Covid 19 and Increasing Pandemic Anxiety

by Sara A Showalter Van Tongeren

How to practically cope with increasing anxiety during this time

 Melanie Wasser/Unsplash

Source: Melanie Wasser/Unsplash

So much in our world has changed since I wrote my last post. And yet, the realities of our existential fears still persist and may be more evident than ever. The anxiety of this world continues to remain palpable – the empty shelves, the sickness, the isolation, death, and the reality of the unknown future. This week, I have been reflecting on the increased anxiety that we feel as humans when there is a threat to our well-being. We have a natural instinct to turn inward, to plan, to gather supplies, to be on high alert. And we have a natural instinct that causes us to feel fear in our bodies. All of these instincts are a result of being faced with four core existential fears (loss of control, challenges to our identity, isolation, and ultimately, our fear of death).1,2 The COVID-19 pandemic hits across all of our existential fears. When we are faced with these fears, we are confronted with information—and what we do with that information matters. As a therapist, I wanted to provide practical ways of coping with these fears and how we can use these fears to help us move forward. 

1. Use your fear as information: Acknowledge that you are feeling a feeling. Do not ignore it, honor it, and ask yourself—”What is is this feeling trying to tell me?” For example, if you are feeling exhausted, increased pounding in your chest, inability to stop intrusive thoughts, take a deep breath, acknowledge these feelings and sit with them for a moment to say, “What is my concern here?” Are you afraid of losing work, losing your health, of not knowing what the future holds? Reflect and then begin to see what you can reasonably do with that information. Sometimes all we can do is acknowledge it (i.e., I do not have control over if my college classes are cancelled) and other times we can realize what we do have control over and what we don’t (i.e., I can wash my hands and keep limited social contact, but I cannot ultimately control whether I am exposed to illness). If you allow yourself to use your feelings as information, you can learn something from yourself. Feelings are there for a reason and often do not come from nowhere.

2. Practice acceptance: This may be the hardest step. We often do not want to accept “what is” and we would rather live in an alternate reality of “what we want life to be.” The truth is many will get sick, many will die, and we do not know what the future holds. When we begin with this reality, we can move toward “what is.” We can ground ourselves toward the truth and act accordingly. We wash our hands, we stay home, we connect virtually with those we love and express those feelings. We can begin to acknowledge our existential fears as facts and not fears.

3. Find connection: Talk to people in your life and connect with them. Use virtual means and schedule a hangout. Share your concerns, your struggles. Are there people in your life that are adding to your stress? Give yourself permission to take a break. Do you have someone in your life that will listen to you? Can you find something to talk about that you both can share together that is about something other than this crisis alone? Talk about your favorite show you are watching or the book you are reading. Make this an intention to connect. We are all in the midst of this experience and we might just be able to learn something from each other. 

4. Use grounding techniques: When we are in a state of crisis, our body is telling us something. It is telling us to pay attention to the threats around us. This is a protective, natural response of being human. What makes a pandemic so unique is that our bodies are designed to alert us to these threats in short bursts, and cannot sustain threat-signals for an extended period of time. This can create fatigue, exhaustion, and just plain “foggy-headedness.” So you need to ground your body. This is a natural way to signal to your body that it is safe. Grounding techniques are universal and involve our five senses. Breathe deeply with your body in a child’s pose, or lay on the ground with your body on your back stretching like it is waking out of bed and practice deep belly breathing for two minutes. Notice your breath as it moves in and out. Let your thoughts come and go. Do not hold onto them, just notice them. Another grounding technique is called just notice them. Another grounding technique is called progressive muscle relaxation. You can google that to find the specific movements, but it can be as simple as squeezing your muscles tightly as you inhale and releasing your muscles as you exhale. Repeat. Notice your body and your mind.

5. Take a break when you can: Give yourself permission to take a break from the news, from fear and worry. Allow yourself to immerse yourself in a hobby like drawing, listening to music, reading a book, talking with a friend. Allow yourself to laugh and to be in the present moment. Put your phone in a drawer. Sit on your porch and see if you can hear the birds sing. Put “bookends” on your thoughts and when they start to circle back to worry or fear, notice it and then direct your mind to whatever you are doing in that moment. Be intentional about this practice. You do not need to be productive, you just need to feel and be. In fact, we can’t help it. I am just asking you to notice being human. 

I hope this is helpful to you during this time. We are in this together. And we need each other. People react to fear in various ways—hoarding, becoming rigid, denial, anger—all various forms of fight, flight, or freeze. In my next post, I will explore this more. But for today, acknowledge what your fears might be trying to tell you. And lean in, trusting that your body is good and trying to tell you something. Listen to reality and ground yourself in your body. Immerse yourself where you are mean to be. Existential fears are a part of our life. We just may have realized it for the first time. Welcome. This is what it means to be fully alive.

Psychology Today

Why Are We So Afraid of Corona Virus?

by Sara A Showalter Van Tongeren

Image – Wired

Why have we been so gripped with increased anxiety, fears, paranoia, and worry over the COVID-19 virus?

Yes, it is important to pay attention to the health effects of a pandemic, but as a therapist, I am more intrigued at the increasing mental health effects of a pandemic. Often, it has been said that the difference between humans and animals is our awareness of the reality that we humans will one day die. Depressing, panic-inducing, isn’t it? How quickly we want to avoid reading the rest of this article, eh?

This is exactly my point. Animals exist with the awareness of a feeling or instinct of an imminent threat. Humans have the unique ability to perceive that it has the potential to be a threat to our wellbeing and we can even imagine how it might feel. We can imagine what it would be like to be in isolation, we can visualize how we feel getting sick, or even worse, what it would be like to possibly be faced with our own death and the potential of a loss of a future. This is what makes us, well, so uniquely human. So why does this induce panic?

We need to understand that as humans, we collectively have four existential fears.1,2 First, we have the fear of groundlessness, which is defined as the loss of control and the burden of freedom. There are things that we can control, such as where we plan to travel, whether we wash our hands or cover our mouths, all while realizing that we do not ultimately have control over what happens to us—whether or not we follow all of the prevention measures. Life can be largely out of our control and this feels scary, especially because we like to think we have more control that what we actually do. 

Our second existential fear is isolation, or the fear of being truly alone. This fear is the realization that each of us experiences our own life from our unique perspective alone. Even though we have close relationships, we are the only ones that know what it’s like to live out our life with our experiences. Although we share our experiences with those closest to us, no one will ever know our innermost workings. No one knows precisely what is to be me. Aside from me, no one knows who I actually am. And this terrifies us.

Third, we must wrestle with identity, or the understanding of who I am. Identity and isolation are intimately tied together: Loneliness is born out of this fear. People often isolate themselves because they are fearful that others will learn who they truly are and ultimately reject them. We fear rejection, so we change who we are to fit how we think others want to see us. We do this so that we can feel that we are accepted and loved. For example, we might have shared our concern about the pandemic and then been dismissed by others around us, or even been made the butt of a joke. This can challenge our ability to even begin to acknowledge who we are because we fear being known and ultimately rejected. 

And finally, we fear death. It is in our nature to live, to strive and to create meaning out of this life. We are evolutionarily programmed for life (e.g., survival). When we are faced with the potential for our own demise, we are challenged with “what is the meaning of this life after all?” We realize that life is temporary and that we will all die; however, this realization shatters our assumptions, because we never really think that we would be the ones to be faced with death now. 

The COVID-19 pandemic touches on each of these four existential themes. We must pay attention to each of these existential fears so that we can become familiar with them, rather than avoid them. Avoiding fear creates space for further panic, isolation, loneliness, depression, and hopelessness. If you are struggling to face your existential fears, contact a professional who can help support you through this process. It takes courage to acknowledge your existential fears—in fact, we do a lot to avoid them altogether. But so much can be gained by understanding our fears and engaging them, rather than running from them or numbing them. In the next post, I’ll examine the benefits of engaging our existential fears.

Psychology Today