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Anatasia S Kim Ph.D.
Anatasia S Kim Ph.D.

How Do I Manage My Fear in the Era of COVID-19?

How our craving for certainty has resulted in debilitating fear

cottonbro from Pexels
Source: cottonbro from Pexels

The COVID-19 pandemic has unleashed a tsunami of epic proportions, and it seems we are collectively drowning in tidal waves of emotions—stress, worry, anxiety, irritation, anger, depression, and fear. As the number of deaths keeps climbing, and stay-at-home orders are expanding to more and more regions globally, fear, in particular, has come to dominate and debilitate.

What Are We Afraid Of?

Given the nature and magnitude of the present crisis, there is no shortage of things to fear. From concerns about our own and others' well-being, food/housing/financial insecurity, and our ability to cope to the future of our lives and the world as we have known it. The list is long and growing.

Underlying these fears is the omnipresence of uncertainty—fear of the unknown. Even if one becomes ill or loses their job, the unknown persists—How long will I be ill? Will I be able to get another job? It's a never-ending spiral.

Our aversion to uncertainty is powerful, as is our drive for control. The more uncertain a situation, the more afraid we become, and the more control we seek.

So what to do?

Accept Uncertainty

The only certainty in life is uncertainty. (OK, except death and taxes, à la Ben Franklin.) The sooner we can accept this, the better our ability to tame our fears.

  • Accept that life is riddled with unknowns and ambiguities.
  • Accept that the only constant in life is change—big and small, expected and unexpected.
  • Accept the actuality of the COVID-19 pandemic. Neither denial or overreaction will change this truth.
  • Accept that the current reality is uncomfortable and challenging.

Focus on What We Have Control Over

We can't control what happens to us, other people, or the future. But we do have control over our own reactions, thoughts, feelings, and behaviors.

Felipe Borges from Pexels
Source: Felipe Borges from Pexels

Calm Your Fear

  • Breathing exercises: Slow, deep, diaphragmatic breathwork is a quick and easy way to calm strong emotions, such as fear. Here are some simple examples: (1) Inhale to the count of four—hold briefly—exhale to the count of four; (2) softly or silently say "let" and "go" as you inhale and exhale; (3) imagine slowly inflating an innertube around your abdomen as you inhale and deflating it as you exhale.
  • Meditation: Any type will do. Make it easy (e.g., download meditation music on Spotify or guided meditation on YouTube). The goal here is to pause, slow down, turn inward, and ground in stillness and wisdom.
  • Gentle movement: Activities such as walking, yoga, massage, stretching, Tai Chi, or even dancing can help us to find some ease and space in places of tension and tightness.
  • Hugs: Family, roommates, pets, blankets, stuffies—any being or thing in your home will do. Genuine, mutually pleasurable hugs release the feel-good hormone, oxytocin, a powerful antidote to fear.

Supercharge Your Rational Thoughts

Our minds constantly narrate what is going on around us. Do you feel happy or sad? That depends on whether your thoughts are telling you if the glass is half full or empty. So, notice your inner narrator. Gently question the storyline on auto-play. Then try on a different perspective.

  • "I can't handle it!" ⇒ "This is hard, and getting through it will not be easy. But I have overcome other challenges in my life and survived. I can and will survive this too."
  • "I can't stand this lockdown!" ⇒ "I feel very constrained by the stay-at-home order, but I'm going to use this 'opportunity' to have a staycation!"
  • "I'm going to die!" ⇒ "What is the likelihood that I will actually die? After all, experts agree that even though many will become infected, the probability of dying is very low, especially if you are someone who is otherwise healthy and following the recommended guidelines."
ATC Comm Photo from Pexels
Source: ATC Comm Photo from Pexels

Clean Up Your Attitude

The power of a positive attitude is immeasurable. Here are some ways to get started.

  • Practice gratitude. This can be done in a variety of ways—from solo practices (e.g., keeping a gratitude journal) to group activities (e.g., sharing "one thing we are grateful for today" at dinner).
  • Connect with positivity instead of fear. This might mean connecting with grounded (vs. anxious) people, talking about uplifting (vs. depressing) topics, reading or watching inspiring (vs. demoralizing) news or shows, engaging in supportive (vs. critical) self-talk, or doing something helpful (e.g., delivering groceries to an older neighbor, offering free online services, etc.).
  • Be compassionate. In times of stress, it's not uncommon for tempers to run short and snappy reactions to become the default. So be intentional and deliberate in your practice of empathy, patience, and forgiveness for yourself and others.
  • Stay hopeful. This might be a tall order, but it's also a game-changer. Take time to deeply and seriously consider the current crisis. Allow yourself a wider lens. Even wider. Think broadly about what is really important to you, what your values are, how you find meaning in life, and what you want to be your most important life lessons. When we are overwhelmed, our perspective can become myopic and our hope wavering. So, look far, search deep, and ground in the power of hope.

Don't Forget the Obvious

  • Monitor your news consumption. Be mindful of volume (no more than one time per day and definitely not at bedtime). Be discriminatory in what and how much you read. Stick to reputable, fact-based sources. Yes, the pandemic is serious, and the virus very contagious. But so too is fear. Remember that you have a lot of control over how much information you expose yourself to.
  • Mind what you eat and drink. Emotional eating/drinking is an automatic stress response for many of us. However, like news consumption, moderation and quality are key.
Magda Ehlers from Pexels
Source: Magda Ehlers from Pexels
  • Rest. Even though disruptions in sleep is a common side effect of stress, rest is critical if we are to keep unfettered fear at bay and successfully weather this storm. In our fast-paced culture, we can easily forget that our bodies are not machines that can be sustained on caffeine and adrenaline alone. If we expect to make thoughtful and judicious decisions for ourselves and our world, we must allow our bodies the chance to properly rest, replenish, and repair.

The COVID-19 pandemic has turned our lives and the world upside-down. When the crisis will end, and what it will leave behind, no one knows for sure. What we do know and what we can control is our ability to reign in our fear. In so doing, we will optimize our ability to tackle this crisis together with calm and clarity.

About the Author
Anatasia S Kim Ph.D.

Anatasia Kim, Ph.D. is a professor at The Wright Institute.

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