The coronavirus continues to spread. Political measures to control the situation and contain the disease are becoming more drastic every day. But controlling nature is like jumping up and down to overcome gravity: no matter how hard we try, it just doesn’t work. When it comes to the coronavirus, we feel incredibly helpless, and this helplessness creates fear. The real question is: How can we better deal with this feeling of inner tension?
Fear and Corona: Fear is useful
Fear is a common, normal, and perfectly appropriate feeling in the face of a threat. Even if this fact sometimes gets lost in everyday life, our health is the greatest asset we have. Our body and our psyche therefore do everything they can to ensure that we stay healthy. Fear is an effective preventive measure of our psyche to protect our body. When we are afraid, we become cautious, and this caution is appropriate in the current situation.
Can one be too afraid?
Fear is a bad advisor, as the saying goes. If fear does not lead to caution, but rather to panic, it becomes problematic. It is problematic not just in causing severe psychological suffering for the affected person, but also for others with whom we come into contact, as it makes us act irrationally. The Yerkes-Dodson Law (named after the two American psychologists Robert Mearns Yerkes and John Dillingham Dodson) deals precisely with this phenomenon of optimal capacity to act. In brief: we perform best with an average level of excitement. If, on the other hand, we are too excited, which includes being too scared, we lose our cool and make bad decisions. For example, we hoard groceries due to stress and the urge to do something. As a result, we buy too much and expose each other to worries about food shortages.
How can I tell if I am (too) anxious and tense?
There are various signs that we are becoming increasingly anxious and tense. Examples of these early warning signs are: bad mood, irritability, increased or decreased appetite, nervousness, and mental or physical agitation. In order to prevent fear from going to our heads and clouding our judgment, we must first observe our level of anxiety. This also helps us to rationalize the fear and to free ourselves from it. Ask yourself: on a scale of 1-10, how much fear am I feeling right now? Before your fear level frightens you – which is definitely not the aim of this exercise – remember that a medium level of excitement can be beneficial according to the Yerkes-Dodson law. There is no need to aim for a 1 on the scale at all times, especially with regard to the coronavirus, where caution is prudent. The goal is to behave cautiously but calmly. How can we achieve this?
Protect yourself from fearmongers
An effective method in psychotherapy is the so-called stimulus control. This method is not only used in relation to anxiety, but is a universal strategy to promote mental health. Generally speaking, stimulus control aims to consciously do more of what promotes your mental health and to distance yourself from what negatively affects your well-being. In concrete terms, this means that over the next few days you can observe what fuels your corona anxiety and what calms you down with regard to corona. For example, many people become more anxious when they follow the news. You could therefore consider updating yourself in the morning or during the day and then consciously leave it at that. Many newspapers also offer a newsletter about the coronavirus, which you receive twice a day and which saves you having to browse the news yourself. There is no reason to stay up to date around the clock. On the contrary, it can significantly increase your anxiety level.
Anxiety and Corona: Physical activity
Anxiety is strongly linked to stress, and a physical stress reaction is controlled by hormones. We can actively promote the breakdown of stress hormones by taking sufficient exercise. There is no need to completely exhaust yourself – taking the stairs instead of the elevator, walking or jogging, doing knee bends whilst brushing your teeth, practicing yoga at home – there are a large number of freely available videos on the internet. Now is the time to do something about your fear and open the “home gym” in addition to the obligatory home office.
Maintaining social contacts
What would the Corona crisis have looked like before the internet or mobile phones? We are fortunate to be able to use technology to our advantage: making phone calls, skyping, chatting, sending voice messages. A feeling of connection helps us deal with anxiety and helplessness. Another way to feel more connected is through compassion meditations. In the so-called Metta meditation, we first create love and compassion with ourselves and extend it further and further, to our friends, acquaintances, the city and the country where we live, and finally to the whole world.
At night we can easily get caught up in our own thoughts, leading to anxiety. Fortunately, there are many things we can do to promote good sleep. First of all, check whether you currently have good sleep hygiene as well as following the rules of physical hygiene, such as washing your hands. Sleep hygiene involves going to bed and getting up at the same time wherever possible. You should also create a sleep ritual, which could include a relaxation exercise. If possible, use your bed only for sleeping (the only exception is sex!) and not for other things like work or watching TV. Make sure that the light is dimmed before going to sleep and avoid screen light for at least half an hour before going to bed. You should also take care to avoid exercise or eating for around 2 – 3 hours before bed.
Changing your perspective
The previous tips might give the impression that we can control our fears with the necessary know-how. But just as we cannot control nature, we cannot control our own biology. And fears, like other emotions, are our evolutionary heritage that ensures our survival. It is equally impossible to control our thoughts. If I tell you not to think about a blue elephant, you will think about a blue elephant. However, there is the following possibility: try to consciously notice when you are afraid and observe your fear as neutrally as possible. Watch it increase, decrease, perhaps change in quality. Your fear might turn into panic, then to anxiety, and then to fear again, and suddenly the phone rings and it disappears completely. This way of changing perspective is called “diffusion” in psychology. Diffusion can be very helpful in lowering your anxiety level, because you gain some distance to your fear, which calms you down through the realisation: I am not my fear.
SOS against fear
Severe anxiety arises from a biological reaction. This reaction is partly explained in reference to the two nervous systems, parasympathetic and sympathetic. The parasympathetic nervous system is the resting nerve of the body, whereas the sympathetic nervous system is the one that makes us feel excited. If you notice a strong anxiety reaction and are in danger of panicking, you can use an effective exercise to calm down on a biological level. Focus on your breathing. Make the exhalation longer than the inhalation, by counting your inhalation and exhalation in one second intervals. By letting the exhalation be a few beats longer than the inhalation, you activate the parasympathetic nerve, your resting nerve. When you have returned to a moderate level of anxiety, you can take a closer look at the situation and find out what was scaring you.