Are you feeling worried, tense, irritable, sad, angry, fearful, powerless, lonely and hopeless right now? If so, you are not alone. Intense emotions like these make perfect sense during such uncertain times.
Our daily lives have been turned upside down. Schools are closed, people are suddenly working from home, friends and loved ones are losing jobs, and people we know and love are being infected with the Coronavirus.
While we cannot control the course that the Coronavirus will take, we can control how we respond to the situation.
We can learn how to better manage our feelings using a variety of coping skills geared toward self-care. We can practice self-compassion, accept uncertainty, embrace distraction, and help others within the rules of social distancing. We can maintain human connection in new and innovative ways, and we can come together as a community to support and encourage each other as we go through this difficult time.
Anxiety, fear, and “fight or flight”
Anxiety and fear alert us to potential danger so we can mobilize to find solutions to the problems we are facing. But the fear response, when triggered, can lead to a significant increase in the activity of the sympathetic nervous system, releasing stress hormones and other chemicals responsible for the fight or flight response.
While the current crisis is frightening and overwhelming, the fight or flight response is counterproductive, and ultimately leaves us with heightened feelings of fear, and sometimes panic. When this happens, we may become “hijacked” by our intense feelings, which can cloud our ability to think clearly and impair our judgment.
A crisis can cause a total disconnect between thoughts and feelings, often leading to maladaptive behaviors, such as:
- an exclusive focus on perceived danger,
- incessant watching of the news,
- panicked purchasing of supplies that leave little to no resources for others,
- decreased concentration and focus,
- sleep and appetite disturbances, and
- increased isolation and feelings of loneliness.
While the COVID-19 virus is cause for great concern, and social distancing and contact precautions must be taken seriously, extreme anxiety and panic are counterproductive and actually disrupt our attempts to cope. But taking steps to calm the sympathetic nervous system will help us to engage our rational mind when thinking about and dealing with the stressors we are all currently facing.
The first step to combating the fear and anxiety triggered by the COVID-19 virus crisis is to learn ways to manage and regulate some of the intense emotions that we may be feeling right now. One of the main objectives is to use the parasympathetic nervous system to calm the body and mind. Things like practicing breathing, relaxation and meditation can flip the switch, turning off the danger signals and putting a stop to the fight or flight response. Some more general strategies to do this include the following:
Limit exposure to news
Constant exposure to a variety of sources of media triggers the fight or flight response and increases that overall sense of panic. Using the amount of time you spent engaging in the media prior to the Coronavirus crisis as a gauge, try returning to this pattern again, rather than watching the coverage all throughout the day. Along these same lines, limit yourself to engaging with more credible sources of information such as information from the CDC. Bombardment by the media coverage, which is often inaccurate and very alarmist, can cause intense feelings of fear, which are often likely to be out of proportion to the situation. Above all else, when feeling panicked by the media coverage, try to remind yourself that feelings are not facts.