How do we manage the panic and stress caused by the novel coronavirus?

We are going through a crisis situation caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Objectively, the crisis is generated by the increasing number of illnesses that can end up overloading the medical units and the fact that the economy suffers because many of the daily activities, as we knew them until now, are interrupted or changed.

Subjectively, the crisis we are experiencing is a psychological crisis that combines the following:

- the fear of the unknown and the uncertainty – what causes us panic is not so much the fear of illness itself, but the fact that we don’t know how things will be, how they will evolve in the short, medium and long term on all levels, the fact that it’s difficult for us to tolerate uncertainty. This panic is in fact exacerbated by our catastrophic assumptions, by the fact that, through social contagion, we take on the emotions, but also the behaviors of those around us, and we end up thinking and behaving less rationally and more emotionally. We focus very much on the negative and we are looking especially for information that can confirm that the situation is catastrophic. We only remember the "five new cases" part and too little the "six recoveries" part. We bear in mind the word "emergency" from "state of emergency" and we correlate it with something negative, although declaring the state of emergency helps us implement faster the necessary measures of prevention and control, so this measure is a positive, not a negative one.

- the fear of illness and death – fear of illness that is natural can trigger us, on the other hand, if we don’t keep it under control, obsessive and irrational thoughts, increased anxiety, the inability to focus on other aspects. We must take all precautionary measures, but realize when our mind begins to imagine catastrophic scenarios and not allow it to lead us in that direction. Let’s protect ourselves and bear in mind solutions, but avoid entering this vicious circle that starts with "oh, my God", "this is terrible", "it’s catastrophic", "what do I do ?!"

If anxiety starts to overwhelm us, let’s think about what we can do right then to lessen that anxiety. Let’s observe (if we change the "actor" perspective with the "observer" perspective we are already beginning to distance ourselves from our negative emotions as a first step to regaining a calmer and focused state) which are those thoughts that increase our anxiety, how can we change them so that we adopt a more rational attitude, let’s observe where in the body we feel those emotions and how our physical state changes because of it, and look for ways to relax - for example, if we notice that we are breathing superficially, let’s sit in an armchair and consciously pay attention to our breath, to breathe deeply imagining that with each breath we take we feel more and more relaxed and with each exhalation we release worry, stress, panic.

- isolation or the fact that for a certain period of time we are forced to change our lifestyle and stay as much as possible indoors - if we see this isolation as a prison, of course we will feel panic and despair. If we see it as something we have to do for our own good, as a limited period of time (because in reality it’s limited, only we don’t know when exactly it will end - if you are reading these lines and you are starting to feel nervous, remember that this feeling is caused by the fact that we are not used to tolerating uncertainty) where we can certainly find things that make us feel good (it’s important to maintain, as far as possible, a neutral or positive disposition) we will certainly not feel the same despair or panic.

What else is causing us panic? The stores and the pharmacies being crowded - some people buy far too much food and other products, which may expire before even using them, fearing the supplies will end or because they have other fears caused by fake or catastrophic news. From my point of view, the purpose for which we buy more is to avoid getting out every day, as we may have been used to until now. More products once to avoid getting out, but not too much. This "apocalyptic" vibe also creates a lot of panic among the population. But of course, every person acts as they see fit.

We are not used to pay so much attention to the issues that we must now put first, for example not to touch our face if we haven’t washed or disinfected our hands before, keeping at least one meter away from each other or disinfecting the keys when we come home; we are not used to not being able to leave the house when we want, we are not used to not find certain aliments in stores, we are not used to such a social state, which can make us feel frustrated, irritated, tired. We may feel wronged, punished, we may rebel, become aggressive or adopt a victim attitude. None of this is of any help to us. By excessively worrying, continually living in a state of panic that we often amplify, talking only about this subject, we can begin to perceive the reality in a distorted manner, in the sense that the world may seem a little strange to us and we may have the feeling that we don’t belong to this world. It’s like we are in a constant state of anticipatory anxiety, as if we can no longer see the light at the end of the tunnel, as if we become more and more desperate.

Also as a defense mechanism (our psyche defends itself against a reality that it can’t accept because it seems too dangerous or undesirable), at the opposite pole of anxiety where through worries and rumination we have the impression that we can find solutions to our fears, there is denial or diminishing the importance of this situation - we pretend that nothing happens, that this virus doesn’t exist, we don’t take precautionary measures, we wander unhindered through the crowd although, perhaps, we have returned from a risk area and so on. Of course, this behavior is neither favorable to us nor to those around us.

From my perspective, the optimal way to approach this situation is a rational one - that means we have to accept this unwanted reality, because if we deny it, it doesn’t mean it will disappear. We accept it and we act accordingly - at the moment we know what we have to do - to take all precautionary measures, to respect the exhortations and rules imposed by authorities and doctors, to avoid the crowd and the departures that are not strictly necessary. During this time to try to live our lives as normal as possible - if we can no longer meet with friends, to talk with them on the phone, if we have to stay longer indoors, to take care of our personal projects, to seek to do things that give us a good feeling.

I am aware that the situation is neither pink nor black. It is as it is. In conclusion, if we want to ease our life, let’s consider the following:

- accepting the situation instead of resisting it, becoming frustrated, feeling wronged or punished;

- respecting the measures imposed by the authorities and taking responsibility for our own health;

- using time constructively;

- increased attention to what's going on inside us - to observe our thoughts, to take a step back when we start to imagine catastrophic scenarios, to try to improve our emotional disposition (yes, small things matter), to learn how to control our anxiety and emotions;

- to take into account the fact that panic often makes any situation worse or makes every situation to seem much worse than it is - to make a conscious effort to manage our emotions;

- to be aware of the fact that there is still a future, that we will overcome this together;

- to observe which behaviors are doing us good (it may be good for us to talk to our close friends, to read, to inform ourselves from official sources not burdened with strong emotions) and which behaviors harm us (to follow alarmist news, for example), and to limit harmful behaviors;

- to keep our faith that we will overcome the present situation. It depends on each of us.

Dr. Ursula Sandner


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