Tolerating Fear in Fearful Times
April 26, 2020
Fear currently invades many of our lives as we live through the COVID-19 pandemic.
We're fearful for our health and that of our family and friends. We're uncertain about our employment, now and in the future. We're anxious about paying our bills. We question whether we're doing enough for our children to reassure and guide them.
We wonder when will this situation end?
How will we be when it does?
Learning to live with this very real fear and manage our worries requires an understanding of our choices. Choices regarding how we think and behave.
3 choices we can make to help us tolerate our fears are: To accept, act, and adjust.
Acceptance of our situation involves acknowledging:
(1) Fear is normal.
Our brains are wired to respond to potentially dangerous situations by activating our fight-or-flight nervous system. This pandemic is such a situation.
(2) Fear is adaptive.
Without feeling afraid we would increase our risk of exposure to the danger by not taking the necessary precautions. Some fear is therefore healthy. It can be a friend to keep us safe.
(3) Many of the external situations are beyond our control, despite our wish to do so, or at least influence the outcome we desire.
Think of empty shelves of toilet paper and cleaning supplies; having to add the role of teacher for our children; being asked to stay away from our parents in nursing homes.
Our tendency when anxious and afraid is to grip the reins of control more tightly. Control over not only what we do, but also what others do. But as our fear rises and we attempt to control every aspect of the situation, we find ourselves having trouble catching our breath, our pulse races, our mouths get dry, our stomach churns.
However, fighting emotionally to control our external reality is more likely to increase our fear and anxiety as well as other feelings, such as sadness and frustration.
Acceptance, then, as Steven Hayes and Jason Lillis describe in their Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), is to release our attempts to control the situation.
Acceptance, however, does not mean we stop acting or doing. Rather, taking constructive action when we are fearful gives us purpose and direction. When we feel buffeted by the unknown, our actions provide us with some prediction of our future, which minimizes surprises and creates a sense of order.
Now, ask yourself: "What can I can say, do, or think that is within my control?"
Are my actions helpful? Do they make me and others happy? Or do they cause harm inadvertently or not?
Here are some suggestions for you to act on:
(1) Plan your daily work and home tasks and activities. What are your priorities and your values? How can you be productive, however that form takes?
Organizing our day helps to establish a routine. Routines create a steady, reliable rhythm in the hum of our day.
(2) Limit your exposure to the pandemic news. This includes not only from the news services, but also from social media, and family and friends. Constantly hearing updates or listening to others' fears maintains or even heightens our fear.
(3) Show care and compassion to yourself and others. Recognize when you are speaking too critically to yourself about about not being a good enough mother/husband/daughter/employer. Speak to that inner critic, as Kristin Neef, Psychologist, suggests with kindness, saying, for example, that we continue to offer value to others and ourselves, that we are doing the best we know how in circumstances we were completely unprepared for.
(4) Keep connected with others. Calling a friend, arranging a video call with family, or playing a board game with your children give us a sense of community, offer ways to cope, and increase our tolerance to distress.
(5) Find time daily to calm your fight-or-flight response. Various activities, such as meditation, mindfulness, and relaxation exercises are helpful. Engaging in creative pursuits are also useful.
Over the last several weeks our behaviours have changed to adjust to this "new normal." On a society level, we have seen breweries and other manufacturing plants pivot their production to making much needed protective supplies.
Adopting a flexible mindset is part of adjusting to the demands of a challenging, changing situation. Remaining paralyzed by fear keeps us from doing so.
A flexible mindset takes the approach that change is constant throughout life.
It asks us to pay attention to where we are putting our focus, and whether we are stuck there, for example, being overly vigilant about the number of COVID-19 deaths.
It nudges us to consider situations from another's perspective. Perhaps we ask for a friend's point of view in order to consider alternative ways of thinking.
It urges us to look at more than one possible solution in order to maximize the benefits of problem-solving very difficult and stressful situations. Remaining rigid about one way of doing something leaves us with fewer options.
These are very difficult times. Our fear of how we will manage emotionally, socially, and financially can not be underestimated. However, we can choose to practice acceptance that the fear is real but normal, and we have limited ability to control external situations. We can choose to act wisely and constructively to manage our routine, our emotions and our thoughts. We can be flexible and adjust our perspectives and priorities when the situation calls for it. We can give fear its due but we don't have to allow it to be our master.
Accept, act, adjust. Repeat.