by Stephen Russell-Lucy
People are rightly talking about coronavirus anxiety in terms of the stress of uncertainty. The constant news about the pandemic can feel relentless. Whether it be today’s statistics on deaths and new cases, new social rules laid down by the Government or the latest public figure to go down with the virus. It seems to be the one topic of conversation on social media. We have social distancing and for many a feeling of being imprisoned within one’s own home. It’s all getting a bit much.
Not knowing the future about anything of course was always the case before coronavirus anxiety was around. Who could have said with certainty they wouldn’t have got run over by a bus the next day? Could we each have been sure about never being made redundant? No-one knows their future state of health. But now a world crisis is on us, we are obliged to look at uncertainty full in the face.
Doubt and vagueness can lead to anxious worry. That is if we dwell on the unknown future. Negative thoughts can flit around in the background of awareness and trigger coronavirus anxiety. Some of us may focus our thinking on them. Then worried thoughts can go around and around in circles without getting anywhere. What if the economy doesn’t recover? Will I have a livelihood? What if I get the virus? Who will do what is needed? Will I die? No sure answers are possible because no-one knows how long the pandemic will last and who will get the virus.
Lack of social support
Traffic is disappearing because schools, clubs, and many workplaces have closed until further notice. As a result, we no longer have the kind of social interaction they provide. Even with on-line contact, we have far less opportunity to share time with friends, relatives and fellow workers. Far less opportunity for social support that can help reduce stress and worry of coronavirus anxiety.
However, there are other ways of giving and receiving support like more phone calls, texting and video-chat. Our anxiety and fears should be acknowledged, shared and better understood rather than ignored.
Persistent coronavirus anxiety is unpleasant to experience. Also, it can exacerbate stress-related illness like tension headache, high blood pressure, constipation, irritable bowel syndrome or even stroke.
What can be done then? How can we feel less coronavirus anxiety?
Paying attention to one’s own needs
The standard answers are helpful. For example, during times of stress, it’s good to pay attention to your own needs and feelings. Engage in healthy activities that you enjoy and find relaxing. Exercise regularly, keep regular sleep routines and eat healthy food.
Another good tip comes from the World Health organisation. Minimize watching, reading or listening to news about Covid-19. Too much exposure is likely to causes you to feel anxious or distressed. Best to seek information updates at a specific time only, once or twice a day.
Use information only from trusted sources and mainly so that you can take practical steps to prepare your plans and protect yourself and loved ones. Get the facts; not rumours and misleading information. Doing what you can based on facts can help to minimize irrational fears. We need to protect ourselves from the fake news that is doing the rounds.
Keeping coronavirus anxiety in perspective
We all differ. Some more prone to coronavirus anxiety. We don’t all easily tolerate uncertainty. Whether it be about things that might go wrong to do with relationships, finance, health, livelihood.
So, some find it more difficult to follow the advice to keep things in perspective. Easier said than done you might think. Just how do we do that then?
One answer is found in the psychological therapy called CBT. The UK Government recognises this approach as an effective way of reducing anxiety. It is partly based on the idea that we unnecessarily add to our anxiety by the errors we make in the way we think. Automatic ways of seeing things due to irrational and unrealistic perception.
The good news however is that good sense comes from the rational mind. It reveals what is happening unclouded by the turmoil of feelings. It can notice our automatic anxiety-laden habits of thought. But we need to cultivate its powers of scrutiny.
Coronavirus anxiety & errors of thinking
Exaggeration is one type of error of thinking that can increase coronavirus anxiety. That’s when we amplify our ailments as when without much evidence we turn a common cold into the dreaded covid-19 infection. Or perhaps overstate the chances of catching the infection by thinking in terms of a higher probability than the statistics show.
Another mistake is jumping to conclusions. This error can amount to turning an innocuous piece of information into a catastrophe. Just because a loved one queues in a shopping line; it doesn’t mean they will not be observing social distancing. And even if they cannot do this because of the behaviour of others, they need not necessarily get infected. If infected, they may not develop any symptoms or any serious symptoms. Just because they sadly did become ill, it doesn’t follow they will need hospitalisation. Again, not all hospital cases tragically die of the disease. To the very panicky person just going to the shops can be equated with a high risk of death.
Another slip-up promoting coronavirus anxiety is selectively attending to one thing but ignore something else. Do we only notice negative news, and ignoring any positive aspects of the crisis? Just focusing on what is alarming and filtering out any reassuring trends.
Fourthly I can mention overgeneralisation. For example, if we assume that because one member of our neighbourhood dies of covid-19, then we all will have a serious risk of death too. This is overgeneralising from the specific case to everybody.
Self-reflection & coronavirus anxiety
It’s a good idea to catch ourselves out making these errors of thinking. But it requires careful self-reflection. This is because irrational thought is automatic. So habitual that it passes unobserved.
Mindfulness meditation can help bring about the needed self-awareness. Through self-reflection and meditation, we can become more able to observe our coronavirus anxiety and the thoughts that accompany it in an objective way. Without rushing to judgment but retaining a balanced perspective. Focusing awareness on the present moment, while calmly observing feelings, thoughts, and bodily sensations.
This discipline enables one to take an emotional step back from what is going on around oneself. Then we can examine our thoughts in the light of day and challenge them if unrealistic. If we start looking for more sensible ways of thinking, it becomes possible to adopt a calmer attitude.
Someone said, “Worrying doesn’t take away tomorrows troubles – It takes away today’s peace.”
Underlying assumptions affecting coronavirus anxiety
When we worry, it is as if we believe that by worrying about some event, we can somehow stop it happening. But this is palpably untrue. It is one of the negative assumptions which need bringing out into the clear light of day. Only when it is in the open can we begin to challenge it. Otherwise it will continue to operate under the surface causing harm.
To expose such underlying assumptions to daylight, we can use the potential that is inbuilt into humanity. This is the human power of rationality.
In one scene of the film Zulu, the native African’s surround a small group of British soldiers at Rorke’s Drift. They face being killed. A young private voices his fear and disbelief: ”Why is it us, why us?” A sergeant looks over, and replies, as if this were self-evident: ”Because we’re here lad.” The experienced man was not asking for passive resignation but implying that, when we are realistic about what is going on, then we give ourselves some sort of chance to make the most of the situation by taking whatever action we can.
The rational mind says ‘In the end we can only do what we can do. We can only get on with what is happening right now. With whatever activity we are involved in, or what task we are working on, or those challenges we are currently facing.”
Some unhelpful beliefs
Our deeper beliefs are often hidden under the surface of our conscious awareness. Perhaps without realising it, some people avoid all unpleasant or undesirable situations. They behave as if they believed they must do this. The trouble is most of us must deal with things that might go wrong to do with relationships, finance, health, work etc. We vary as to how easily we cope with the prospect of setback and disappointment. If we were to face the possibility of failure, of loss and even pain, then we could contemplate the unknown future without insisting it follow our best laid plans.
So, who says we cannot control our emotions in difficult situations? Who says we will succeed in avoiding hazardous and dangerous times? And who says we must find order, certainty, and predictability in life?
Actually, we can’t always have what we want. It doesn’t matter what is our situation in life, there is always lack of knowledge about what tomorrow will bring. Uncertainty has always been built into the fabric of life. And things not going as predicted is inevitable. That’s the case for all of us.
Isn’t the challenge of uncertainty a good thing? Yes, we all need a challenge. It can keep us on our toes.
Deeper perception might be an insight that comes during self-reflection. Or perhaps it is an intuition we become aware of during meditation. Alternatively, it could be an idea found in sacred writing.
It can be assumed that seeing what is good and true can help us steer a course through the complexities of life. Possibly enable us to find meaning and purpose in our troubles. Even offer encouragement and hope.
Being naturally minded however hinders this kind of intuition. Some intelligent individuals close their minds to deeper considerations. They adopt an external way of thinking. They confine their reasoning to worldly information. This tends to limit spiritual belief. They do not raise their minds to think in terms of aims and purposes but stick with natural causes and effects.
Universal healing force
One example of a deeper perception is getting in tune with a universal healing force. According to many spiritual thinkers, there is a life force within the mind and body. A universal healing power that can work through people. I would suggest this is shown for example by the naturally occurring healing of grazed skin, and recovery from the common cold.
Hence the old medical adage ‘vis medicatrix natura’, (the healing power of nature). According to this ancient idea, left to themselves, most disorders will run their course and the body will get well naturally.
The body uses this natural healing force to repel invading microbes. However, vulnerable people have a weakened natural resilience for example due to damage to their immune system.
Deeper sense of calm
Religious and other spiritual writers contend that higher consciousness can reduce natural anxiety. They speak of creating time for quiet and stillness amid the anxiety-laden happenings of daily life. And for a meaningful connection with the deeper side of existence, reflecting on the values and things we hold sacred.
A Divine sense of calm comes from a ‘place’ deep within oneself and yet it is also an inflowing presence from above. This probably sounds a bit odd if you are not of a religious persuasion, but all I can say is it is very real for me.
Everyone has some sort of idea of God. Mine came from when I was a boy. Then, every night my mother would tuck me in, and say the Lord’s Prayer with me, before kissing me good night and turning off the light. And, as a teenager and later, I would silently rehearse those few sentences alone when going to sleep. And as a consequence, feel the peaceful presence of the Lord Jesus Christ. Or at least my image of him.
A presence of love seems to me to be the essence of an inner sense of calm and peace; feeling fully accepted warts and all, fully embraced by the unconditional compassion and mercy of selfless love. This sense of the Divine Presence while conversing with God feels such a personal and private matter. A bit like being in a counselling session.
Counselling for coronavirus anxiety
The counsellor helps anxious people enter into a self-reflective state of mind. This means they can then talk about their feelings and experiences. Furthermore, they can then hear themselves talking about such matters and thus start to gain self-insight.
Many think of praying as connecting with and listening to a Divine Counsellor whilst sharing one’s personal concerns.
I would say that praying can lead religious believers to think about their lives in a different way for example by ‘putting on the mind of Christ’. In other words, they feel that seeing their own fears and worries in the light of their image of what is truly wise and compassionate takes them out of themselves and raises their spirit to a higher level of peace and calm.
I remember Christ’s words
“Do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.”