I wrote this post this past week while traveling abroad (thankfully not to a high-risk country). I received word from home regularly about the fear that is spreading regarding COVID-19. As a therapist specializing in treating anxiety, I realize I will be returning home to some very scared clients, in addition to worried friends and family. In the past few days there has been news of new cases in and near the DC area. Schools and businesses are developing response plans, and time will tell what measures will need to be taken to prevent spread. My mind keeps going back to my scared clients and loved ones. I am writing this in the hopes to help ease fears, lessen panic, and encourage a mindful and measured response.
I want to encourage people to remember the following:
- Even if you are afraid, you don’t have to panic. Notice your fear, tend to your feelings by soothing (or if necessary distracting) yourself, and then consciously commit to reigning in the emotion beyond that. Fear is a totally normal and appropriate response to a scary situation, and different people will feel different amounts of it. Panic is when that fear takes over- it impairs judgment and can wreak havoc on functioning as well as physical health (and even the immune system). Think what the most helpful, compassionate, and comforting response would be if someone responded perfectly to your fears; then imagine giving yourself the gift of that response, notice what it would feel like to receive that support, notice yourself relax and feel soothed by calming words, such as “This will pass,” or “You’re going to be okay.” Panic is when our brain imagines and latches onto a worst case scenario; relaxation/resiliency is when we choose to focus on positives, or choose to distract ourselves in order to return to a calm state. The following tip is also helpful way to stop panic in its tracks.
- Breathe. This is as important as it is simple. When you focus on your breath, you take your focus off of other (stressful) things. It is the key to a successful meditation or yoga practice as well as any workout: everything you control with your mind and body begins with your breath. In a panic state do 3-6 breathing: in through your nose for three, out through your mouth for 6. In a calmer state do yoga breathing which is 4-7-8 breathing: breathe in for 4, hold for 7, out for 8. Do a minute of this and notice yourself relax and your mind get clearer; do this multiple times a day and start to notice your baseline anxiety lower itself.
- Respond, don’t react. This advice applies to a lot of life situations! If you are in immediate danger (someone lunging at you with a knife) you need to react immediately with your fight-or-flight instinct- in this case, letting your physical instincts take over rather than using your wits is the best course of action for survival, and that is why that we evolved with that reaction. For all other threats and stressors, we need to use our reasoning skills and respond with informed thinking, thoughtful planning, problem-solving, and measured words, not instincts. In this case that means to avoid knee-jerk reactions, anger towards foreigners, or ordering every last mask from online retail. Look at CDC recommendations, check with your PCP if you need information regarding your own health conditions or medical decisions, and be thoughtful in how you discuss coronavirus with or in front of your children.
- Control what you can control. This is my consistent advice any time things feel out of control. What is still in your control? What choices do you still have today? You make thousands of small decisions each day: what to wear, what to eat, what to watch, what to read, what to say, what to think about. You still have choice and control in your day. Remembering this at times of instability is important and grounding. Choose to watch or read enough news to be informed but not so much that you feel overwhelmed. Choose to take immune-boosting vitamins and herbs. If you have fears about catching the coronavirus, there are many things you can choose to do to reduce your risk, such as hand-washing, using hand sanitizer, cleaning shared surfaces, using your knuckle to push the elevator button, etc. You can also make the responsible choice to not go to public places if you or a family member are sick right now, or wear a mask to prevent sharing your germs.
- Adjust your focus. I dabble in photography and I find it fascinating how many people can look at the same subject but come away with vastly different pictures of it. Often, what you see will depend on what you are looking for, and how well you adjust your camera settings given the circumstances you are photographing in- lighting, composition, focus, framing. The same applies to how we perceive life circumstances. Look for what is positive, stable, and helpful right now, and keep that front and center. Expand your focus to realize other factors that make the current situation less scary (quarantines slowing the spread of the virus, people being more vigilant about cleanliness to prevent sharing germs, vaccines being developed, etc). You don’t have to ignore what is negative, scary, and anxiety-inducing; yet you can choose to not focus on that, to keep it in context, and try to allow in some positive light to what you see.
There will always be new challenges: personal, political, global, environmental. We live in a constantly changing world and the challenges that accompany it evolve as we do. This will be a very difficult time for a lot of people; I encourage everyone to take deep breaths, focus on what is reasonable and helpful, and echo these lessons to your children too. We can be scared but we can also embody our inherent ability to handle adversity, quiet our fears, focus on reason, educate ourselves to make good decisions, and respond rationally and compassionately.