Crushing our fears over this pandemic
“The threat of contagion can twist our psychological responses to ordinary interactions, leading us to behave in unexpected ways”— David Robson
The key word today is “fear”. That monster can sneak up on us when we least expect it to and knock us off our feet.
Sometimes, it is extremely hard to put feelings into words. To accurately describe the fear now gripping the world is very challenging for me, but please bear with me as I attempt to discuss that dreaded word.
To say that people are merely scared of the novel coronavirus storming around the globe does not even come close to doing it justice. Fear is not strong or nuanced enough to capture the kind of feelings so many people seem to be experiencing.
Let me make something clear from the start: I do not mean to suggest that there are not plenty of good, rational reasons to be concerned.
Based on that premise, let's examine the word “fear” closely!
According to R.N. Sreenathan, Professor of Neuroscience:
• Fear is the most fearful enemy of the human being
• Fear is the by-product of imagined insecurity
• Fear is the physical response to a dreaded insecurity while anxiety is a psychological response
For weeks now, the infamous coronavirus has been the “new kid on the block” and, from all reports, it seems as if this virus will be with us for quite some time. It has even surpassed the popularity of the most famous celebrities who usually break the internet with their risqué photos and glamorous lifestyles.
Almost every newspaper has stories about the pandemic; radio and television programmes have back-to-back coverage on the latest death tolls; social-media platforms are filled with frightening statistics and accounts, practical advice or light-hearted humour.
This virus is scary and there is no denying that. It is spreading fast, there is no vaccination or preventive treatment for it at the moment and we still do not quite comprehend how lethal it actually is.
Under these circumstances, it is understandable that people would be petrified. Globally, more than 125,000 have died of the virus since the outbreak began in December 2019.
The world economy is crashing; cities, and even entire countries, are under mandatory lockdown. Some of us are in areas that have been already deeply affected by the coronavirus. Others are bracing for what may come, yet all of us are watching the headlines and wondering, “What is going to happen next?”
It is a frightening time.
Logically, there are, indeed, very good reasons to be afraid. Even if the odds of each of us, especially the under-sixties, dying from Covid-19 are very low, everyone has friends and family, or may know someone in more vulnerable groups.
There is cause for concern for the elderly and those with pre-existing health conditions since the virus is highly contagious. In some cases, they could become very sick and even die. Unfortunately, we have had some reported deaths here on our beautiful shores.
Certainly, the spread of Covid-19 is a public event pervading nearly every aspect of our lives, causing us to be worried about our loved ones, our friends, and our income — which is shrinking before our very eyes.
I am especially concerned for my parents, some of my friends, family and myself, who are at high risk. I am dealing with heavy metal toxicity, which is an immunosuppressant, thus placing me in that category as well.
As the number of confirmed cases of this illness continues to grow, so too does countries' collective uncertainty. Ambiguity about the nature and trajectory of the threat exacerbates a feeling of not being in control. Additionally, part of what drives feelings of fear and anxiety is a lack of information.
This virus is new and there seems to be more questions than answers; whereas we understand the common flu, and I am sure that all of you would have had personal experience with it at some point in your lives already. Hence, we are less scared of it.
Psychologists and public health experts say that public anxiety and fear are high, and they are largely fuelled by a feeling of powerlessness and vulnerability. Nevertheless, I think that it is fair to say that some people are reacting in some extreme ways.
Some of these reactions are relatively benign, such as panic-buying, hoarding — and who could ever forget the mystifying phenomenon of stockpiling toilet paper, right!
Not everyone reacts to pandemics in the same way. Some people are overly cautious, and there are those who are particularly concerned about illness and may feel a heightened sense of their own mortality.
For many of us, the uncertainty surrounding Covid-19 is the hardest thing to handle. We do not know how exactly we will be affected or how bad things may get, and that makes it all too easy to spiral out of control towards overwhelming dread and panic.
However, there are many things we can do, even in the face of this unique crisis, to manage our anxiety and fears.
There are countless methods that we could employ to assist us in overcoming fear and anxiety in these challenging times, but I will list a few that I think are essential:
• Stay informed but do not obsessively check the news
Constant monitoring of news and social-media feeds can quickly turn compulsive and counterproductive, fuelling anxiety rather than easing it. The limit is different for everyone, so pay attention to how you are feeling and adjust accordingly.
If anxiety is an ongoing issue, consider limiting your media consumption to a specific time frame and time of day.
• Focus on the things that we can control
We are in a time of massive upheaval. There are so many things outside of our control, including how long the pandemic may last, how other people behave, and what is going to happen in our communities. However, if our strategy is to focus on questions with unknown answers and circumstances outside of our personal control, it will get us nowhere — aside from feeling drained, anxious and overwhelmed.
When we feel ourselves getting caught up in fear of what might happen, we should try to shift our focus to things we can control. For example, we cannot control how severe the coronavirus outbreak is in our country, but we can most certainly take steps to reduce our own personal risk — and the risk that we will unknowingly spread it to others.
You may have read or heard many of these guidelines before, but they are worth repeating:
• Wash our hands frequently — for at least 20 seconds — with soap and water or a hand sanitiser that contains at least 70 per cent alcohol
• Avoid touching our faces, particularly the eyes, nose and mouth
• Stay at home as much as possible, even if we don't feel sick
• Avoiding crowds and gatherings of ten or more people
• Avoiding all non-essential shopping and travel
• Keep six feet of distance between ourselves and others when out
• Get plenty of sleep and sunshine, which help to support our immune systems
• Follow all recommendations from health authorities
• Stay connected with faraway family and friends
Evidence shows that many people with the virus — particularly young, seemingly healthy people — are asymptomatic but can still spread the virus. Therefore, we should continue practising social-distancing.
We know that humans are social animals. We are hard-wired for connection. Isolation and loneliness can exacerbate anxiety and depression, and even affect our physical health. That is why it is important to stay connected as best we can and reach out for support when we need it, even as we cut back on socialising.
• Make it a priority to stay in touch with friends and family
If we tend to withdraw when depressed or anxious, think about scheduling regular phone, chat or Skype dates to counteract that tendency
• Social media can be a powerful tool
Not only for connecting with friends, family and acquaintances, but for feeling connected in a greater sense to our communities, country and the world. It reminds us we are not alone
• Do not let the coronavirus dominate every conversation
It is important to take breaks from stressful thoughts about the pandemic to simply enjoy each other's company — to laugh, share stories and focus on other things going on in our lives
• Take care of our bodies and minds
This is an extraordinarily trying time, and all the tried-and-true stress management studies apply, such as eating healthy meals, getting plenty of sleep and meditating.
Beyond that, here are some tips for practising self-care in the face of the unique disruptions caused by the virus:
• Be kind to ourselves
Go easy on ourselves if we are experiencing more depression or anxiety than usual. We are not alone in our struggles
• Maintain a routine as best we can
Try to stick to our regular sleep, school, meal or work schedule. This can help us to maintain a sense of normality
• Take time out for activities we enjoy
Read a good book, watch a comedy, play a fun board or video game, make something — whether it's a new recipe, a craft or a piece of art. It does not matter what we do, if it takes our minds off our worries
• Get out in nature, if possible
Sunshine and fresh air will do all of us good. Even a walk around our neighbourhood can make us feel better. Just be sure to avoid crowds, keep our distance from people we encounter and obey restrictions in our area
• Find ways to exercise
Staying active will help us release anxiety, relieve stress and manage our moods. While the gym and group classes are out, you can still hike or walk. Check out YouTube or equivalent for exercise videos we can follow. There are many things we can do even without equipment, such as yoga and exercises that use our own bodyweight
• Avoid self-medicating
Be careful that we are not consuming too many alcoholic beverages or other substances to deal with anxiety or depression. If we tend to overdo it in the best of times, it may be a good idea to avoid it for now
• Take up a relaxation practice
When stressors throw our nervous systems out of balance, relaxation techniques such as deep breathing, meditation and yoga can bring us back into a state of equilibrium. Regular practice delivers the greatest benefits, so see if we can set aside even a little time every day
• Help others — it will make us feel better
At times such as this, it is easy to get caught up in our own fears and concerns. However, it is important to take a breath and remember that we all are in this together. It is no coincidence that those who focus on others in need and support our communities, especially during times of crises, tend to be happier and healthier than those who act selfishly.
Helping others not only makes a difference to your community — and even to the wider world at this time — it can also support your own mental health and wellbeing.
Much of the anguish accompanying this pandemic stem from feeling powerless. Doing kind and helpful acts for others can help you regain a sense of control over your life, as well as adding meaning and purpose.
As a quote circulating in Italy reminds us: “We're standing far apart now so we can embrace each other later.”
• Reach out to the elderly or disabled
If we know people in our communities who are isolated, particularly the elderly or disabled, we can still offer support. Perhaps an older neighbour needs help with groceries or fulfilling a prescription?
We can always leave packages on their doorstep to avoid direct contact.
Or maybe they just need to hear a friendly, reassuring voice over the phone. Many local social-media groups can help put us in touch with vulnerable people in our areas.
• Donate to food banks
We can help senior citizens, low-income families and others in need by donating food or cash.
• Be a calming influence
If friends or loved ones are panicking, try to help them gain some perspective on the situation. Instead of scaremongering or giving credence to false rumours, refer them to reputable news sources.
Being a positive, uplifting influence in these anxious times can help us feel better about our own situations, too.
• Be kind to others
An infectious disease is not connected to any racial or ethnic group, so we should speak up if we hear negative stereotypes that promote prejudice. With the right outlook and intentions, we can ensure that kindness and charity spread throughout our communities even faster than this virus.
“Fear is only as deep as the mind allows”— Japanese proverb
• Source: Melinda Smith, M.A. and Lawrence Robinson. Last updated: April 2020
• Anne S. Leese, the author of From Mercury to Marvellous, has worked in the Caribbean, Germany and England, and possesses a Bachelor of Arts in Literature, and a Master of Arts in Globalisation, Development and Transition. She can be followed on Facebook and Instagram