Coping With Fear in COVID19

As a psychotherapist, I have seen a whole range of responses to the COVID19 pandemic, from denial, calm acceptance, to mild anxiety, and all the way to true panic.  We are all responding to the same event, but to different triggers regarding that event.  Some people are triggered by seeing the empty grocery shelves.  Unless you’ve lived through a natural disaster, you may have never seen something like that before!  Just the sight of it seems to have triggered panic for so many.   Some are afraid for their parents, for their children, for their medically vulnerable spouses, and some about not having enough money.  Some are afraid about what will happen to their animals, if they can’t take care of them for a time.  Many are afraid for themselves.  Afraid of pain and sickness and potential death.  Some are afraid of all of this.  And on and on the list goes. 

Anxiety is a totally normal reaction to a pandemic.  So is denial.  As the days tick on, less and less people seem to be falling into the denial camp.  Let’s try to continue to be compassionate with others as we see each other reacting differently to the same event.  And let’s be compassionate with ourselves if we sometimes don’t like our own responses to this event.  

There are fears about the situation as it stand now, today, and their are fears about the unknown.  How long is this going to last?  How will this change our lives for the next year, or even beyond?  So, what can help you when you’re scared?  

Basically there are two tracks to go down to get relief from fear:  to go deeper into it, or to move away from it.  Moving away may seem like the obvious choice, but it’s not always possible, and when you try, it may not help enough.  Try to deepen into the fear first, and then go to do some of the things in this article.  If this feels too scary to start with, then try the things in this other article first, and if they don’t work well enough, come back to this.  😊  This may feel a little scary at first, but it’s likely to make you feel much better!

Before you start, make sure you’re somewhere safe and sit back or lay down, and close your eyes.  And if your house is chaotic, with lots of kids and family, you can find a space away, or just do your best, right in the midst of the chaos.  Really go inside of your own experience, taking your time with each step.  Try to take a few minutes, at least, for each one.

Remember, You’re Ok Right Now
In the spirit of Thich Nhat Hanh’s work:
Take a big breath in: I am in my body  
Exhale:  Right now, I’m safe
Do that several times.  Breathing in and out through your nose (not mouth)

Feel the Feeling
Check in with your emotions, your heart, and your body to find the feelings.  If you check in to your emotions and find fear, say to yourself, “I feel so scared right now.” And name the trigger: “I am so scared of…”.  And remember, this is just the feeling that you’re having right now. 

Notice your Body Sensations
Sometimes the best window into the room of the emotion, is through he body.  When you’re in the fear, just notice the sensations in your body.  Find where it is that you feel it in your body.  Your stomach?  Your heart?  Where?  And how would you describe the sensation?  Mentally measure the area of the fear.  “Ok, it’s 4 inches wide, but 12 inches long”.  Just notice.  Just noticing can help you be present with the emotion in a slightly more detached way. 

Validate Your Feelings
Validate what you’re feeling.  It makes so much sense that you feel this way right now.  Of course this is scary.  Just say to yourself, “Of course you’re feeling scared.  There is so much about this that is scary.  That’s so normal you’d feel that way”.

Meet Your Fear With a Nurturing, Compassionate Response
You know that amazing, nurturing, loving grandmother (or mother, father, aunt, teacher, dog, etc) you had who made you feel safe, calm and protected no matter what was going on in your life?  And if not, then the one you wish you’d had?  This is what we’re going for here.  Meet the painful emotion, with a loving, compassionate, and maybe even wise response.  Really imagine that loving response.  Really see that loving presence, and hear and feel their response.  Meet the scared feeling with inner compassion, love and empathy.

Accept the Situation
So much of our distress comes from trying to fight what is happening right now.  But this is what is happening right now.  For example, if you’re scared that you aren’t sure if you can pay your rent or mortgage next month, say to yourself, “It’s true.  I may not be able to pay it.  I’m not sure yet, but I might not be able to”.    

Remember: Feelings are Temporary
Know, this level of fear cannot last forever.  Emotions rise and they fall.  Just like a wave.  Just let them rise.  Feel them rising.  Feel them get to the peak of awfulness.  Know they will come down.  Feel them peak and then notice them coming down.  No matter what you do, feelings will rise and fall.  Knowing this, can help us not panic about the panic.  Fear of the fear can be worse than the fear.  

Have you ever seen this drawing?  
The fear is sometimes smaller than the fear of the fear.  

Separate out Your Feelings from Your Story (and Don’t Believe Your Story)
The story is often confused for the emotions, but it’s actually something totally different.  The story is what we tell ourselves about the trigger.  It’s filled with our assumptions.  The story can be dangerous and inaccurate no matter what it is.  “I’m going to die” can be just as inaccurate as, “I’m going to be fine”.  You have no idea what’s going to happen.  That is all.  You just don’t.  The other thing that’s true is, you’re feeling whatever you’re feeling.  Feelings never lie.  But beliefs and stories are “a bunch of hooey,” as my Granny would say.  So instead of an internal dialogue that goes, “I’m going to die.  Oh no.  This is so bad.  We’re all going to get it and it’s going to be awful…” needs to be changed to, “Wow.  I’m really scared.  I hate this situation and it’s really totally freaking me out.  I’m afraid something awful will happen, but honestly, I have no idea what’s going to happen.  All I know is right now, I’m afraid.”

Connect With Others
When we are afraid, or hurt, or lonely we need to be emotionally and or physically held and comforted.  We need another to be with us.  If you have another who can hold you that way – with love, compassion and empathy, turn to them.  Let them hold you.  Physical touch and holding can be so grounding in ways that words often miss.  And if your other is scared too, hold each other in the fear.  If you are with a dog or a cat or another animal, tell them about it and have a snuggle.  If you’re alone, call a friend, have a video call and talk deeply, or ask a neighbor to talk with you over a fence or from the distance of the driveway.  Let any good feelings that come up from these connections, expand and sink in to your body and your heart. 

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