News of the coronavirus pandemic is ubiquitous. It is everywhere we go — albeit in these quarantine times we’re probably just going from the desk to the yoga mat, the fridge and back — but still. Social media platforms, virtual conversations with friends and family, the homepage of popular daily news sites and radio programs are constantly pumping out streams of information on the global crisis.
Even grocery runs have become anxiety-inducing, with the empty shelves a reminder that people are in panic mode. And suddenly, strangely you start wondering if you should be hoarding 100 rolls of toilet paper too. Sound familiar?
This consistent bombardment has resulted in fear, anxiety, and a collective feeling of, “What now?!”
But, could fear actually be good? Psychiatrist and habit change specialist Dr. Jud Brewer thinks so. According to his latest daily column focused on science-backed help for living through uncertainty, some level of fear is healthy.
Fear is our basic instinct as humans. It is a survival mechanism and has protected us throughout our evolution as a species. As humans, we have a cute almond-shaped “fear center” in the brain called the amygdala. It is responsible for emotions, survival instinct and memory.
“We inherited this from our ancient ancestors. It is called reward-based learning and it has three elements: a trigger, a behavior, and a reward. We see the saber-toothed tiger — that’s the trigger. We run away — that’s the behavior. We live to tell our kids to avoid that part of the savanna — that’s the reward,” writes Dr. Brewer.
Today, fear keeps us safe by acting as a motivating factor to wash our hands throughout the day for at least 20 seconds and to stand six feet away from others at all times. It is a powerful force that makes us stay home, even when we are going stir crazy.
"Fear is our basic instinct as humans. It is a survival mechanism and has protected us throughout our evolution as a species."
When there is significant uncertainty, the part of the brain that manages rational decision-making and regulates emotions — the prefrontal cortex — can’t do its job. The amygdala hijacks our responses, and our behavior becomes fear-based. Consistent high levels of fear coupled with uncertainty can cause long-term anxiety and stress. It can also lead to panic-induced behavior such as social contagion. Think of social contagion as contagious behavior, such as buying 100 cans of soup just because everyone else is doing it. This is where fear becomes a foe.
So, in this challenging time, how can we use fear as a friend? The three R’s:
Take a step back and look at the situation from a different perspective. It is important to focus on what is within our control and how we can take something positive from an essentially negative situation. For example, we can look at all the ways in which we can use this time for things like creative expression, personal development, reconnecting (virtually) with family members or finally getting down to developing a self-care practice. By shifting our focus from the uncertainty of the coronavirus pandemic to what this time allows us more of, we are able to cognitively reframe the experience in our brains.
Fear serves as a protective mechanism, and there are typically three impulsive responses: fight, flight or freeze. The freeze impulse essentially paralyzes us. We can use that frozen time to reflect, plan better, prepare for the future and ultimately make better decisions. We can utilize the time to reflect on our values, which we would like to keep and which we would like to let go of.
Think of how you can relieve or be of service to others in the community. Our natural reaction to fear is to protect ourselves. We can use this instinct to extend our help in protecting our community. You could help your community by buying groceries for those who are not physically or economically able to do so for themselves. Or you could just do your part by not giving in to panic buying and just buy one roll of toilet paper at a time.
But what happens when anxiety hits in the moment? There are a couple of antidotes.
Fear and anxiety are rooted in thoughts and feelings regarding the future. Ground into the present moment by meditating or using the 5-4-3-2-1 method. When you’re feeling overwhelmed, use your senses to bring you back to the present. Notice five things you can see, four things you can touch, three things you can hear, two things you can smell and one thing you can taste.
Did you know:
"Shortness of breath is an obvious sign of panic and stress, which is also a common symptom experienced by people who suffer from the Coronavirus."
Feelings are temporary if you allow them to pass, but it can be difficult to just endure anxiety when it hits. Distract yourself by switching focus to something that brings you joy. For example, dance to your favorite beat, sing your favorite song or make a gratitude list. It’s proven by science that the simple practice of jotting down what you are thankful for can pump up feel-good chemicals in your brain, reduce cortisol levels (the stress hormone) by a whopping 23% (McCraty et al. 1998) and strengthen your gratitude muscle to easily spot the positive in any situation – even the one we are in right now.
An obvious sign of panic and stress is shortness of breath. Intentional deep breathing is an effective way to bring your body and mind back to a calmer state, so you don’t confuse your fear response with a common symptom of someone who’s suffering from the coronavirus.
Additionally, our breathing patterns are connected to every emotion we experience as human beings. We have different breathing patterns when we’re happy, when we are crying and when are experiencing anxiety. By focusing on making the exhalation longer than the inhalation, we create a breathing pattern for calm and relaxation.
There are also many things we can do to manage coronavirus fears and anxieties long-term so they don’t get the best of us.
Fear comes from uncertainty and a lack of real information is a form of uncertainty. Stop consuming media mindlessly. Invest time in gathering information from reputable sources so your brain doesn’t have to do the guesswork. Information shapes the way we view reality. It is important to fight misinformation, as this often gives us a false representation of reality and feeds anxiety.
Anxiety and fear are normal reactions to a global pandemic. In fact, any reaction is okay. This pandemic is unprecedented so none of us know how to feel. So, judge your emotions or beat yourself up about it because that just adds another layer of guilt and shame.
The New York Times quoted psychologist and author Dr. Harriet Lerner, as saying, “Anxiety and fear are physiological processes that cavort and careen through our bodies and make us miserable. They will subside, only to return again; they will arrive uninvited for as long as we live. So don’t be hard on yourself when you can’t shut yourself off from fear and pain — your own and the world’s. Fear isn’t fun, but it signals that we are fully human.”
For our immune systems to work properly, rest is essential. That means, apart from personal hygiene practices, the best way to safeguard ourselves against the Coronavirus is by taking good care of ourselves. A self-care routine provides a regular schedule with the sole purpose of promoting a sense of wellbeing. As you practice your routine every day, it becomes a source of predictable stability you can rely on in such unpredictable circumstances. Decide what brings you peace and incorporate that into your routine. Have a steaming hot cup of tea when you wake up or do yoga before bed every night. The options are endless but the important part is consistency.