We hear conversations about coronavirus wherever we go, whether in the supermarket, in the hallway, or on the phone with friends. The new restrictions intended to fight the spread of the virus can make us feel very helpless. Helplessness creates fear. How can we cope with this feeling? And where does fear come from in the first place?
1. Fear is useful
From an evolutionary point of view, fear has an important function. If we see a dangerous animal, for example, our fear response tells us to run away. Being afraid is a perfectly normal and appropriate feeling in the face of a threat. Our health is the most important thing we have, and our body and mind therefore do everything they can to keep us healthy. Fear is one method they use to protect us. It makes us cautious, and caution is appropriate in the current situation.
2. Can we be too afraid?
Fear becomes a problem when it leads to panic rather than caution. It’s not uncommon for fear to have a negative effect on our everyday lives and make us behave irrationally. The Yerkes-Dodson Law (named after the two US-American psychologists Robert Mearns Yerkes and John Dillingham Dodson) addresses this topic of rational behaviour. It tells us that we perform best with an average level of physical and mental “arousal”. If we are too excited, including being too afraid, we tend to lose our cool and make bad decisions.
A current example of this is food hoarding. Fear of not having enough to survive on makes us buy more food than necessary, and puts everyone at risk of a food shortage.
3. How can I tell whether I’m (too) anxious and tense?
There are various signs that can help you recognise when you’re becoming increasingly tense and anxious.
Early warning signs can include bad mood, irritability, increased or decreased appetite, nervousness, and mental or physical restlessness. You can prevent fear from clouding your judgement by observing it more consciously. Ask yourself: on a scale of 1-10, how scared am I right now? This can help you to rationalize the fear. Don’t worry if you’re high on the scale. According to Yerkes and Dodson, a moderate level of fear can be beneficial. The goal isn’t to always be low down on the scale, but to remain cautious without panicking. The next question is: how can we get our fear levels down?
4. Protect yourself from fear-mongers
An effective method in psychotherapy is known as stimulus control. This involves consciously doing more of what promotes your mental health, and distancing yourself from things that negatively affect your wellbeing. Try to pay lots of attention over the next few days to things that make you feel calmer, and limit your contact with anything that increases your coronavirus anxiety.
For example, lots of people begin to feel very anxious if they check the news on an hourly basis. Instead, you could just check once in the morning and once in the evening, and leave it at that. There are also many email newsletters available that give news updates. Observe your feelings and try to find out how much information is good for you. There’s no reason to stay up to date around the clock – it will only increase your anxiety.
5. Stay active
Fear involves a physical stress reaction, which is controlled by our hormones. Exercise helps to break down stress hormones. You don’t even need to run a marathon – moderate exercise is enough. You could take the stairs instead of the elevator, go for a walk, do some push-ups, or try an online exercise video. It’s time to start exercising from home, as well as working from home!
6. Change your perspective
We will never be able to eliminate fear entirely – it’s part of the evolutionary heritage that helps us survive. It’s therefore important to also learn to accept it. In fact, focusing too hard on reducing anxiety can only make us more afraid, just as focusing on trying not to think of a blue elephant will make you think of a blue elephant. Just as we can’t control our thoughts, nor can we fully control our fear. However, there are plenty of strategies to help you cope with anxious thoughts.
Try to consciously notice when you are afraid and observe your fear as neutrally as possible. Watch it increase, decrease, and change. It might turn into panic, then anxiety, and then back into fear, before the phone rings and it disappears completely! This kind of neutral observation can lower your fear levels by helping you to gain some distance and realize: I am not my fear.
7. SOS against fear
Severe anxiety is caused by a physical reaction. The two nervous systems, parasympathetic and sympathetic, are responsible for this reaction. The parasympathetic nervous system is involved in calm states, whereas the sympathetic nervous system is activated when we feel excited or anxious. If you feel like you might have a panic attack, you can use this knowledge to calm down on a biological level.
Try a short breathing exercise. Breathe out for longer than you breathe in. You can count your inhalation and exhalation in one second intervals. By breathing out for a few beats longer than you breathe in, you activate the parasympathetic nervous system. Once your body has calmed down a little and you notice that you are feeling less anxious, you can reflect on what made you feel so afraid.