Coping With Fear in the Face of a Pandemic

Five steps to take when you start to worry.

Posted Mar 16, 2020

Everything has changed so quickly. Suddenly everyone, everywhere in the world, is at risk of contracting COVID-19. It's terrifying.

And yet the contagion of fear may be worse than the virus for most of us. Most people in the U.S. who contract this coronavirus will have minor symptoms: mild fever and mild cough. Many—especially children and young people—will be asymptomatic.

So there is a real risk, but COVID-19 disproportionately affects older folks, people with underlying health conditions, and health care workers who have repeated interactions with very sick patients. Most of us will not be directly affected, and our children are safe.

And yet, we find ourselves obsessing about the virus, engaging with the news 24/7, clicking on every alert. We're looking for certainty, something to allay our fear. But there is no certainty to be found, so that strategy just creates more anxiety.

And since our children are so sensitive to our moods, they pick up on our mood and tone and get anxious themselves. Guess what kids do when they get anxious? They "act out" the feelings they can't express in words. In other words, they misbehave. And of course, since we're already tense, we find it hard to respond with patience. Fear is what pulls us off the high road and onto the low road of parenting.

What can you do when you start to worry? Take responsibility for managing yourself.

1. Use your pause button.

Stop, drop whatever you're thinking about, and take several deep breaths to calm your body and stop the rush of stress hormones. This keeps you from getting hijacked and gives you a choice about how to respond to feeling worried. Feelings are just part of being human, like arms and legs. But also like your limbs, you always have a choice about what you do with them. 

2. Notice that your worried mood is being triggered by your thoughts.

What thought is causing you to feel worried right now? Notice that you're worried about something that may happen in the future. In fact, it probably won't. Our thoughts about the future are never real—we can't know what the future will hold. Regardless, worrying now won't help you cope now or in the future, no matter what happens.

3. Calm your mind by taking charge of your thoughts.

Find an antidote to those worrisome thoughts. I agree with Susan Jeffers, author of Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway, that the best antidote to fear is "I can handle it." That's because fear is the feeling that we won't be able to handle something that might happen. But, in fact, you can handle it, no matter what it is. You have enormous internal resources. You can do hard things! You don't want an emergency or a tragedy to happen, but if you have to cope with one, you will handle it, somehow. Anxiety will only make you miserable now and less effective if something undesirable does happen.

So use your antidote: "I can handle it."

If it helps, add others: "We're safe. Keep calm and carry on." Whatever works to calm your mind.

4. Empower yourself and your family.

  • Take responsible health measures. Then relax. Cultivate positivity and enjoy your family. 
  • Deny the virus entry to your body. Wash your hands. Don't touch your face.
  • Deny the virus entry to your home. Stay home so you don't bring in the virus. If you need to go out, use gloves and social distance. Wipe down your doorknob and groceries with alcohol
  • Deny the contagion of fear an entry to your mind. Go on a news fast. Really. If you want to check in with a trusted source every few days, feel free. But you're already washing your hands and staying home. What else do you think the news will tell you?
  • Cultivate positivity. Put on music and dance. Do something creative. Cook something delicious and feed those you love. Creativity and enjoyment can shift your mood from overwhelm to happier and more hopeful. 
  • Connect with your loved ones, both those you live with and those at a distance. Research shows that connection is an effective antidote to stress, both in its effect on our mood and our physical well-being. 
  • Extend grace. Being cooped up, especially with children, can get on your nerves, so be sure to use strategies to give everyone some periods of peace and quiet. Most important, give yourself and everyone around you some extra grace. This is not life as usual. This is a hard, unusual time, and we all have to help each other through it.

For more on how to enjoy your family, manage your own worries, institute healthy habits in your home, and support your child, don't miss this article: "What To Say To Your Child About COVID-19."

5. Consciously choose love instead of fear.

The biggest danger of pandemics is that our survival instinct begins to threaten our compassion. The contagion of fear contracts our hearts. So consciously opening our hearts is an antidote to fear. Every choice, at the core, is between love or fear. Choose love.

  • Call your family and friends to spread love and compassion. Set up group video calls for a virtual brunch to catch up.
  • If you go to the store, ask neighbors who are self-quarantining if you can pick something up for them.
  • Talk as a family about how you can make a contribution to keeping everyone healthy by supporting health care professionals and people who are vulnerable.
  • When you notice that you're feeling afraid, develop a positive habit to empower yourself. For instance, send loving thoughts to someone in the world who needs compassion at this moment. Will they feel it? Maybe. It can't hurt to try. And you will definitely feel it. Studies on Loving Kindness Meditation show that when we feel love, we feel happier and less anxious. Our bodies relax, allowing the parasympathetic nervous system to take over, and optimizing our immune response. 

Practicing love keeps us healthier. And what better time to practice than in a pandemic? We may not have wanted to live in such interesting times. But as a wise philosopher once said, that is not for us to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us.

So I'm closing today with an offering from the wonderful poet Lynn Ungar


What if you thought of it
as the Jews consider the Sabbath—
the most sacred of times?
Cease from travel.
Cease from buying and selling.
Give up, just for now,
on trying to make the world
different than it is.
Sing. Pray. Touch only those
to whom you commit your life.
Center down.

And when your body has become still,
reach out with your heart.
Know that we are connected
in ways that are terrifying and beautiful.
(You could hardly deny it now.)
Know that our lives
are in one another’s hands.
(Surely, that has come clear.)
Do not reach out your hands.
Reach out your heart.
Reach out your words.
Reach out all the tendrils
of compassion that move, invisibly,
where we cannot touch.

Promise this world your love—
for better or for worse,
in sickness and in health,
so long as we all shall live.

—Lynn Ungar 3/11/20