By Catherine Florio Pipas, Chief Wellness Officer, CaseNetwork(for other blogs by Dr. Pipas, please visit her website at https://www.catherinefloriopipas.com/blog)
The power of pandemic fear can generate chaos like a hurricane spiraling out of control; this same power can be channeled like a turbine to create positive energy and outcomes. The escalating COVID-19 pandemic is justifiably generating fear in all. Fear stemming from uncertainty is particularly heightened when negative outcomes occur, and no clear solution or end is in sight. Fear breeds more fear and panic cycles can ensue. This innate process of fear also drives behavior change, which can be healthy or not. When fear is harnessed to instill healthy behaviors, new opportunities arise and individual’s and societies flourish.
Harvesting advantages from fear requires understanding its origin and impact. The word “fear” derives from the Old English “fær” meaning calamity or danger. The New Oxford American Dictionary defines fear as “an unpleasant emotion caused by the belief that someone or something is dangerous, likely to cause pain, or a threat.” Fear is much older than the English language and looking beyond the “unpleasant” description. Neurophysiologists and psychologists recognize innate fear as protective. Fear of foe large or small, beast to microbe, serves as an internal warning that sets into motion the fight or flight response. Fear generates the power to conquer and destroy, this same emotion has the power to build and create. Evolutionarily those who harnessed their fear survived and thrived. Heightened awareness of true danger motivates individuals to perform protective behaviors; students prepare for test to avoid failure, health care workers meticulously wash their hands to minimize viral contamination, scientists work 24/7 to discover vaccines to avert pandemics.
Fear of imminent danger keeps us alive, but fear that is out of proportion to an actual danger can activate unhealthy behaviors and undue anxiety. Assessing situations utilizes feelings and thoughts, but these can be in conflict. Feelings can battle thoughts within our brain – a war between the amygdala and the frontal cortex – the emotional epicenter firing against critical cognitive powers. When in check, fear is our friend, but when the amygdala highjacks the brain, fear itself becomes our foe.
Our effectiveness is dependent on our capacity for equilibrium. When fear exceeds the analytical thinking processes; cognitive thinking is distorted, performance paralyzed and outcomes reduced. Students can’t focus, health care workers don’t sleep, neighbors hoard food, society pulls apart believing “we are all going to die”. A trip to the zoo or a walk on Halloween are simple examples of our ability to balance feelings and thoughts. Observing wild animals or costumed monster – the amygdala fires, a rush of fear continues winning the battle until the hippocampus stands up and reminds us of logic, likelihood, context and facts. Our minds play the “what if” game. “What if” the cage opened, “What if” I fell in, “What if” the costumed maniac was an actual killer? Logical thinking and focus on positive experiences dampen the amygdala’s power and we walk away unscathed.
So how in the context of a REAL Pandemic can we harness this silver lining of fear to function at our greatest potential? The key to cultivating positive energy from challenges is to 1) embrace emotions, 2) refocus distorted beliefs and 3) accentuate what is going well. These strategies diminished fear and anxiety and enhance productivity and wellbeing.
Consider applying these strategies to the COVID-19 pandemic and current policies for social distancing and “working from home”. Mandated “lock downs,” suspended non-essential services, restricted access and self-quarantines are all unprecedented messages in the 21st century. All are critical to diminishing individuals’ risk of COVID and flattening the curve of global spread but induce fear.
Embracing emotions means acknowledging the fear that drove us home We’re experiencing fear every day. Fear of being close to an infected individual, fear of acquiring the virus, fear of getting sick, fear of transmitting it to our loved ones and for some, fear of dying. Fear has many faces, fear of the unknown, fear of what are we missing, fear of what won’t happen “out there” if we are “in here”. Fear that continues to escalate lends itself to a “we are all going to die” mentality, it permeates surfaces and when not addressed can zap our mental and physical power.
Fear that is shared, however, is stripped of its power. Like Clorox to a virus, acknowledgement disrupts the cycle of fear. Try sharing how you feel, say it out loud, write it down in a journal, tell a friend or family member. With sharing, knowledge can be shared, healthy behaviors practiced and fear eradicating. Hand washing to the tune of happy birthday for that 20 second rule puts the threat back in perspective and the power back in our clean hands. Even in a changing environment embracing feelings and sharing up to date knowledge reduces unfounded and escalating fears. A list of FAQs exist on the CDC website: https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/about/index.html
Refocusing distorted beliefs requires new lens Imagine the swirl of a storm and try to harness a silver lining by visualizing the sun behind the clouds. Often our own thoughts and beliefs are what limit our ability to perform effectively. We can’t control our experiences, but we can control how we interpret those experiences. Excessive fear can drive distorted thoughts and refocusing thoughts can reduce the worry to enhance daily function.
Refocusing thoughts means changing perspectives, taking off your current glasses and finding new lens. There are many angles to every situation, we can take a historic perspective, a mirror image, wide angle, a long lens, a broad look, and even a sunny day view. In the case of COVID and our “stay at home” mandates, consider the following alternative perspectives that focus on benefits to the environment, the healthcare system and the future community. New perspectives have the potential to safeguard our health and drive positive outcomes.
• Environmental lens- By lessening high traffic commutes across the country, emissions will be down in the US as seen recently in China. Less travel limits the use of natural resources like gasoline and allows essential workers shorter commutes and lower rates of accidents.
• Infectious lens- Fear of corona virus has changed the practice of hand hygiene. Many who previously rarely washed their hands are now singing happy birthday dozens of times a day, holding doors open for others with their feet and touching surfaces with paper towels and gloves. This rampant hygienic shift in culture will not only flatten the curve of coronavirus but should reduce the spread of many infectious diseases.
• Healthcare lens- Telehealth has received unprecedented attention with a fast track to most primary care offices as a result of the pandemic. Long standing barriers are crumbling allowing opportunity to institute a lower cost, more convenient method of delivering healthcare. Policies for billing are moving forward and research studies will follow.
• The community lens- Learning from history, we saw the 1918 Influenza Pandemic infect 500 million people worldwide. This H1N1 viral pandemic was associated with crowded hospitals and military camps across Europe and the US following WWI. This Spanish Flu, named for causing the death of Alfonso XIII , King of Spain also killed over 50 million worldwide. A century later, flu vaccines continue to be responsible for saving lives.
Accentuate what is Going Well
Mandates arising from fear activated a mass exodus of children and parents back to home towns, back to their families of origin. Experiencing life from within the constructs of our homes has generated a growing list of advantages personally and professionally. If we can tune out the frenzy, shut down the “do more” culture and turn off the news, it is possible to capture a moment of stillness amongst loved ones. Embracing this gift of time and space permits us ability to reunite, replenish, rebalance and redirect our energies. Fear driven changes are triggers for exploring what is going well:
• Family time – Focus on family connections and home cooking replaces eating out and fosters a shared experience. “a coming home for thanksgiving without the turkey”
• Shared Learning- Remote working and distance online curriculum allows parents and children to now learn side by side. Seeing one another’s routines generates a shared experience of lessons learned.
• Self-care – working from home permits a scale of efficiency. By not commuting, time is freed up daily and opportunities can be woven throughout the day for exercise, arts, personal hobbies and family activities. Will this opportunity to exclusively be with our family come again in the 21st century? One hopes not. The good news is our successful efforts will reduce the transmission of coronavirus, the bad news is home mandates won’t last, and before we know it, we will all be back to the grind, commuting on busy highways, working and studying long hours and spending most of our waking time away from our families. Taking advantage of the situation now is the right thing to do to safeguard society. Practicing these strategies, we can harness our fears and discover silver linings together and apart.