These are strange and difficult times we are living through. With the spread of the ‘Covid-crisis’, our lives have been turned upside-down and a lot of our supports have been taken away. We humans like routines because what we know feels safe because it is familiar. When these structures are taken away, we struggle.
Perhaps one of the hardest parts of what is happening now with the coronavirus is that we have entered the unknown. With this comes uncertainty and fear. In addition to the virus itself there is also signs of a ‘panic pandemic’ spreading throughout the world.
If you are experiencing fear and anxiety right now, this is normal and natural. We are biologically programmed to survive and we do so through our ‘defence systems’. Threats in the world turn on these systems which respond to protect us. Fear and anxiety are part of these defence systems.
High levels of anxiety can be really difficult to experience. However, it is important to remember, that fear and anxiety are your body’s way of trying to protect you. These are ‘internal messengers’, telling you that there is a threat present and that you are in danger.
The problem with these messengers is that they are not always accurate. If we experienced a lot of threat in the past then our systems learn to expect threat in the present and the future. Often, anxiety is not primarily about what is happening now. The current crisis may be simply triggering ‘anxiety memories’ from the past.
If we thought of anxiety as a friend who is trying to help us (although a difficult one perhaps), rather than an enemy, how might it change how we experience it? Knowing that it is trying to protect us might we be able to feel even a small bit of appreciation for it?
In order to help us survive our brains have a ‘negativity bias’. As we evolved in the wild, to not notice a beautiful sunset was no big deal – we live to see another one. But to miss the tiger creeping through the forest would mean no more sunsets, ever! So, for a very good reason our systems are organised to look first for threats and dangers. It is to help us survive.
There is a saying, ‘To the fearful mind, everything rustles’. When we are anxious everything looks scary. But this is often a distorted way of seeing the world.
At the moment there is a huge atmosphere of threat and danger. We are being bombarded by messages of catastrophe from the media. But it is important to try to look at the situation clearly and assess how real these threats are. The mind is very good at coming up with frightening images about what might happen in the future. This is its attempt to protect us and make sure we are ready to deal with these situations. However, we only ever live our lives in one moment: the present. The reality is, for most of us, there is no clear and present danger, most of the time.
It is important, in order to bring balance, that we learn to assess what is happening, rather than getting lost in irrational fears of what might happen. Anxiety is what we feel when we don’t feel safe. To manage this, we need to look for signs of safety. My brain and body might be telling me I’m in danger but if I look around what do I see? Right here, right now, what am I noticing in my environment? Is there any danger present?
Anxiety is also linked to a lack of control. We can never control the future (because it doesn’t exist). Nor can we control a lot of things happening in the world. Focusing on these ‘uncontrollables’ can lead to feeling overwhelmed. Instead we can shift our focus to what we can control. What can I do right here, right now to feel safer and more supported? It might be something as simple as cooking a meal, exercising, or ringing a friend. Little actions can make a big difference.
Most of the time we are actually safe. The heart is beating, the body is breathing. We are (hopefully) healthy, or have the capacity to return to health. The street we are walking down is probably more peaceful than normal! There are signs all round of spring coming into bloom. If we are inside, we can notice that roofs and doors can create a feeling of protection and safety. Learning to notice these cues of safety more often is key to easing anxious feelings.
Of course, sometimes danger is present. In that case, we act and do the best we can to find safety. The action tendencies that come with anxiety like fight, flight or freeze is our body equipping us to escape danger and find safety.
Managing fear and anxiety is a skill that we can develop. Here is a simple exercise that you can try. It involves simply noticing anxiety when it arises, describing it, while, at the same time, reminding ourselves that we are safe in this moment (if this is true). It is important not to try to deny or push away anxious feelings. We need to acknowledge them (and perhaps thank them), while at the same time recognising that we are in reality safe. As with anything, developing this skill might take practice.
When you feel anxious or any other difficult emotion try going through this process either in your head or out loud. Say:
“Right now, I am feeling anxious/ fearful (it is important to acknowledge the feeling rather than push it away)…
and I am sensing in my body (describe what sensations are there – tightness, tingling, prickly, pounding, fluttery, shivery, queasy, knot in my stomach etc.)…
at the same time, I am looking around where I am here and now…
and I can see (describe what you can see)…
so, I know that I am safe/ okay in this moment”.
Remember, the nature of life is change – nothing lasts forever. In a few months most likely this will all be over and we will be worrying about other things!
Here is a short video on finding calm through taking a larger perspective:
Here is another link to a simple practice to get distance and perspective from difficult feelings:
Lastly, the link below is free resource designed for helping people build resilience through this current challenge. It offers talks, meditations, online community support and more.