COVID-19 : Why We Are Fearful and What We Can Do About It

If you have:

  • Been to a grocery store in the past 48 hours to stock up on essentials
  • Searched on Amazon and Kijiji for hand soap, hand sanitizer, and toilet paper after seeing empty shelves everywhere
  • Combed social media and Google to find the latest updates (and hit your free article limit for the most credible sources)
  • Felt afraid to return home to elderly or vulnerable family members
  • Sensed fear and nervousness in the world around you

Then this post is for you.

And let me tell you, I feel it too.

I am also worried about my health, the well-being of my loved ones, and how the current panic-buying and hoarding of supplies will affect us all in a few weeks. It’s a LOT to process!

Separating what is exaggerated from what is reasonable isn’t easy with all this information overload.

Not to mention WhatsApp group chats going off non-stop! Ya girl needed an extended break from her phone yesterday.

This is a stressful time for our communities.

In addition to fear of being affected by the virus itself, measures such as social distancing, school closures, event and flight cancellations, are shifts in our daily routines that can significantly impact our mental well-being.

it is a lot

In times like this, how we talk, care for others, and care for ourselves MATTERS.

This post will explore:

The underlying reasons behind the panic and fear

What we can all do to cope with the stress and worry in a healthy, reasonable way.

What may not be helpful in these times

This article is NOT meant to add to your anxiety.

Over the last few days, I have been so moved by the outpouring of support and community care initiatives for those who are most vulnerable.

We won’t lose sight of that!

Let’s get right into it.

Why Are We Fearful In The First Place?

If you’re wondering why it feels like doomsday out there, I had the same curiosity.

Aside from the facts of the seriousness of COVID-19, the way many of us are behaving looks like an anxiety response.

Our anxiety response is a natural human response to fear, stress, and situations we perceive to be threatening.

When it is functioning as it should, this response is adaptive and even healthy! Having some degree of anxiety motivates us to do things or protects us from danger.

For some, the anxiety response can be ‘oversensitive’.

When we experience traumatic events or tragedies, our nervous systems act instinctively to protect us. Sometimes this response continues long after the threat is gone and anything that reminds us of those events will result in familiar feelings of anxiety.

If you are wondering why your parents are buying multiple bags of rice and flour, this idea may help you understand them a little better.

Many of us were young during the SARS outbreak in 2002 and have some memory of the fear and anxiety those events caused. The COVID-19 outbreak could be reminding families of those times. Or perhaps, for our elders, the current circumstances bring back memories of war and scarcity.

Our nervous systems are essentially going into overdrive and creating an exaggerated sense of fear to protect us and motivate us to prepare. And this fear is more contagious than the virus itself.

It may affect our ability to assess situational risk or cause irrational thoughts and beliefs

So while we rationally know that as of the date this post goes up, the risk to Ontarians is still relatively low, we don't feel like we are in control.

In response to this, our nervous systems are constantly active, causing emotional distress and leading some people to carry out extreme preparation measures.

Finding ways to soothe your nervous system through calming activities can be so helpful in dealing with this!

We dedicated an entire post on ways to deal with anxiety. You can try many of those tips right now!

What You Can Do In These Stressful Times

Let's talk about the things that may help ease the anxiety we are all feeling.

Having tangible activities to focus on helps us maintain a sense of control in our own lives.

Each one of us has a part to play here, and our individual actions create collective effects!

Like I said above, it matters.

Read Trustworthy Sources of Information

COVID-19 has been taking over all the international headlines over the past few weeks.

News sources and social media are scrambling to keep up with the rapidly changing situation, resulting in an overflow of information.

Not all the information you read in the media is factual or presented in a reasonable manner.

Many media sources want to secure their most valuable resource: your attention.

To ensure this, they will use flashy headlines that may instill fear in the reader. This is not helpful for our mental well-being!

Take the time to verify the source of the information that you are consuming. Examples of trustworthy sources:

  • The World Health Organization
  • Guidelines from the Government of Ontario on COVID-19

Consume In Moderation

Remember, you have a choice about what to read and how often.

Feeling pressured to stay on top of the latest developments on COVID-19 can increase fear and anxiety.  

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Consider this - the media is often dominated by what is going wrong rather than stories from the many countries experiencing decreasing numbers of cases.

When we are feeling anxious, wanting to know more about the situation is a natural response. We are looking for both answers and reassurance.

However, too much information can be very overwhelming!

Friends, sometimes we all just gotta put the phone down.

Wash Your Hands

This is one of the most effective and simple things we can do to keep ourselves and our loved ones healthy!

The recommended amount is 20 seconds of handwashing with soap and warm water.

I am loving all the 20 second song snippets that we can sing to while washing  our hands. It's a wonderful example of the community coming together and bringing some light-heartedness to the situation.

Personally, I'm jamming to Backstreet Boys as I wash my hands. What can I say? They have our backs:

https://www.instagram.com/p/B9muRHqDX0O/

Talk About Your Fears

Talking about your anxiety with trusted loved ones or a therapist can provide much-needed reassurance and relief.

It is also an important reminder that we not alone in this!

Everyone is being affected, albeit in different ways.

For many people, our daily routines have shifted very quickly over the past few days and this is not easy.

Sharing frustrations is healthy and can help us feel less isolated.

I know we are all being encouraged to maintain physical distance from large groups of people.

However, it is important more than ever to not lose connection and compassion for each other in the process!

A phone chat, video call, or text messages are all ways of staying in touch with your loved ones and supports.

I know at the clinic, being able to provide supports to our clients is of utmost importance, especially during a time like this and we have offered the option for all our clients to connect with us via phone and video calls.

Practice A Version Of Social Distancing That Works For You

Social distancing has been in the news a lot lately!

What does it mean?

Social distancing is the practice of reducing close contact between people. This includes avoiding physical contact (i.e. handshakes, hugs, kisses).

The more people practice this, the better our chances of reducing the spread of COVID-19 in the community.

What does this mean for us? We may have to re-define what staying connected means for a while.  

Staying connected while maintaining social distance may look like:

  • Staying in touch over the phone/video calls/text
  • Refraining from gathering in large groups (i.e. concerts, shows, conferences) As of today, all such events are canceled in Toronto so this one takes care of itself.
  • Commuting and shopping during off-peak hours if you have the option
  • Working from home if your employer provides that accommodation

If you are not symptomatic, social distancing does not mean social isolation!

Here is a overview on social distancing:

social distancing

Self-isolating out of fear may not be good for your mental well-being and further fuels the anxiety response.

One of the benefits of our highly-connected world is we have a wealth of options for doing this.

We can decrease the chances of community spread while also staying connected and involved in each other's lives.

5 Tips on How to Make The Most Out Of Working From Home

Working from home can be a particular challenge.  If you are worried about making the transition from going into the office to a home office, these tips are for you!

Maintain your regular schedule: Try to wake up as if it’s a regular workday, take your lunch at a similar time, and have a clear end of day

Develop a support network: Working in an office means having daily meaningful interactions with your co-workers. Don’t lose this! Create space for chatting with your team about how they are coping with the changes and how they are spending time outside work is important

Leave your desk: Just as you would get up and stretch at work, go for a walk (with proper precautions), make a calming tea, or chat with a friend

Set yourself up for success: Believe me, I know how tempting it is to work from your bed! Having a dedicated workspace can help you stay focused and also prevent any back issues

Avoid doing chores and errands during work: Again, how tempting is it to load the dishwasher while you take a call? It might not as productive as you think though, because the work may pile up near the end of the day, leaving you feeling very overwhelmed

Check In On Vulnerable Community Members

It has never been more important to love thy neighbour!

There are those in our communities who are more at risk of serious outcomes should they contract COVID-19.

This includes elderly folks, people living with chronic medical conditions, and those whose livelihoods are being directly affected by event cancellations, closures, and social distancing.

How can you help those who are at the highest risk of contracting COVID-19 the community?

  • Offer to do groceries for an elderly neighbour
  • Buy a gift card for a small business that is being affected by the loss of sales
  • If you know friends who freelance and are facing show cancellations, promote their rescheduled dates on your social media or buy their merchandise
  • Choose a family in your neighborhood to stay connected with check-in on each other regularly

Helping others out makes us feel more connected! Your kindness and compassion makes a huge difference in these times.

What May Not Be Helpful

There are things we are all likely doing, myself included, that are adding to our stress and anxiety rather than reducing it!

It makes sense- this is unprecedented for many of us and feels out of our control.

However, I challenge you to change one of these things and see if it makes a difference in your well-being (spoiler alert: it probably will).

1. Not Taking Care Of Your Needs and Strong Emotions

When we do feel particularly anxious, it's easy to be dismissive towards ourselves.

"Stop that, you're overreacting. Can't have people thinking I'm panicking."

"Is that measure really necessary?"

"I need to get it together."

These are all things I have said to myself this week. (I purposefully excluded the comments with profanity)

Anxious feelings may be coming up for this because we are not addressing our needs.

Acknowledging that what we need to feel safe and healthy may require life adjustments is important. From there, we can consider what is in our control and amenable to change.

For example, does your therapist offer phone appointments?

Do you have to accept that canceling that trip might be the best option right now? Who can you contact to make that happen?

Headsup, wait times might be long, however, try to schedule a task while you have a long wait.

This can be putting on a face mask, cooking or organizing your closet.

Are you feeling sad because you can't visit certain people or have to miss out an event?

Give yourself the space to identify what unmet needs your anxiety is nudging you to consider!

2. Letting Go Of Your Regular Coping Strategies

Practicing self-care and self-soothing will go a long way to keep you feeling mentally healthy.  

Some of your self-care practices may have been affected by social distancing, such as workout classes and in-person psychotherapy.

You can modify these activities so they remain a part of your regular routine.

Try at-home yoga or work-out videos on YouTube. Maybe you can coordinate with a friend and do yoga together via video!

As for psychotherapy, you can maintain your regular appointment via phone and video.

Keeping this element of your care practice may be especially important if you are feeling more vulnerable or anxious lately.

This may also be a good opportunity to learn a new skill, develop a new hobby, or re-discover something you haven't done in a while.

I know one of my goals is to be able to spend more time writing blog posts on topics that you have requested!

COVID-19 has interestingly forced us all to slow down.

Use this time and let your imagination run free a little and picture the fulfilling ways you can use your time and develop new coping strategies in the process.

3. Reduce Panic-Buying

What do you get when you combine collective stress and anxiety with the power of social influence? Empty shelves!

When seeing how others are hoarding essential supplies, it is natural to wonder if you are doing something wrong by not doing the same.

Our advice? Buy what is reasonable for you.

Purchasing essential items in excessive amounts prevents vulnerable members of the community from accessing what they need.

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If you are feeling anxious about not having enough, examine where this is coming from.

For example, is the feeling driven by looking at what others in their grocery carts have? It's possible that they are shopping for a large family or have different needs than you.

Have your friends and loved ones been bombarding you with pictures of empty shelves?

Recognizing the source of the fear helps us challenge the anxiety.

Last but not least - offer to pick up groceries for those who are most vulnerable.

In Closing...

These are strange times, indeed. It really does feel like a movie.

Funny enough, Contagion seems to be one of the most trending movies on Netflix right now.

Despite collective stress levels being high, our communities are coming together in unprecedented ways to make this easier for all of us.

We are leading with compassion and care and I can already see the difference this is making:

  • We are learning that we can provide accommodations to workers
  • People who are socially isolated are being looked after and protected
  • The younger generation is learning the importance of doing their part to keep communities healthy
  • We are calling (yes, calling, not texting!) each other again- I didn’t think I would live to see the day when phone calls are back in style

Remember you can take care of yourself without 5 additional packs of toilet paper, or hand sanitizer. Before you go make that purchase, think about what essential items you need.

What are you doing to manage your mental health during this time?

Share your tips by leaving a comment below!

Stay safe, be kind and dont forget to wash your hands!

If you are experiencing symptoms of COVID-19 (high fever, shortness of breath, trouble breathing) contact Telehealth Ontario: 1866- 797- 0000 or your local public health unit.

Until next time!

Sarah Ahmed electronic signature

Sarah Ahmed
Co-founder
WellNest Psychotherapy Services