Last week the World Health Organization officially declared Covid-19 a pandemic. Dr. Harriet Lerner, a psychologist and author, said “Life is one thing after another,” “And just because the universe has already sent us one big stress, it doesn’t mean we won’t be hit with others.” Dr. Lerner has spent much of her career researching the effects of anxiety and fear on individuals, families and larger systems. Her best seller “The Dance of Fear” documents her mastery of anxiety she has endured in her own life.
With these credentials, she appear to be the perfect one to help us conquer the fear and anxiety that COVID-19 is causing.
Worldwide the virus has infected more than 215,000 globally as of March 17th. Financial markets are the lowest they have been in over 3 years, local economies are being shattered, Governments are putting trillions of dollars into the prevention, treatment, and economic nightmare that has become the “new normal”. Worldwide there have been more than 8700 deaths and the US death toll is nearing 150, according to CNN News.
As the virus spreads across the United States, it is easy to feel anxious and give in to our fears. We are in new and uncharted territory in addition to the misinformation, uncertainty and unpredictability that this virus, fear and anxiety are almost a guarantee.
Here are 10 ways Dr. Lerner suggests we can stay centered, keep our worst fears at bay, and be better prepared for whatever the future holds. (Her responses have been edited for length and clarity.)
Know the facts.
“My advice for coping,” she says, “is the same for all the scary events and possibilities that life brings: Go for the facts — even difficult ones — because anxiety escalates and fantasies flourish in the absence of information.” Avoid unregulated online news sources and rely on depoliticized ones. Pay attention to and follow up-to-date instructions to the letter.
Put the pandemic in perspective.
“The current crisis is not the only stressor most of us are dealing with,” Dr. Lerner reminds us. It is normal to feel overwhelmed and everyone is confronting challenges we may not understand.
Dr. Lerner suggests we be vigilant rather than underreacting. “Erring on the side of being overly cautious is challenging because it goes against our deep human need for physical connection. It’s tempting to rationalize our wish to have that one friend over or to see that one client in our office, especially when our economic interests are at stake.”
Identify the source(s) of your anxiety.
We are hard-wired for a fight-or-flight response. “The greater the simmering anxiety,” Dr. Lerner explains, “the more you will see individuals stuck in fighting and blaming on one hand, or distancing and cutting off on the other.” This is normal, she says, but if we can identify our anxiety-driven reactivity, “we can get some distance from it, rather than being propelled into action before we have calmed down enough to do our best thinking.”
Refrain from shaming and blaming.
When anxiety is high and goods for survival feel scarce, it’s easy to blame others, forgetting that we are all in this together. “Our target may be a particular group or an individual, like the woman who sneezes in line in front of us,” Dr. Lerner says, “which leads to a lack of recognition that humans are more alike than different.”
While we can’t fully eradicate our fears, “we can work to understand how anxiety operates and how it affects us — for better and for worse.” Anxiety, she explains can be useful when it signals a problem and motivates us to unite to solve it. “If we make a deliberate effort to hold onto our humanity, it can bring us together.”
Don’t be afraid to ask for help.
Now is the time to unite. “We are here to help each other out,” Dr. Lerner reminds us, “so avoid being a do-it-yourselfer when you’re not qualified. Grab some other clear-thinking person to ask what she thinks or what he would do about stockpiling food, or taking that plane trip, or talking to little Billy about what’s going on with grandma in the hospital and his school being closed. You may choose not to follow the advice you seek, but it’s essential to have other perspectives.”
Don’t procrastinate about preparing for the worst.
Anxiety, Dr. Lerner says, can push us to under- or overreact: “So we either engage in compulsive hand washing or we do the opposite and act like the germ theory doesn’t apply to us.” And this anxiety, she says, will mount if we postpone or ignore expert counsel: “Passivity and inaction will make fear grow.” So, instead of giving up and saying, “I can’t keep my hands off my face,” Dr. Lerner suggests we trust our capacity to make necessary changes, recognize where we have agency and take common sense, precautionary measures now. “If you haven’t done your best to get a couple of extra weeks’ supply of food or medication, do it today. If you feel frozen, ask a buddy to push you to act and help you make wise decisions about how much you need of what.”
Connect, connect, connect.
Social distancing and mandates to shelter in place may require us to stay in our homes, but that doesn’t mean we have to isolate. “It’s essential to stay in communication with family, friends, neighbors and other resources,” Dr. Lerner says, “and find ways to keep calm. Use the phone, text, email — all means possible — to stay connected to friends, neighbors, your adult children, anyone who matters to you. Especially those who induce a sense of calm rather than chaos. People need to hear your voice — and vice versa.” Checking on your family members that are not with you will calm you and them, you will each feel comfort knowing that the other is okay.
This moment calls on us to not only care for others but to also be gentle with ourselves. “Anxiety and fear,” Dr. Lerner reminds us, “are physiological processes that cavort and careen through our bodies and make us miserable. They will subside, only to return again; they will arrive uninvited for as long as we live. So don’t be hard on yourself when you can’t shut yourself off from fear and pain — your own and the world’s. Fear isn’t fun, but it signals that we are fully human.”
Don’t skip the self-care.
“Everything that goes under the umbrella of ‘self-care’ is essential right now,” Dr. Lerner says. Slow down, engage in healthy practices and try to sustain regular routines that bring comfort and stability.
“While we can’t drive fear off with a big stick, we can learn ways to calm ourselves down and find a little peace of mind. Action is powerful, even if we start with just one thing.”
Don’t let fear and anxiety become pandemics, too.
In these unprecedented times, it is important to try to manage our own anxiety and do our best not to pass it on to others. But most important, Dr. Lerner says, “we should not let fear lead us into isolation or stop us from acting with clarity, compassion and courage. Terrible things happen, but it is still possible to move forward with love and hope.”
Now is a very uncertain and scary time for all of us. No one is totally immune to the changes. Use this time and experience to spend time with your family, if your children are out of school – get involved in their learning, take a walk if you are feeling anxious – the fresh air and exercise will do you good, it’s the perfect time for Spring cleaning, and reconnect with yourself.