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Reduce Your Anxiety By Helping Others

Lynda Holt

At the risk of stating the obvious, we live in scary times – whatever your background, your job, your politics – this affects you. I’m seeing a complete contrast between my small business client, many of whom have seen their work evaporate overnight, and friends who thought they were in stable jobs being laid off, to my health care colleagues who are being called upon to give even more than they usually do in even more difficult circumstances.

The vast majority of us are simply asking ourselves what we can do to help. Whether that be staying at home to slow the spread of the virus, whether it be volunteer delivering for local pharmacies or charities, whether it is through your paid work – we can all do something. This I believe is critical – not just because of the ‘doing’, but because of the sense of purpose, or contribution it brings with it.

As humans we need to contribute, we need to feel that we matter and for many the perceived lack of control over our own circumstances and our health even, is incredibly anxiety provoking. Knowing and accepting what your contribution is right now – however small it might feel, and let’s face it ‘stay home’ doesn’t really play into the hero in most of us, will help you to feel more in control.

Feeling more in control goes hand in hand with feeling less anxious, and at a practical level it also leaves you better placed to contribute.

Anxiety is both complex and simple. It’s complex because it doesn’t often have a specific cause or cure, it may have some known triggers and those of us that have experienced it will have a few management strategies, but often it can be a bit like trying to keep liquid in a sieve. It’s simple because whatever the trigger, it creates the same chemical change of events in your body that, left unchecked, will make you feel awful, it will stop you functioning as you are used to and make you question yourself more than usual – this is a physiological response.

I’m very much taking the simple chemical approach here. When you help others, what goes on in your amygdala activity changes. Fear is suppressed by the oxytocin (the feel good, empathy hormone) floating around in response to social connection / contribution – you feel good for giving help. 

According to research by Inagaki & Ross in 2018, who tracked amygdala changes through MRI scans, targeted help was more beneficial than untargeted help. People giving to charity, for example, give untargeted support – they have no direct control over the outcome of their action, in the research these people experienced a wellbeing benefit. Those who gave targeted help – i.e. they took specific action to create a specific benefit over which they had some control, showed reduced amygdala activity (the thing that reduces fear and anxiety). In part this is because we are socially connected creatures who need to be of service. 

As oxytocin levels rise, so do dopamine and serotonin which boost your mood and counters the impact of cortisol (the stress hormone) thus reducing anxiety. 

Back to the current situation and our need to help; it is in part innate, we are each part of the social structure under threat, but it is mostly about targeted help – a way to bring a little bit of control to our chaos, away to rebalance our internal chemistry in favour of wellbeing – oh and an increased immune system by the way!

What can you do practically? 

It might be that staying off the streets and looking after your immediate family is your contribution right now – so recognise it and focus on the difference you are making (both by way of protecting your family and slowing spread). It might be that if you are well and not in the vulnerable category, you can support others, friends, wider family, neighbours by being an ear, dropping off supplies at their door or simply checking in from time to time.

It might be you have some time, resource or skill you can share. We are creative creatures, we can find work arounds for many things. I’ve seen volunteer shoppers and deliverers, people showing one another how to use tech to stay connected, people having virtual coffee breaks, cocktail hours and watch parties – playing games you’d normally play in person, like monopoly, over video – think about what you can do. 

It might be you are working from home and, having done that off and on for many years, it is not without its challenges in a full house. If you are not used to it don’t simply try to recreate your office at home, you may need to take breaks when you can and you’ll probably need to treat distractions as a blessing (yes I do mean children, pets and even chores). Be kind, graceful and helpful when your flow gets interrupted. Stay in touch with co-workers, they are probably feeling some of the challenges you are, it is amazing how much a kind word and online smiling face, or a collective laugh at your circumstances can do to help.

If you are still out working then the rest of us probably need to say thank you as it’s likely you are in healthcare, public service or essential industries and your efforts are quite literally helping the rest of us survive. You are already providing targeted help, and I, like so many others, am incredibly grateful. Do try to find time to acknowledge to yourself the contribution you are making – this is the way you get the neurological benefit. I know from my emergency care work it is all too easy to brush your contribution of as normal or just what you do, or even to feel like you haven’t done enough because of an overwhelmed system. 

Taking stock of the difference you’ve made, the small acts, the things you take for granted will give you the energy and resilience to carry on.

Humour is also a great way to socially connect, to help one another relax for a minute and to change your neuro chemicals – I believe this is one of the reasons ‘black humour’ is so prevalent in health and emergency services, and I’m sure most industries have a version of their own, so take a moment to have a laugh where you can.

Finally, remember it is the uncertainty – the lack of control – that is throwing so many of us off kilter. It is the not knowing what comes next that leads to catastrophising and, ultimately, heightened anxiety. Regaining some modicum of control is the answer. Do this by focusing on what you personally can do – follow guidance from respected sources – like the NHS, try to keep a bit of structure if you are at home, identify where you are making a contribution and do more if appropriate, and finally be mindful or what you are spreading emotionally as well as physically.

If you want to join me online, we are hosting virtual coworking and coffee breaks on Wednesday mornings at 11am (these are practical conversations sharing knowledge and skills) join at