The accumulating information about the coronavirus pandemic is enough to make anyone feel anxious. Even if you aren’t in a high-risk group, you’re likely concerned for your family and friends — and the constant media coverage can make it difficult to step away from those feelings.
In an effort to slow the spread of the virus, many of us are now cocooned at home, missing out on many of the positive health effects we get from connecting with our communities. Even if you’re only going out for the occasional walk or essential grocery run, you might feel nervous about leaving the house at all under the circumstances. Depending on where you live, it can be difficult to maintain the recommended 6 feet of space between yourself and others — and given how much remains unknown, it’s natural to be experiencing heightened levels of anxiety.
Social distancing may be the most powerful tool we have to stop the spread of the virus. And yet being isolated comes at a cost. The fear of spending time in public robs us of the chance to really live the life we’re so afraid of losing. We interviewed psychotherapist Richard Schaub, PhD, a few years ago in a piece called “When Fear Keeps You Home” about the impulse, in the face of mass shootings or terrorist attacks, to never want to leave home again. We’ve used some of the challenges and success strategies he identified back then and adapted them below as a strategy for transforming our fears around the coronavirus so we can eventually enjoy being out in our communities again.
Feeling out of control. You can practice good hygiene, maintain a safe distance from others, and recommit to eating and moving in a way that supports your well-being. Those are all good and worthwhile efforts to safeguard your health, but they still won’t give you control over the coronavirus. That vulnerability can make it difficult to want to leave the house at all.
The internal alarm system. Schaub points out that the human brain and nervous system are always “scanning for threats.” When the brain’s fear center receives an alarm message, “we don’t even get to decide whether the anxiety we feel in response is rational or irrational,” he says. “It is already in action in our body before we even know it’s happening.”
A powerful imagination. That alarm system can often trigger a negative, frightening train of thought, forecasting the worst possible outcome. “Our brains can take that fear signal and then elaborate on it,” he says. Some mental-health professionals call this “catastrophizing.”
Fear-provoking entertainment. Schaub says the entertainment business can be an “industry of fear.” As concerns about the coronavirus have grown over the past several weeks, Steven Soderbergh’s 2011 global pandemic thriller Contagion has seen a spike in online viewing. The curiosity is understandable, but surrounding ourselves with this kind of content may keep the threat at the top of our minds.
Relentless news. Similarly, the combined effects of a 24-hour news cycle and regular exposure to social media (with its highly subjective, emotional comment streams) constantly steep us in increasingly grim news and the incessant public reactions that follow. This psychic immersion in threat and reactivity can keep our nervous systems on high alert.
Fear of fear itself. The fear response is an unavoidable part of life, but Schaub notes that our aversion to feeling fear (or any other difficult emotion) can actually increase our anxiety. Simply feeling your fear and then making a conscious effort to counteract it can be much less upsetting.
Projecting our fears. When we’re unwilling to consciously face our fears, we may project them onto an “other.” “We displace all of our fears about everything onto this ‘other,’ and then if we can do something to the other, we think we can be safe,” he explains. But this projection compounds the problem by creating more friction and distrust between social groups, and it can actually heighten our individual fear.
Realize that fear isn’t going away. “Fear happens all the time,” Schaub notes. “It’s natural and normal. The fear circuitry in the brain is all hardwired to help us survive.” Meanwhile, not everything we fear is a real threat. Fear is the response to a stimulus; the rational evaluation of that stimulus happens elsewhere in the brain.
Reframe fear. “It may sound odd, but fear is also a form of love,” he insists. “It’s a love of life, a love of being here, that’s an integral part of us. It’s a way our body has of saying ‘I want to be able to stay here.’” (For more on this, see “The End of Fear.”)
Respond, rather than react. Although the fear response is normal, Schaub says, indulging it and elaborating on it will keep us stuck. “When you spot a worry, or a warning, or an anxious feeling, it can build momentum unless you respond to it,” he says. Simply labeling the fear can create enough mental distance to prevent a full-blown reaction.
Use self-talk. When you want to calm a fear reaction, he suggests thinking of it as a frightened child and speaking to that frightened child in your mind to reassure it. Realize that your fear itself has no answer — it is part of your nature that has to respond to the fear.
Use a deeper calming practice. Schaub recommends meditation, exercise, yoga, or a similar regular practice of stress reduction to support self-talk. If you practice a religion or a spiritual discipline, he says, this can be a ready framework of support.
Embrace vulnerability and connection. The truth is, life is inherently risky, and we are all vulnerable to injury and death. “There’s no one who’s not,” he says. “There are no exemptions, no free passes. If you just hold that in mind, it can actually change your emotion from fear to connection with others.” And that sense of connection can hold you when you go out into the world.
This article was adapted from “When Fear Keeps You Home,” which originally appeared in the September 2016 issue of Experience Life magazine.