Fear, Uncertainty and Coronavirus (And What You Can Do About It)

In News

Let’s get the obvious out of the way: Coronavirus, otherwise known as COVID-19, is unsettling. We know it is spreading, there is currently no preventative or curative treatment available, and there is diverse information regarding the spectrum of risk. Clearly, it is understandable why the world is scared.

But, why are we scared to the point of obliterating the stock of toilet paper and hand sanitizer available on Amazon? And even more importantly, what can we do about it?

Let’s start with why our nervous systems dislike uncertainty so much and some basic information about the psychology of fear.

Human beings are hard-wired to find uncertainty unpleasant and dysregulating. When our earliest ancestors were under threat, they did all sorts of things to keep themselves alive: they feigned death, they fled and ran for the hills, and if necessary, they fought back. Evolution has kept these survival strategies alive and well in our nervous systems, and when we are born, our brains are just as hard-wired to detect threat as they are to pass down our DNA and keep our world populated. Think of it this way: if our ancestors didn’t find anxiety and uncertainty unpleasant – they probably didn’t survive. If it isn’t clear already: emotions, including anxiety, fear, even happiness – are giving us information about us and what is happening around us. They are trying to teach us something.

Naturally, we gravitate toward ridding ourselves of unpleasant feelings. It’s a bummer, then, that avoiding unpleasant emotion actually adds fuel to and perpetuates them.

Especially important is the notion of availability bias – which means we are more likely to give weight to things we can easily and immediately recall. The constant swirl of media attention surrounding COVID-19 does not help with this as it promotes hypervigilance – we read, see, hear, and notice information more acutely. When we are hypervigilant, we are much more likely to interpret information in a threatening way.

So, what are some strategies to manage the fear and uncertainty, especially because avoidance can perpetuate these feelings?

1) Know your style – your style of dealing with big stressors, that is – and attempt to accept and work with the uncertainty and anxiety you feel. There are three main ways people deal with big time stressors. We avoid them, we become negatively activated by and have difficulty regulating around them, or we accept what our reality is trying to tell us and work with the negative feelings.

About 2,500 years ago, the great Buddha said, “Why do I dwell always expecting fear and dread? What if I subdue that fear and dread, keeping the same posture that I’m in when it comes upon me? While I walked, the fear and dread came upon me. I neither stood, nor sat, nor laid down until I had subdued that fear and dread.” Buddha’s wisdom teaches us that instead of writhing in the anxious feelings and opening the door for them to take over – trying to ignore them through distraction – he stayed with the feelings. He befriended them, rode them out, and paid attention to their familiarity until they went away on their own.

Mindfulness practice can help you learn to accept and work with anxiety, panic and fear of uncertainty. As you become more aware of what being with fear feels like, you may realize that it comes and goes like all other thoughts and emotions. It also may help you realize that it is usually the over-focus or avoidance, not the actual anxiety, that traps us in fear.

2) Stick to the facts. Staying informed, through reliable sources, is necessary as there is a huge amount of fear being perpetuated by the media, social media and within our communities. Because COVID-19 is new and we are learning more about what we can expect daily – even hourly – it’s important to stick to a few reputable sources so we aren’t hijacked by the internet or the news. The Centers for Disease Control is a reliable entity with many helpful resources. If you choose to watch the news, consider finding an outlet that gives you enough information to feel comfortably informed without perpetuating fear.

3) Keep your body as healthy as possible. Something that is within the realm of control for most of us is to keep ourselves as physically strong and healthy as we can. It goes without saying that following predictable advice like washing our hands, staying home when we feel sick or have a temperature, and keeping our hands away from our faces as much as possible, are regularly advised. Thinking about other ways we keep ourselves healthy is just as important. Allowing time in nature, getting adequate sleep, moving our bodies through walking, exercise, or mindful movement, and staying hydrated are additional ways to strengthen our immune systems and reduce inflammation.

4) Stay connected. Just like our brains are hard-wired to detect threat – we are also wired for social connection. After all, we are helpless creatures at birth, and we require the connection with a caregiver that can meet our most basic needs to survive. Research suggests social isolation increases inflammatory markers, and has the potential to perpetuate rumination. Talking with a trusted friend or family member out loud may help to put fear into perspective and allows us to notice the power in shared experiences.

5) Reach out to a therapist if necessary. If you’re aware that you struggle with anxiety regularly, have sought therapy in the past during an uncertain time and found it helpful, if you lack resources to work with the above suggestions, or if the worry and fear you feel is interfering with your daily living activities, reaching out to a therapist may be helpful. Many therapists, including those at Vanda Counseling, are able to offer telehealth (interactive, video visits in real time), or traditional in-person visits.

Uncertainty in life will remain true far after the threat of the Coronavirus has subsided. So, as you rush to Target to stock up on toilet paper, cleaning supplies, and hand sanitizer – remember to also invest in you. Easing into the uncertainty and learning what works for you to calm and heal is just as valuable.

With hope for continued wellness,

Rebecca Gerbig, MSW, LICSW

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