Coronavirus anxiety: how to stop the spiral of panic?

Coronavirus anxiety: how to stop the spiral of panic?

It's scary, in no uncertain terms. Reading the newspapers and listening to the news we are overwhelmed by the increasingly alarming headlines. We see the number of infected and deceased people rapidly increase, we experience dizziness and sometimes even a sense of unreality, because it is difficult to get used to the idea of ​​what is happening. Our conversations increasingly revolve around the coronavirus. Social networks are flooded with messages that speak of nothing else. And so, immersed in this unprecedented and uncertain scenario, it is not strange that coronavirus anxiety arises.

“Epidemics can create a Hobbesian nightmare: the war of all against all. The rapid spread of a new epidemic and deadly disease can rapidly generate fear, panic, suspicion and stigma, ”wrote Philip Strong. That is why it is so important for every person to control their anxiety, a favor we do to ourselves and to others.

It's normal to feel anxious, but don't panic

First, it is important to be aware that it is normal to feel fear and anxiety in such situations. When situations can pose a risk to our life or that of the people we love, anxiety is triggered.

A University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee study found that we react more intensely - due to the increased activation of the amygdala - when the situations we are exposed to are unknown or new than when they are familiar. This is why a new virus like COVID-19 generates so much fear and anxiety.

We don't have to blame ourselves for those emotions. It's a gut reaction, and feeling bad will only make our mood worse. But we need to make sure that fear does not turn into distress and anxiety into panic. We cannot afford to be overwhelmed by these emotions and let a real emotional hijacking take place; that is, that our rational mind "disconnects".

Losing control and succumbing to collective panic could lead to dangerous behavior for us and those around us. Falling into panic can lead us to assume selfish attitudes, to activate a kind of "save whoever can", which is precisely what we should avoid in dealing with pandemics of this type. As Juan Rulfo wrote: “We save ourselves together or we sink apart”. The decision is ours.

From shock to adaptation: the stages of anxiety in epidemics

Psychologists have studied the stages we normally go through during an epidemic. The first phase is generally that of suspected. It is characterized by the fear of contracting the disease or of other people infecting us. It is in this phase in which more phobic accidents, rejection and segregation of groups occur that we consider possible carriers of the disease.

But soon we move on to a phase of more widespread and generalized fear. We begin to think about the ways of contagion, so we no longer fear only contact with people, but that the virus can also be transmitted through the air or by touching any object or surface. We start thinking about living in a potentially infectious environment. And this generates enormous anxiety that can make us lose control.

At that point it is normal for us to develop a hyper-vigilant attitude. We can obsess over the idea of ​​getting sick and pay attention to the slightest symptom that makes us suspect that we have been infected. We also adopt an attitude of mistrust in the environments in which we normally move, so we take precautions that could later turn out to be excessive, inadequate or premature, such as storming supermarkets.

During these phases we operate in "shock mode". But once the new situation is accepted, we enter a phase of adaptation. At this stage we have already taken on much of what is happening and recover rationality, so that we can plan what to do. It is in the adaptation phase where i usually appear prosocial behaviorswhen we strive to help the most vulnerable.

We all go through these stages. The difference is in the time it takes. There are those who manage to get over the initial shock in minutes or hours and there are those who drag it on for days or weeks. A study carried out by Carleton University during the H1N1 outbreak revealed that people who had difficulty tolerating uncertainty experienced increased anxiety during the pandemic and were less likely to believe they could do anything to protect themselves.

The key to fighting coronavirus anxiety is to accelerate this process and enter the adaptation phase as soon as possible because only then can we effectively address the crisis. And "the only way to do that is to drive that adaptive reaction, rather than destroy it, as many officials and journalists often do," according to Peter Sandman.

The 5 steps to relieve coronavirus anxiety

1. Legitimize fear

Reassuring messages - such as "don't be afraid" - are ineffective and can even be harmful or counterproductive. This type of messages generate a strong cognitive dissonance between what we are seeing and experiencing and the order to ward off fear. Our brain does not allow itself to be deceived so easily and independently decides to maintain the internal state of alarm.

In fact, in the early stages of the epidemic, hiding reality, masking it or minimizing it is extremely negative because it prevents people from psychologically preparing for what is to come, when they still have time to do so. Instead, it is better to say: “I understand that you are afraid. It's normal. We all have it. We will overcome it together. " We must remember that fear does not hide, it faces itself.

2. Avoid alarmist disinformation

When we feel we are in danger, it is common for us to look for all possible clues in our environment to assess whether the level of risk has increased or decreased. But it is important to intelligently choose the sources of information we consult, so as not to fuel excessive anxiety.

This is a good time to stop watching sensational programs or reading information of dubious origin that only generates more fear and anxiety, like many of the messages shared in WhatsApp. There is no need to obsessively search for information minute by minute. You need to stay informed, but with reliable data and sources. And always counter all information. Don't trust the first thing you read.

3. Distract yourself to chase away the dark clouds of pessimism

Life continues, even if within the four walls of the house. To combat the psychological side effects of quarantine anxiety and coronavirus anxiety, it's important to get distracted. This is an opportunity to do those things that we always put off for lack of time. Reading a good book, listening to music, spending time with your family, indulging in a hobby… It's all about taking your mind off the coronavirus obsession.

Following a routine as much as possible will also help us feel that we have some degree of control. Habits give order to our world and give us the feeling of tranquility. If your daily routines have been disrupted by quarantine, establish new enjoyable routines that make you feel good.

4. Stop the catastrophic thoughts

Imagining the worst possible scenarios and thinking the Apocalypse is around the corner doesn't help alleviate coronavirus anxiety. Fighting against these catastrophic thoughts to forcefully expel them from our mind either, because it generates a rebound effect.

The key is to apply radical acceptance. This means that at some point, we have to let everything flow. Once all possible precautions are taken, we must trust the course of life, knowing that we have done everything in our power. If we don't hold back those negative thoughts and emotions, they will eventually go away as they came. In these cases, adopting a conscious attitude will be of great help.

5. Focus on what we can do for others

Much of the coronavirus anxiety is due to the fact that we feel we have lost control. While it is true that there are many factors that we cannot influence, others depend on us. Therefore, we can ask ourselves what we can do and how we can be useful.

Helping vulnerable people by offering our support, even at a distance, can give this situation we are experiencing a meaning that goes beyond ourselves and that helps us to better manage fear and anxiety.

And above all, let us not forget that "an exceptionally difficult external situation offers man the opportunity to grow spiritually beyond himself," according to Viktor Frankl. We cannot choose the circumstances that we have to live, but we can choose how to react and what attitude to maintain. How we approach them, as individuals and as a society, can make us stronger in the future.

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