Our society is only beginning to absorb the tremendous impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on our work, home, and personal lives. We see great variety in how people are reacting: terrified parents hoard toilet paper, college-age spring breakers party through it, and social butterflies dread the isolation. Although we’ve seen many kinds of responses over the past few weeks, there is one factor they all share in common: worry. A month into quarantine, most people have realized that this will not go away as fast as they’d hoped. The rising concern that danger is around the corner, lurking on the handles of grocery store carts or in the air between us and our neighbors, has led to intense “fight or flight” reactions that have serious repercussions for our mental health and wellbeing.
So why are we reacting this way?
Our bodies are built for survival. In humanity’s “caveman days” our fight or flight response was intended to save us from immediate harm: lion = danger; run or fight. Originating in a part of the brain called the amygdala, fight or flight is a response to a true or perceived source of harm that could threaten a person’s survival. The body responds to the threat by getting you ready to fight or protect yourself: increasing your heart rate, intensifying your breathing, dilating your pupils, and so on. It makes sense to feel this way when confronted by a lion on the African savannah, but chronic worry feels out of place when we are not faced with immediate danger. Anxiety is rooted in worry and worry is rooted in survival: “If I prepare for tomorrow, I will be safe for anything that is to come today”–whether it be a dangerous wild animal or a global pandemic.
Are we over reacting?
So are people’s anxieties being blown out of proportion? As a mental health professional, my answer is no. The constant presence of the world’s news heightens our immediate awareness of the pandemic, which can lead us to take appropriate precautions, but it can also spur us into constant worry. This isn’t necessarily an overreaction! Remember, your body is only trying to protect you and ensure you don’t become sick, or worse. Part of human nature is our desire to ensure that our species does not go extinct. When we see more people dying than we expect, our minds say, “we have a problem!”
So I am stuck in this uncomfortable state of constant worry?
For those whose fear response is heightened, or who find themselves in a state of constant worry: know that although the worry exists to protect you, your body reacts to our heightened levels of anxiety in ways that can create irritability, physical pain, constant tiredness, and other symptoms that are not helping you stay safer. It’s a good idea to follow the precautions given by the CDC, but the impulse to douse yourself in Lysol after stepping outside for a few minutes may not be necessary. How can someone shift their constant worry to a healthy precaution?
3 steps to managing constant worry when a really scary thing is happening
This Many of us lack the ability to connect with ourselves, sooth ourselves, and trust ourselves. Why? You may know your favorite food, and know you are not any good at baseball, but do you know how your body responds to fear, hurt, disappointment, insecurity, and other uncomfortable responses? Though many of those responses are uncomfortable, they have a purpose. Understanding our relationship with these uncomfortable emotions prepares us to best manage them.
1. Lets Name You
When we think of our problems, we see them as part of ourselves. Disappointment with our problems can lead us to be disappointed with ourselves. When we understand our problems as something external to us this can give us a new perspective.We regain control when we allow our perceived problems to sit beside us, as we learn what they are, how they serve us, and how to shift the relationship we have with them. So let’s name this constant worry, whether it’s only been with you for the last 3-4 weeks, or for a lifetime. This name can be anything, from a real “human name” to a description.
2. Lets understand you and your needs.
We don’t like the presence of negative emotions. It’s uncomfortable! We push these feelings aside, or dive into them, feeling over-consumed by emotions. By better understanding this part of yourself, you learn its purpose and its needs, the function it serves. Answer the following questions to see what you can discover. Note: “they or them” refers to the name you provided to your constant worry.
● What tells you they are present? Take note of the times they feel they must show up.
● If they had a voice, what would they say they were here to help you with? Take a non-judgmental lens, and explore their purpose.
● How might we comfort them and let them know that their concerns for us are being addressed? Learning to comfort ourselves.
● What do they need from you to know their concerns are appreciated, but not necessary? Exploring kindness to ourselves.
3. Let’s talk.
Now that you’ve reframed your anxiety as something external to you, given it a name, and thought about what purpose it serves, my hope is that you will find grace and understanding for yourself and your worry. It’s easy for us to be cruel, disappointed, judgmental, and dismissive of our own feelings, but this only sends us into a vicious cycle, with our most difficult emotions returning like an insistent child who wants to be seen. Making the effort to consider your feelings with non-judgmental kindness will guide you through some of your most difficult moments. Tip: Speak to yourself the way you wish you were spoken to as a child.