In my last blog post (link), I wrote about how fear can be a valuable part of life that warns us of dangers. However, many people find that fear dominates and controls their lives and has a debilitating effect on them. There is one form of anxiety that is particularly acute and strong at present – the fear of the corona virus. I will explain to you today which steps you can take if you are worried about corona and are generally experiencing a high level of anxiety. I will also pinpoint those strategies that are not effective.
Each one of us has experienced fear. As I explained in my last blog, fear can serve as a helpful warning light, alerting us of potential risks. However, we must not allow ourselves to become fully consumed by this danger. A specific situation only becomes threatening when you perceive it as such – thus triggering the vicious circle of thoughts, emotions, physical reactions and behavior. This means that you can influence how intense your fear becomes. It is important to be aware that worries and fear do not reduce specific risks – they will actually weaken you. It is important to try and prevent your entire life being determined by them.
I would like to give you a few tips today that you can use in order to break this vicious circle. But let’s start by identifying those strategies that don’t work and should therefore be avoided:
- Don’t try to ‘calm’ your fears by taking addictive substances. This won’t release you from your fears and will simply make you reliant on them.
- Don’t try to completely avoid the situation, since this will cause your fear to escalate. You will be confronted with this type of situation again, sooner or later.
- Suppressing feelings of any nature is only helpful in the short term. Whether you like it or not, this won’t make them disappear. Instead, they will suddenly come to the surface and make themselves felt – possibly at an inconvenient time.
- Don’t isolate yourself. You often won’t make any progress in dealing with your worries alone.
Face up to your fears
These measures help to prevent fears from controlling our entire lives:
- Many people think that anxiety increases when you examine it in detail – but the opposite is true. Face your fear and scrutinize it by considering the following points: 1) What is the worst thing that could happen? And how likely is it that this worst-case scenario will actually materialize? 2) How could you cope with that situation? How can you manage to stay calm and have different thoughts to those you have had so far? 3) What will the situation look like in a week or a year from now? Will it still be as bad as before? As the US author Mark Twain aptly said: “I’ve suffered a great many catastrophes in my life. Most of them never happened.”
- Write down your fears in the most specific and detailed way possible. This will make them become more rational and seem less threatening.
- In their very interesting book ‘Gefühle verstehen, Probleme bewältigen – eine Gebrauchsanleitung für Gefühle’ (Understanding feelings, overcoming problems – a user’s guide for emotions), Doris Wolf and Rolf Merkle recommend that you should ask yourself two questions when the same thoughts keep running through your mind: 1) Do my thoughts reflect the reality? 2) Does this thought help me to feel the way I want to? This approach helps you to rationalize your thoughts on the one hand, and to recognize whether your thoughts are good for you or not and to act accordingly, on the other.
- Wolf und Merkle also suggest drawing up a ‘profit and loss statement’ regarding your fears: How would you profit if you face up to the situation despite your fear? What would you lose if you listen to your fear and avoid the situation?
- Talk about your fears to people who are close to you. They can offer a different perspective.
- Allow yourself some time to brood over the matter – but limit it (e.g. 10 minutes). Set an alarm and once that time is up, switch your thoughts to something more positive. If negative thoughts creep into your mind in the course of the day, note them down for later – when you have set aside time for brooding.
- If your mind won’t stop racing, hold a big colored stop sign in front of your inner eye and focus on a positive thought. Or say “Stop” out loud and reinforce this statement with a physical gesture, e.g. by making a fist or stamping your foot on the ground.
- If you suffer from stage fright, don’t push yourself too far and attempt to speak to an audience of 1,500 people. That will exacerbate your fear. Begin by saying a few words to friends (people with good intentions). Practice on a small scale (you can also do this for other fears).
- In acute states of anxiety, your breathing becomes shallow and rapid. In this type of situation, it therefore helps if you consciously breathe deep into your stomach – or observe your breathing without forcing it. It will automatically become deeper and longer. This calms the central nervous system, which in turn allows you to think logically and rationally.
- During an anxiety attack, try to picture yourself sitting by a wide river. The water passes by you calmly. Observe your thoughts and feelings. If a worrying thought comes to mind, use your inner eye and place that thought on a leaf on the river bank, put it in the water and let it drift away while you watch it (from the magazine ‘Psychologie heute’, 03/2020).
- You should ideally establish a relaxation routine so that your ‘normal state’ is one stage more relaxed than before.
- Routines are generally good when it comes to combating fears, since they give you a sense of security. It is especially advisable to have a morning routine to ease you into the day.
- Adopt an upright and confident posture. This also has a positive influence on your psyche.
- Exercise regularly as this is not only beneficial for your body (and sleep) but also for your mind. Read more about this topic here: https://www.stressandbalance.ch/en/2016/08/02/exercise-kills-stress/
- Observe your progress and reward yourself.
- If you realize that your fear is controlling you – rather than you controlling your fear – and if all of these tips have not helped you, it is advisable to obtain professional help.
Fear of corona: Turning the negative into a positive
These are my specific recommendations to address a high level of anxiety surrounding corona (in addition to all the tips listed above):
- Don’t read the news about corona (number of infections, deaths, measures, etc.) countless times each day, since this intensifies your fear. Limit your news consumption about this topic to a maximum of 1-2 times per day.
- Focus your thoughts on everything that is good in your life (everyone can do this, even if you find yourself in difficult circumstances). Write a list of all the things you are grateful for (this is more effective than simply thinking about them) and use all your emotions to think about what you appreciate in your life. You can find out more about this powerful tool in my earlier blog post: https://www.stressandbalance.ch/en/2017/02/28/how-i-visualize-gratitude/
- Do something that does you good, whatever it may be.
- Stay in touch with your social contacts, even if this is only possible by videoconference in some cases.
- Help your neighbor or family members if they need support – e.g. with shopping if they are in quarantine. Good deeds not only benefit the recipients.
Life involves risks – but also opportunities. I hope that my practical tips will help you to take those chances and avoid being dominated by your fears.
© Claudia Kraaz