How to ease fear and pondering
What can ease fear and pondering when we are flooded by information about dangers and risks we cannot influence much?
Humans are created to be on guard against threats, and fight or flee when we perceive danger. Facing a threat that we can only protect against by staying calm and in hiding is demanding.
For many of us, it is difficult to keep worries and anxieties in check as we are constantly updated on the spread of infection, and the number of sick and dead. The biggest TV channels follow the development of the corona pandemic all day, and we are being bombarded with information. Although the message that the corona usually has a mild course is out there, this information almost disappears in the constant drips about how sick some people get.
In combination with the drastic measures put in place, constant warnings of coming disaster are apt to frighten anyone. The combination of social isolation, breaches of routine practices and constant updates on risk can be very mentally demanding. This situation can lead to fear, panic and mental fatigue. It is demanding that one cannot obtain certain information about how long this state of emergency can last. The only comfort is assurances that it will go over, sooner or later.
The situation with an invisible threat, such as a virus that spreads in an unpredictable way, creates an experience of powerlessness and lack of control. When circumstances also take away another important element that helps give us back the feeling of control, such as regular daily routines and social contact, the situation can become extra demanding.
"I'm struggling with panic in home quarantine," an acquaintance writes to me, "I manage to calm down in between, but then it comes back". "I worry about my kids, my parents, friends, myself, the world economy, everything!"
When it is not possible to find clear information, or when the information we receive constantly contains danger alerts, this easily leads to fear, contemplation and disaster thoughts. Pondering and health anxiety over time weakens mental capacity and immune system. Of course, this strikes those who worry a lot, but in this situation people who do not usually worry too much may feel gradually more anxious. Some are in particularly demanding situations with family members and friends who are at particular risk, or belong to risk groups themselves.
Is it possible to ease panic and pondering?
Tips such as "relax," "don't worry," "focus on something else," often have little effect because many of us feel that the way we handle stress is automatic and not something we can change. But fortunately this is not true. Although difficult to change, we are all equipped with a mental apparatus that can be developed and regulated. Our thoughts and how we control them, can be trained.
Mental training is used with great success by top athletes and others who must perform at a top level. The foundations of mental training are relatively simple but systematic techniques that help us steer our focus and thoughts away from what drains us of energy and steals capacity, and onto calming thoughts that gives us energy. The tips above often do not work because they do not contain any guidance on how to relax, focus on something else, and not worry. If we come up with some feasible strategies that we can practice, we will find that it is possible to train the mental apparatus so that we gradually become better at mitigating concerns and disaster thoughts. We can train our thought patterns to become resilient in the same way we train muscles and stamina.
In an uncertain situation, it may be difficult to think positive thoughts, but mental training is helpful to ease unrest, pondering and distracting. The methods are simple and may seem obvious, but because they are simple, they are possible to carry out regularly and thus they are effective.
Focus on something good, do it systematically and several times a day. Fantasize about the most comfortable things you can think of: A place you've visited, a great experience, a person you particularly appreciate (not someone you're worried about). Remember how you feel when you have these fantasies. Try to hold on to what feels comfortable. The goal is to create a mindset that makes you safe and comfortable. With training, the imagination can calm you down and ease the turmoil.
Also, make sure you have at least one really good experience every day. Plan it and implement it. Play beautiful music, prepare a good meal, try to learn something new, have a conversation on telephone, email or social media with someone you care about and that gives you energy.
Calm down bodily turmoil. Practice breathing calmly and regularly, let the air fill your stomach, hold and exhale. Do the breathing exercise until you feel the heart rate go down and you feel calmer. Combine with the good fantasies from Method 1.
If you like, get physical exercise. In a crisis it will often be difficult to incorporate new habits, but for some, a situation like this is what it takes to start exercising. If you do not want to, or can, exercise it is perfectly ok. Systematic muscle relaxation also works well. There are a number of great instructions on YouTube and other channels. What they have in common is that they must be practiced.
Practice gaining control over worrying thoughts and pondering. Set aside 15-20 minutes every day to think about and/or write down everything that worries you. Afterwards, stop and distract yourself with something comfortable. Call an acquaintance, play a video game, or watch something nice on TV (no news!) When the worrying thoughts pop up outside the “worry time”, push them away, or say to yourself: “Let the thought go”. You can also say to yourself: “STOP!”
Limit your focus on the news. One to two times a day is enough to keep you updated. Turn off, disconnect, avoid leaving the TV/PC buzzing with news and updates all day. This will be a constant noise that triggers worries and anxieties.
Provide distraction. Watch a movie or a TV series, get out of the living room, go for a walk and get other types of impressions. Do it even if you are initially unable to concentrate, or if you experience it as a chore to get outdoors. Just do it! It will become more pleasurable later on.
Share your thoughts and concerns via available channels. Either by talking to others on the phone or Skype, or by writing an email to someone you trust. Concerns often diminish when we get them at a distance, and you can do this by putting words on your thoughts and talking about them to others. The exception is if those you talk to help increase fear by making sure you focus on the latest scary news. Mutual expressions of support and sympathy and an experience that we can do this together, on the other hand, have a soothing effect.
Write down what you think about and how you feel. The writing itself is helpful, you do not need to read what you have written if you do not want to. Feel free to write in a short session each day. Afterwards, put away what you have written and do an activity that changes your focus to something else.
These methods, like any other helpful measures, must be used to work. They have few side effects and take little time: Try!
Jerath, Ravinder ; Crawford, Molly ; Barnes, Vernon ; Harden, Kyler (2015) Self-Regulation of Breathing as a Primary Treatment for Anxiety. Applied Psychophysiology and Biofeedback, Vol.40 (2), pp.107-115
Morgan, Amy J ; Chittleborough, Philip ; Jorm, Anthony F (2016) Self-help strategies for sub-threshold anxiety: A Delphi consensus study to find messages suitable for population-wide promotion. Journal of Affective Disorders, Vol.206, pp.68-76
Pennebaker, J. W. (1997). Opening Up: The Healing Power of Expressing Emotions, revised edition. New York: Guilford Press.