We’ve all heard the old saying, “There are no guarantees in life.” The uncertainty of “no guarantees” can evoke great fear, especially when the uncertainty involves something as sinister and previously unknown as the current COVID-19 pandemic. We are living through a time that can challenge your mental health.
What is Fear?
Fear is a natural reaction to what you think is dangerous. It doesn’t matter if the danger is real or not. We humans are programmed with several basic needs—one of which is the need to be safe. If we feel unsafe, our bodies naturally go into “fight or flight” mode, and our instinct for safety takes over the part of our brains that would normally tell us to stop, think, and make a rational, reasonable decision about what to do.
Fear is Contagious
Picture this: You are sitting quietly on a park bench, soaking up the warm spring sunshine. Birds are singing, flowers are blooming; Everything around you is quiet and peaceful.
Suddenly you hear footsteps charging toward you and a person screaming, “Run! Hurry! They’re after us!” In an instant, your sense of peace is replaced by an overwhelming sense of fear. You have no idea what this person is talking about, but the frantic look on his face tells you that something horribly threatening is coming your way. So you start running too, even though you have no idea what you’re running from.
It’s only later that you find out that the person, who has an irrational fear of balloons, thought he was being “chased” by a bunch of helium balloons that accidentally got loose from a balloon cart on the other end of the park. Nevertheless, your feeling of fear was triggered by his obvious fear.
Now let’s relate that to the pandemic.
What You Can’t Control
We are bombarded by coronavirus news. For several months now—day after day, week after week—it’s been the top story on every news outlet. And the stories are accompanied by huge graphics in bright, glaring red. How many people have died worldwide; How many people have died in your country; The millions that are yet expected to perish. You see videos of refrigerator trucks, lots of them, lined up behind a hospital, ready to receive bodies of coronavirus victims, because the mortuaries are overflowing and can no longer accommodate all the dead. And the news outlets play these videos over and over and over…
To add to our fear, this “enemy” is invisible. Were it a bunch of balloons, you could easily see the enemy and quickly ascertain that they aren’t a threat. But this microscopic virus is everywhere—or so you are led to believe. It lives in our breath; it lives on surfaces; it can infect us through our eyes, of all things!
And to top it all off—no one knows how to stop it.
No wonder you are consumed with fear!
What You Can Control
Even though you have no control over the pandemic, you are 100% in control of how you react to it! This is where you can slow down, think rationally, and make good decisions about what to do.
In order to make good decisions, it’s necessary that you calm yourself. Try this mindfulness exercise. Find a place where you won’t be distracted. Then take a few deep, slow breaths. Focus all your attention on the here and now. Concentrate on your surroundings. What do you see, hear, or smell?
Think pleasant thoughts. In your mind, imagine a beautiful, peaceful place where you would like to be. What does it look like? How do you feel when you are there? Stay there, in your mind, and lose yourself if the peace and beauty.
Do these mindfulness exercises as often as you feel the need to calm your body and your mind.
But What If…
In fear mode, it’s easy to spiral downward into the depths of “what ifs.” And unfortunately, some people—we call them fear-mongers—love to fuel the fire of worst-case scenarios. For example, if a woman announces that she is pregnant with her first baby, people start telling her horror stories of morning sickness, of life-threatening complications, of unbelievably painful labor and delivery. The poor woman is terrified. She starts thinking, “What if that happens to me?” and her imagination is off and running.
Another irrational feature of fear is “panic buying.” People rush to the stores and buy all the toilet paper, antiseptic cleaners, flour, and bottled water they can get their hands on. If one store is out of supplies, they try to beat the crowds to the next store. It’s then that the “what ifs” strike again. What if the world runs out of toilet paper or antiseptic wipes? What if all the stores shut down? What if [fill in the blank]…?
Now would be a good time to slow down and practice your mindfulness exercises…
A Blessing and a Curse
Technology is wonderful. In times like these, when we are mandated to stay away from each other, we can stay connected with family and friends via video chat, emails, and other social media. Think of the folks in the 1918 flu pandemic. They didn’t have the ability to stay connected with their loved ones they way we do.
But, as mentioned before, technology also enables us to overload on information. It’s so tempting to watch every news show about the coronavirus, to view all the horrific online videos, to absorb all the news we can get our hands on in the name of “staying informed.”
Don’t overdo it. Limit your exposure to “facts”—which, in case you haven’t noticed, seem to change from day to day. Stick to trusted news sources. Barbara Reynolds, PhD, a psychologist at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, probably said it best: “Modern communication allows people to have a more intimate experience with a threat that’s not real.”
What To Do
There are some things you can do to protect yourself—and when you’ve done all these things, relax! The coronavirus will not last forever. Brilliant scientists all over the world are working as fast as they can to develop treatments and vaccines.
In the meantime, do what the best experts have advised:
- Wash your hands frequently for at least 20 seconds
- Avoid touching your face
- Stay home as much as possible, even if you don’t feel sick
- Avoid crowds
- Avoid all non-essential travel and shopping
- Keep 6 feet of distance between yourself and others when out
- Get plenty of sleep—sleep strengthens your immune system
- Follow all recommendations from health authorities
Uncertainty is Okay!
Uncertainty is an unavoidable part of life. Think of a time in your life when you weren’t sure what to do or what was going to happen. Now think of today—you made it!
Don’t worry, because worry never, ever solves problems. In fact, it makes problems worse. It robs you of enjoyment, sleep, and energy. Take control over things you can control. For example, if you’ve lost your job, don’t waste your energy worrying about it. Rather, use that energy to search for another job, polish up your resumé, or network with your contacts. Everything will work out.
And every night when you lie down to sleep, think to yourself, “I’m one day closer to the end of the pandemic.”
Help With Mental Health
We’ll all get through this together. And that’s a promise.