Fear is a natural and necessary reaction to threat. In these difficult times if you’re feeling fearful, that’s simply your body’s way of telling you to watch out.
However, as the coronavirus crisis mounts, you may be finding it difficult not to become overwhelmed with fear. When this happens, not only do you feel awful, because your body is flooded with adrenaline and cortisol, leaving you jittery, tense, headachy, even nauseous, but you are also more likely to act out of character or make dumb decisions.
Putting aside some provisions in case you have to quarantine is, in my opinion and based on what’s happening, perfectly reasonable, but buying far more than you could possibly use in a month is prompted by an overactive fear response.
I’m not judging. Why wouldn’t our fear response be getting out of hand? We’re wired to pick up on the emotions of others, and the photos of empty shelves will inevitably trigger a need to get out there before it’s too late. Our tendency towards negative bias means we are also wired to notice and respond to all the bad news. It also doesn’t help when we are receiving conflicting messages, or not enough information from those in charge, as that undermines trust in authority. And emotive sentences like ‘many more families are going to their lose loved ones’ from Boris Johnson could have been designed to trigger panic.
So, what can we do?
Firstly, obviously, take reasonable practical steps. Handwashing, avoiding crowds and so on.
But we can also consciously work on re-balancing and soothing our systems. At the moment, what Dr Paul Gilbert , in The Compassionate Mind, refers to as our threat system, is probably over-active in most people. But we have a parallel system set up to soothe and calm ourselves.
Deep breathing, and especially meditation is a key way of triggering the calming and soothing response. If you don’t really know where to start, just try slowing down your breathing (don’t force this) and focusing your mind on a repeated phrase. For example, ‘I am here now’ or ‘Mind slowing down’. Repeating the phrase, or mantra, can help to distract you from all the other worries and thoughts flooding your mind, but when you notice the thoughts sneaking in, don’t beat yourself up, just return to inwardly repeating the phrase.
Exercise is also helpful, particularly something which takes a bit of concentration, but it really does need to be something that you enjoy. Dancing is a great option (though maybe not in a crowded club). If circumstances allow, walking in nature is also really good for calming your system down.
Or do something nice for someone else, even just sending them a nice message.
Perhaps the key thing to remember is that the part of you which is triggering the fear response is quite a primitive and childlike part of the brain, so treat it like a child you love who is scared. Don’t ignore it and pretend it isn’t scared, or it will just cry louder. Equally, don’t get impatient or scornful, but reassure and soothe, just as you would a child.