We recently came across this article authored by Robert Pawlicki, a semi-retired psychologist which we found to be an authoritative perspective on managing the fears and anxieties surrounding the corona virus pandemic:
As you read this, you may notice, with a bit of introspection, that you are a little more anxious and fearful than usual. It would almost be surprising if you were not. After all, we are all physically evolved to be fearful of danger and presently we are facing a worldwide epidemic of the coronavirus.
In your concern, you may have focused primarily upon the physical damage that the contraction of the coronavirus could inflict upon you and your family. After all, that’s where the media has focused — pictures of those quarantined surrounded by medical staff wrapped in protective gear evocative of horror films. The exponential increase in coronavirus cases contracted. The number of countries inflicted. The number of dead.
Less obvious in this massive media coverage is the psychological damage that is already occurring and the harm it may inflict upon you in the future. The purpose of this column is to examine the psychological damage you may be currently experiencing and the potential psychological damage in the future. It is critical to understand that the physical and the psychological are inseparable. They are intimately intertwined. If not addressed, this element can dynamically alter how you fare as you face the ominous coronavirus threat.
Fear and ongoing anxiety are detrimental to your health. Physically, fear fires up your limbic system and releases adrenaline and cortisol, useful in the short run, problematic when constant. The psychological perception of fear and anxiety does the same.
Now let’s change the scene with two simple conditions: You tone down the experience in this simple thought experiment, but it doesn’t go away. Your fear is still there or nearly there very often throughout the day and your body is on constant alert. You are reminded of the threat for days on end.
Clinical studies reveal that those with more positive psychological positions are less likely to contract a variety of physical illnesses, have milder incidents when contracted, and tend to recover or rehabilitate better and faster. They tend to have more physiological reserves. Longitudinal and various research methods have extensively shown that positive psychological attitudes and habits affect health and longevity.
Given the reality of a serious coronavirus epidemic, it is legitimate to have an honest level of concern, but a reasonable question is how to manage that uneasiness from reaching harmful levels. Such efforts are not just advisable but warranted and especially true if the coronavirus moves from a national acute threat into a chronic condition.
Since a good portion of the epidemic is beyond your control, you need to diligently focus on what you can control. For those in extreme distress, the simple act of managing their breath is an example of controlling what is possible. Most of us are not in such an intense state, but the concept is the same. Gain management by focusing on what you can control.
Actionable Strategies for Managing Anxiety
There are multiple means to manage anxiety in any situation and also in addressing the coronavirus. Here are some straightforward actions to consider:
Managing fear and anxiety is greatly aided by interacting with friends and family. Isolation is a petri dish for fear to germinate and grow. There are libraries of research showing the ameliorative effect of strong support systems during periods of fear, anxiety and stress. One of the most dramatic compared children who were kept at home during the bombing of London during World War II. Compared to those children who were sent to rural areas for their safety, those children kept at home with their family showed far fewer post-war emotional distress.
It is not just the presence of family and friends. It is going through similar experiences together, sharing and listening to those about whom you care. Stressful times are not the time to “Man up,” hold things in. You need to talk, share. Open communication and vulnerability are great stress reducers as well as bonding experiences. A cautionary note is in order, sharing is different than complaining, whining and obsessing.
We are all social animals and the coronavirus threat along with your fears, may hamper your normal social interactions. You need to push back in safe, hygienic ways, maintaining as many contacts as possible. It may be an increase in telephone calls, emails, texting. It may even be getting to a long-delayed letter.
Avoiding crowds doesn’t mean discontinuing contact with friends as long as good hygiene practices are maintained. Dampening down is harmful to your stress level and is, in turn, damaging to your mental health. This, in turn, is damaging to your general physical health.
Fear, worry, and anxiety, by their nature, are projections into the future. They often are based on speculations, unwarranted projections and overgeneralizations. They tend to be one-sided and avoid a balanced internal conversation. They are accompanied by physiological discomfort that amplifies feelings and deters rational thought and problem solving. Appreciating your present life is a counter to such tendencies.
Listing and frequently reviewing those things for which you are grateful on a daily basis is another established means of handling both fear and anxiety. Your brain is hard-wired to focus on threats and fears, crowding out the broad experiences in which you live. Consequently, it is incredibly valuable to redirect your attention to daily events and treasure your good fortune. Regularly bringing the positive to the forefront of your mind has the effect of taking some of the wind out of Fear’s sail.
Given the circumstance this may be difficult, but your routine activities provide structure and psychological comfort. If major pillars of your regular structure, such as work or school, are altered, you need to build a miniature pattern to follow. If prayer, meditation, music, gardening, cooking, exercise, keeping a diary, and reading are modalities in which you normally find relaxation and comfort, you should set aside daily times to engage in these more calming emotional states.
Limit exposure to inflammatory news
If your fears are intense, you need to consider limiting your exposure to inflammatory news. You need to avoid conspiratorial predictions, or unenlightened opinions, especially from self-appointed experts or politicians. You need to use the internet wisely to refer to authoritative and scientific information. Agitation and emotional overload are counterproductive and increase your feelings of loss of control. It’s very possible to be well informed without moving into an intense emotional state. Continuing anxiety is a sign that it will be helpful to step back and reexamine your habits.
There is a general acknowledgement in psychological circles that psychologically healthy individuals are happier and more likely to be kind to others. Pay attention to owning your own emotional state and not blaming those around you. It certainly follows that personal upset and tension are precursors to intolerance, anger and irritability.
It is also generally accepted that kind deeds generate a healthier and positive psychological state. It may seem inappropriate to hear a recommendation to increase your frequency of kindness when experiencing stress, but it turns out to be empirically supported. Kindness moves a person thoughts to others, diminishing attention to personal problems. It also aids in cementing support systems, so critical to your well-being. Just as important is the suggestion to be kind to yourself.
Create an action plan. Anticipating threat of a hurricane, blizzard, or a tornado means preparation. Preparation means thinking through actions that keep you safe, or in the case of fear and anxiety, acts of maintaining a rational, relative calm and a positive psychological state. Achieving such a state should leave you freer of unreasonable fear and anxiety and with the ability to navigate in a sensible way. It is invaluable to write out our action plan, put it to paper. Writing is more than a salutatory experience. It provides guidance and comfort that you are doing what you can do to control your destiny. Cowering and inactivity are your psychological enemies.
In addition to the above recommendations we would also comment that it is important that we ‘recognize how we often overreact to unpleasant feelings, to see our unpleasant feelings as just feelings — not reality — and to accept that parts of life are hard and that that’s OK’.
Laura Turner, author of a forthcoming book about the cultural history of anxiety, notes that Acceptance and commitment therapy can be very beneficial in helping us accept that negative feelings are an inevitable part of life, and we can best deal with them by accepting them, learning from them, and then acting in accordance with our larger life goals.
Turner goes on to comment how ‘the idea that I could accept my anxiety — as opposed to trying to get rid of it — was revolutionary to me. And the way I do it — by recognizing it when I see it, saying something like “I accept this anxious thought,” or perhaps even using my imagination to invite it in to stay for tea, and then telling it I need to move on to something else — has been more helpful than I could have even imagined…” when embarking on personal therapy.
Turner continues, ‘So, we have two choices: We can fight the anxiety, getting caught up in a cycle of trying to answer our fearful thoughts with a rationality we may never be able to truly attain — or we can simply accept our anxiety as a fact of life, no more good or bad than the weather. It comes and goes, and for many of us, the more we try to make it go away, the stronger it comes back and oozes its way around our rational arguments’.
‘Accepting our anxiety doesn’t mean that its focus isn’t valid — there is plenty to be worried about personally, politically and globally right now. But it does mean that we don’t want anxiety to be our solution to these problems. Instead, we want to remain as calm as we can so that we are able to engage our rational brains. We want to save our energy for focusing on the important issues in our lives, rather than using our energy on mentally spinning out for hours on end’.
If you are suffering from general fear and anxiety and or panic attacks then counselling and psychotherapy may help. For a free and confidential initial counselling assessment, please contact The Hove Counselling Practice on 01273 917732, or click here.