I’m seeing a lot of advice out there from mental health professionals and helpful community members about how to reduce your anxiety. While I know this is valuable, I believe their advice and strategies miss a crucial part of the picture: our fear, right now, makes sense. When you are facing a lion, deep breathing and grounding aren’t the tools you need.
You need to do what you can to get you and your loved ones out of the situation alive and unharmed.
COVID-19 is an invisible and unrealized threat. We worry for the safety and security of ourselves and our loved ones, we can’t predict how long the uncertainty will last, and we don’t know what impact it will have on our livelihood, our communities, and our economy.
Of course, we feel keyed up, have difficulty focusing, have a hard time sleeping, and feel compelled to seek out as much information as we can find. We know there is a threat, but unlike in the case of the lion, we don’t know where it is crouching. We are sitting in uncertainty and fear, waiting for it to pounce.
Where I think our well-meaning professionals and community members miss something is that they are treating our response to COVID-19 as if it is anxiety, and not as if it is fear. I find this to be a problem because anxiety is a mental health diagnosis and it comes with an assumption that there is something “wrong” with your response.
It assumes in some sense that you “shouldn’t” be feeling this sense of apprehension and dread, that your reaction is somehow out of proportion to the event, or that it is inappropriately interfering with your functioning.
When we call our reaction to COVID-19 “Anxiety”, we may as well be saying that we are wrong in our perception of COVID-19 as a threat. It is the metaphorical equivalent of seeing a lion, and being told that we are overreacting, “Why are you worried? it’s just a house cat”.
We have good reason to be afraid, and although our fear is uncomfortable, it is not a pathology or a disease. Fear is helpful, it serves a purpose in threatening situations as it prepares our body and mind to act. When we perceive our threat (or challenge), our body responds by activating our stress response system.
With the lion, this system is what gets us in gear to act to face the lion, run away, or shut down. You may have heard of this as the fight/flight/freeze response. Our fear response can serve us in the case of COVID-19 as well. We perceive it as a threat and experience fear, and our emotional reaction encourages us to get ready to act to face it (at an individual and societal level) and to put measures in place to increase our perceived safety.
While our primary reaction to COVID-19 is not anxiety, fear can morph into anxiety when it does not match the “objective” environmental threat. Fears around COVID-19 may exacerbate underlying and unresolved fears and anxieties, or your emotional reaction may get to a point that you no longer feel like your response is reasonable given the circumstances.
If that is the case, absolutely follow-up with a mental health professional in your community (during COVID-19 I know many of them are practising remotely, myself included). For COVID-19, we have good reason to be afraid, and we should not assume that there is necessarily something pathological with our response.
Accepting the fear does not mean that we are helpless or that we will have to sit in the state of discomfort forever. Here are a few ideas of ways you can work with your fear:
- Act. Deal with the threat in whatever way you can to reduce its potential impact. To act, you need to be able to identify specifically what you are afraid of (e.g. the lion eating you, your grandmother contracting COVID-19, running out of food), and you need to do something that is in your power to reduce the likelihood of the feared event happening. For example, if you are worried about the safety o your family, do something to increase your safety. For COVID-19 that may look like handwashing and social distancing, or buying groceries and disinfectant.
- Do what you can to increase the predictability and stability of your world. Get information when it is available, and create new routines.
- Know that your body and mind are doing their best to keep you safe. Your body and mind prioritize primary needs (like safety) over your need to get your work done or focus on your reading. If you can’t focus right now, that is entirely understandable and it’s okay, you are not alone in that. When you feel safe in your environment again your focus will return.
Take care of yourselves through this. It’s okay to be afraid.
Kayleigh Erasmus, MA, CCC
Kayleigh is a psychotherapist and counsellor based out of Vancouver Island, Canada. In response to a need for better access to mental health services in rural and remote communities, Kayleigh started her telephone-based private practice: Rural Reach Counselling and Psychotherapy. You can find her at her website: www.ruralreachcounselling.ca