up our everyday life has been created in a very small window of time. Cars, planes, televisions and the Internet are all new additions to our lives within this time.

Most of these new additions to the way we live our lives are not conducive with an immediate-return environment. You do not (usually) wake up one morning and decide you are going to take a flight across the world or buy a brand new car. Both of these things would require some level of planning – most people would need a job and need to save for each of these, therefore delaying the return of what you are wanting.

This is also now branching into other areas of our lives – we usually find ourselves worrying about the problems of the future. Why? Because our 100 years may seem like a lifetime for inventions in modern society, however, it is an extremely small period of time in the case of human evolution. The modern brain spent thousands of years evolving for one way of life (immediate-return) and in the blink of an eye the environment has changed (delayed-return).

How COVID-19 is impacting on anxiety & fear

With the current COVID-19 situation, our immediate-return needs are not being met. The amygdala was designed to deal with short term, acute problems that could be overcome straight away. People are struggling to find a solution to how they are going to deal with the current situation or process the overload of information regarding COVID-19 and this results in heightened levels of anxiety. It is also human nature that when an individual is surrounded by those who are anxious or stressed that they will also feel a heightened level of anxiety as well.

Constant uncertainty is one of the greatest causes of anxiety in the delayed-return environment. Depending on where you live, you are dealing with different levels of government restrictions as a result of COVID-19 and in some places, you may even be waiting for the government to have an ‘appropriate response’ to the situation based on what you are hearing happening elsewhere. We are uncertain about the number of cases of COVID-19 that have actually been confirmed versus the number of people who have been infected, but not tested. We are uncertain as to whether we will be able to travel safely and if we do, whether we will be able to return home without having to undergo a period of quarantine. We are uncertain about what protocols to follow in regards to being in public or even school. We are even uncertain about how we are going to purchase basic grocery items such as toilet paper and tissues.

So, what can we do to try to reduce the effects of anxiety on ourselves but also on the children in our care?

It is important to ensure that you are as informed as possible. Don’t rely on social media to give you correct information regarding the COVID-19 situation. Many ‘news’ outlets are providing information that is not entirely correct and it is making it difficult for anyone to wade through the excessive amounts of information to work out what is truth. Rely on services such as the World Health Organisation and your local government Health Department. If you read something and you aren’t sure whether it is accurate, take the time to cross-reference the information you are reading to ensure that it is consistent with multiple sources (including those mentioned above).

Further to this, don’t ‘reactive share’ posts on social media without verifying the information. Fear and anxiety is just as contagious as the virus we are dealing with and spreading inaccurate information is just going to add to the number of people suffering.

Take the time to speak to the children in your care – whether they are your own children or students who you have a duty of care to. Don’t sugar coat things, but don’t instil unnecessary fear in them by over exaggerating the situation. Again, use informed conversation. Direct students to do their own investigating from reliable sources. WHO have some great resources that can be used with children of all ages to help alleviate fears, dispel myths and provide advice on protecting themselves and their loved ones.

If schools close and we are forced into a period of isolation, use this time as an opportunity to refocus your energy. It is going to be a very steep learning curve for many of us to determine how to best work remotely, while still providing our students with the best possible education and a sense of stability. On the ‘bright side’ it will also be a time where we will not be dealing with pressures of traffic and road rage or not running from one place to another to meet deadlines or to coordinate all of the things that usually happen in our day to day lives.

In order to try to alleviate some of the anxiety that students may be feeling, EP has developed a Smart Lesson that explores COVID-19 and puts some of the more technical terminology into a more digestible format. It also explores some of the myths that WHO have dispelled – hopefully helping students to get a better understanding of what is happening. You can access this lesson here.


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