There’s a lot of talk about “controlling” or “eliminating” your fear at the moment. As a clinical psychologist, it’s the last thing I recommend.
Here’s a challenge for you: don’t think about a pink elephant for the next 20 seconds. Try thinking about other nice things, like your last vacation, but whatever you do, do not think about a pink elephant.
Chances are you’ve thought about the pink elephant.
If we generalize this same classic experiment to the Coronavirus, we would get a similar result. This phenomenon, called Ironic Process Theory (Wegner, 1989) has been studied again and again in psychology. While lay advice from friends and family is often to “not worry about it” and “stop thinking” about anxiety-inducing thoughts, we now know through research that deliberate attempts to suppress particular thoughts increases the likelihood of them appearing over time.
Moreover, we now know in my profession that trying to control or get rid of these thoughts and feelings only makes things worse. Getting embroiled in a control agenda is counterproductive and life-draining. It also places these thoughts and feelings on a podium and makes them even bigger in our lives.
Here are 10 tips I share with my clients to help handle Coronavirus fear in a way that is less life-interfering, while focusing on what they can control instead:
1. Remember that we need fear. It is in our DNA, and for good reason. At a basic level, fear guides us to keep us safe and alive, and keeps us alert and able to prepare for what is causing the fear. It also helps us act bravely; courage and fear go hand in hand. Only at higher levels, when it enters the “panic zone”, does fear becomes unproductive and problematic. It is then that we need to look at “turning down the volume” and handling this emotion so it is less life-interfering.
2. Hold your fear lightly. Notice your fear and make room for it to pass through. If you find that you can’t act on your fear and use it in a productive (sensible) way, notice its presence and breath into it. Imagine a vast space opening up around the fear sensation or thought to allow it to move freely. You might even want to express some gratitude that your “fear switch” isn’t broken! I use an empirically validated approach called Acceptance and Commitment Therapy to help clients with this. I would recommend the work of Dr Russ Harris (The Happiness Trap, The Reality Slap) as a helpful resource.
3. Work on your flexibility. Psychological flexibility is our ability to let go of rigid rules and assumptions about the way the world “should” be and find new ways of adapting to change. Challenge these underlying beliefs (e.g., replace unhelpful “shoulds” with preferences: change “this shouldn’t be happening” to something like “I wish this wasn’t happening”). A little Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) can help with this. Practice new and creative ways of adapting to the changes around you. Let go of what you can’t control by building acceptance around it and focus on the things you can.
4. Add a little mindfulness to your day. Our minds are naturally in hypervigilant mode at the moment, with “what if’s” aplenty. Mindfulness is about attentional training, not getting rid of thoughts. Notice unhelpful thoughts and use mindfulness skills to redirect your attention to the present moment. Activities such as mindfulness, breathing work and yoga have been shown to increase psychological flexibility and overall mental health. There are plenty of online resources and apps out there (E.g., Headspace, Calm) to help cultivate mindfulness.
5. Practice compassion, for others and yourself. This is a moment of great universality. Fear is what most of us are feeling at the moment. We are all in this together. Handle your thoughts and feelings, including your fears, with great kindness. Your fear is what makes you human. All human experiences are welcome, and that includes all thoughts, feelings and sensations. Take good care of yourself through a ton of self-care so you can take care of others. For more on self-compassion, I recommend the work of Dr Kristin Neff, Dr Dennis Tirch and Dr Paul Gilbert here.
6. Unhook yourself. If you notice yourself getting “hooked” on anxious thoughts or feelings, try to move with the fear towards something that is more valued or productive. Tuning in and turning to your values and strengths is helpful here. What is important to you in this moment? What type of person would you like to be and how can you move towards being that person, even by an inch? Move with the fear and towards whatever makes life more meaningful in the moment.
7. Recognise life-draining actions. These are often techniques to control anxiety. While sitting in bed under the duvet and watching Netflix all day may be comforting in the short-term, it may keep you stuck in your anxiety. This also goes for obsessively checking the news or social media. Take stock of these life-drainers and set some gentle boundaries with yourself.
8. Set healthy goals. Our minds are hardwired to not like certainty. Give yourself direction and structure to keep a sense of movement, even with your fear, regardless of the parameters that have been set in your life. It’s easy to go down the rabbit hole of fear if we don’t have a lot of other things going on. Maintain some semblance of normalcy to your routine (starting with getting up at the same time, getting dressed, etc.). Set a detailed schedule of your day that includes healthy habits, including any form of physical activity (see below) and healthy eating (including foods/supplements for gut-health, also proven to benefit mental health). This is our time to define and implement our goals and build healthy lifestyle habits.
9. Get moving (creatively). Humans weren’t designed for a sedentary life. Like other animals, we were designed to move. Exercise releases chemicals like endorphins and serotonin that improve your mood. Stagnation leaves us more vulnerable to unhelpful thoughts and feelings. If you are confined inside (and assuming you feel healthy enough), exercises with your own body weight or cardio exercises in place (like high knees or star jumps) can be helpful. If you have outdoor space, use it! There are plenty of online fitness tutorials including YouTube videos to help with this.
10. Stay connected (creatively). We humans are social animals. Our natural instinct is to socialize and be part of a tribe, not isolate. Try to arrange virtual “meet ups” with people, over Skype, Zoom or FaceTime for example. Schedule virtual “parties” with friends and send out invites. Reach out to friends and check in on them. Consider reaching out to those you’ve lost touch with, as now’s the time for these relationships to be rekindled. Share your fears with others; if you do, chances are you’ll feel an even deeper connection with them, and them to you.
Just one final reminder. While we are all focusing on strengthening our immune systems, it’s worth noting that we tend to underestimate our “emotional immune system”, that is, our ability to cope with and recover from difficult situations. Remember dear reader that “this too shall pass”, and we will get through this…together.