Here’s how to overcome it
The world changed in a matter of weeks as 2.5 billion people -- or one third of the world’s population -- went into quarantine. The first wave of this pandemic has been defined by the viral contagion.
The second wave will bring with it a mental health pandemic, precipitated by the fear of contagion. Unless preventative measures are taken, history shows us that large scale disasters are almost always followed by sharp increases in stress, anxiety, depression, grief -- alongside the array of psychological and behavioural challenges that come with it.
At the root of these challenges is fear. Fear of how long this pandemic will last; fear for our survival, and the health of our family members, fear of isolation, fear of the financial impact on our lives, and fear of the brave new world that will emerge from this transition.
It is normal to feel the range of emotions that comes with abrupt adjustments. It is also normal to express our emotions in healthy ways. However, our minds and bodies do not perform well when subjected to prolonged states of fear.
Indeed, the very faculties we need to get through this challenge -- clear, creative, and collaborative thinking, and healthy immune systems, will be compromised unless we manage our fear and prioritize our mental health and well-being.
Fear is an evolutionary response that is not without its benefits. Let’s say we came face to face with a tiger in the wild. If this was a minor threat before us, our frontal lobes -- the part of our brain responsible for problem-solving and rational thinking -- would assess the situation and offer a calm, measured response.
However, as a wild tiger is an existential threat, our frontal lobes will likely be bypassed, and our response will be taken up by an inner-region of our brain responsible for processing and responding to fear. This region, called the amygdala, triggers a cascading series of adrenaline-fuelled responses activated by the release of stress hormones into the body.
This process, known as fight or flight, prepares us to handle the threat. Our blood vessels contract; our blood pressure rises; our heart beats faster; oxygen is pumped into our muscles; and our muscles tense up, ready to fight back or take flight.
Vital resources and energy stores are deployed to ensure our survival. Our fear response is meant to be activated for just long enough to handle the threat. Once the threat has been managed, we are meant to return to a state of balance.
The challenge of our modern lives is that the stressor today is not the wild tiger lurking in the bushes. It is the constant news cycle perpetuating scary narratives on loop. It’s our phones lighting up incessantly with notifications, social media buzzing with information and misinformation, stacks of bills needing to be paid, bosses or clients demanding a response -- to name a few.
When these daily stressors build up, our psychological and physiological state begins to mirror that of a scenario under which we are face to face with a tiger. It’s why high stress is synonymous with high blood pressure, tension, jitteriness, the inability to think clearly or rationally, and emotional outbursts.
Unless properly managed through self-care routines, this takes a tremendous toll on our mental and physical health. This explains why up to 90% of doctor visits are stress induced.
Fortunately, there are effective ways to reduce the ill-effects of fear, stress, and anxiety. The following list presents a number of options in your tool-box of self-care. These tools can help you counteract the mental and physical impact of fear, so that you can remain calm, think clearly, and rationally in the midst of challenges.
As a result, your immune defenses will be strengthened, and you’ll be better equipped to navigate this transition with resilience.
Stay informed, not in fear
There’s a difference between staying informed, and being inundated by the news. Inundation tricks our mind and body to feel as if it is encountering the same threat again and again with every news cycle.
Stay informed so you can take the precautions to keep yourself and your family healthy and safe. If you find that overexposure to the media is contributing to stress or anxiety, it may be helpful to step away. If it means limiting your TV, social media, or phone-time, then the trade-off to regain your peace may be worth it.
Replace fear thoughts with healthy thoughts
Notice the moments you start to feel fearful or anxious. Before you enter the vicious worry-spiral, can you observe what is triggering your emotions, and can you interrupt the pattern with an assertive conviction that you are at this very moment strong, in good health, and provided for?
Another strategy involves holding our focus on what we are grateful for. Making a gratitude list can be a powerful way to shift our perspective towards well-being (I don’t think it is possible to be grateful and fearful at the same time!).
When we repeatedly interrupt and shift away from fear-based thought patterns, we reclaim our narrative and emotional-freedom. We feel safer and more relaxed; and our perspective shifts towards a healthier outlook.
Meditation has proven to be an effective method of stress reduction, and brings with a series of physical and mental health benefits. Meditation allows your brain to take a pause from chaotic noise, information, and signals you are bombarded with on a daily basis.
This pause brings increased calm, focus, energy, and promotes feelings of connectedness and overall wellbeing. It further strengthens cognitive function, productivity, and has been known to prevent memory loss.
There are many types of meditation -- the most common being to sit or lay down comfortably, and focus on your breath as you breathe in and out slowly, with ease. Even if all you have is 5-10 minutes to start with, it’s a powerful medicine for your mind, body, and soul.
There are many free guided meditations available on Youtube or Spotify. If you’d like to learn more about its benefits you can read this article I authored on the science and practical benefits of meditation.
Simply and mindfully breathing can shift us gracefully from a state of anxiety to balance. Mindfully inhaling and exhaling through your nose (or mouth) a rate of four-six seconds is known as Resonant or Coherent breathing.
Breathing at this pace (if it’s comfortable for you) regulates the sympathetic nervous system responsible for the fight or flight response, and brings it into balance with the parasympathetic nervous system responsible for returning you to a state of homeostasis.
Resonant breathing allows us to consciously induce balance in our nervous system, and reap the benefits of clarity, calm, connectedness, and strengthened immune function.
Many studies have demonstrated that prayer can contribute to health and well-being. Regardless of what one’s belief system is, prayers give hope, meaning, and connectedness to billions of people around the world.
Prayer can also be a mindful and meditative activity that brings with it pause, reflection, and relaxation. Passages from sacred texts provide deep solace and comfort to many in challenging times. These passages can contain uplifting prayers, affirmations, or blessings that raise our spirits, and provide encouragement, strength, and clarity in challenging times.
If prayer serves to uplift one’s thoughts and emotions, then it can activate positive physiological experiences that promote overall well-being. (Note, given the current gathering restrictions, this article is referring to personal prayer.)
We are social beings, and the practice of social-distancing can be very challenging for most of us. Prolonged isolation can even lead to depression for some. My mother recently critiqued the appropriateness of the term “social distancing.”
“We should call it ‘physical distancing,’” not ‘social distancing,’ she opined, “because we can still remain socially connected through this experience.” She’s right: Technology has allowed us to stay connected in creative and fun ways.
We can organize video hangouts to celebrate occasions with friends and family -- whether it’s online iftar sessions, birthdays, or virtual hangouts for no reason other than to see and hear one another. Nothing will ever replace a real hug, but you can still, virtually, give and receive all the smiles you can handle :)
Acts of kindness
Another way to feel connected is to contribute to the well-being of others. Ask yourself, what can you do today to make someone’s day easier, happier, or better? It can be a phone call, it can be a donation to a cause close to your heart, or it can be a simple act of service.
Even holding a kind thought for someone’s well-being can be a selfless act of service. Self-less acts not only give us a sense of meaning and help us feel connected to our communities, it also floods our bodies with serotonin, dopamine, and oxytocin -- otherwise known as the happy hormones. You know that warm feeling you get when you do something nice for someone? That’s your kindness showing up as medicine for you.
We don’t know how long this period of adjustment will last, nor can we be sure what will come next. What we do know is that just like every other period of adjustment we’ve lived through, this moment too, will pass.
“Every storm runs out of rain,” the late-poet Maya Angelou observed. Until then, we get to hunker down and watch the storm pass. And when the winds howl louder than usual, the tools presented here are available to support and strengthen you. Our ability to choose courage and health over fear in these trying moments will determine how gracefully we make the transition into the post-Covid-19 world.
Samier Mansur is a leadership and wellbeing coach and can be reached for private sessions at [email protected] He is also the founder of No Limit Generation, a global child well-being platform; and co-founder of LiveSafe, a mobile safety and security platform based in Washington DC.