COVID 19 Survival Guide: Why Fear and Facts Don't Always Match
Dr. Nicola McCaffrey Clinical Psychologist

COVID 19 Survival Guide: Why Fear and Facts Don't Always Match

As cases of COVID-19, increase across Europe, and the rest of the world, so too does anxiety, fear and stress.
23.March 2020 Dr. Nicola McCaffrey Clinical Psychologist

For many of us it is the psychological impact of the virus, rather than the virus itself, that is causing us the most pain. Our brain's primary way of dealing with threat is the flight-fight-freeze response. This system mobilises our body quickly to keep us safe from danger. A perfect solution to the show term, intense threats that we were exposed to as hunter-gatherers. A considerably less than perfect solution for the threat posed by some of the slower moving, uncertain, and longer term threats that viruses such as COVID19 pose.

It is important to acknowledge that at this stage some anxiety is entirely normal. Important even. It is this anxiety that fuels rapid changes, fostering safeguarding and preventative measures. Our emotions are important sources of information. Anxiety spurs us on to seek and create safety. The majority of us by now have changed our habits around washing hands, face touching, socialising and coughing for example. These kind of preventative strategies turn alleviate some of our anxieties as we begin to feel safer and more in control.

Our anxious mind can however quickly go into panic mode, particularly when there is considerable uncertainty and ambiguity around the threat itself, as in the case of the corona virus. We are hard wired to fear the unknown. Uncertainty makes us feel vulnerable and out of control.Uncertainty drives anxiety. From an evolutionary perspective it is better to be cautious and overestimate risk of the unfamiliar and unknown than it is to underestimate it. This keeps us safe. Routine, certainty and predictability soothes our nervous system, whilst uncertainty triggers our threat response system. In relation to COVID 19 our uncertainty is further reaching than the virus itself. We no longer have certain around our daily routines, where and when we will work, how our children will be educated, or even if our planned trips and holidays will still take place. So ask yourself how you can create routine, structure and certainty in your every day life right now? There are in fact many ways in which we can regulate and soothe our threat systems. For example going to bed and getting up at the same time or develop a new routine for working/relaxing/exercising. These may sound like simple suggestions but in these times it is easy to overlook such simplicity and forget to set boundaries.

“In times such as these it is important to practice feeling scared without being scary"

In this case it is easy for us to overestimate the threat and underestimate our ability to cope with it. Human beings are wired to feel more anxious and stressed by new and unfamiliar threats than familiar ones. When we are anxious and stressed we can tip into panic. Our decision making and behaviours are no longer based on logic and reason but on fear and anxiety. Flawed decision making takes over and we prepare for the worst, whether this means stocking up our kitchen cupboards or buying up all of the supplies of antibacterial gel that we can lay our hands on. We overreact. This anxiety in itself not only creates a whole host of new problems for the individual, it is also contagious. It spreads to those around us creating further panic and fear. This is not helpful for anyone. In times such as these it is important to practice feeling scared without being scary!

Although outwardly our behaviour and thinking can appear reactive and even dramatic, there is solid psychological reasoning behind it, particularly in times of uncertainty. The human brain is a very powerful muscle, but its resource is limited. If we had to think through every possible scenario and consider every piece of information filtering through our system each time we were to make a decision life would grind to a halt. The brain therefore develops a system of ‘mental shortcuts’ which allows us to act more quickly. On the whole this system does an impressive job of keeping us safe. These shortcuts, or cognitive biases, whist largely very accurate and helpful, however, can also lead us to make errors in our judgements. Understanding that our minds are flawed and our decisions are subject to cognitive bias is an important part of vaccinating ourselves against anxiety and panic at this time.

“The brain is very poor at separating risks to a population from personal risk"

Furthermore, in the case of the corona virus we are at risk of overestimating the threat this virus causes at an individual level. This is because the brain is very poor at separating risks to a population from personal risk. When a country, to all intents and purpose, shuts down and grinds to a halt this catches our attention. It is very difficult for the brain to reconcile this knowledge with the information that as an individual you are at very low risk of experiencing severe effects if you were to contract the virus. There is a very real risk to society and our economy, and a much lower risk to us as individuals. Holding these two seemingly conflicting ideas in mind is a significant challenge. Thus our brain goes into overdrive, our threat protection system is activated, and we experience anxiety and fear as a way of the body and brain driving us to seek safety.

“ Threats that are easily imagined are judged by our brains as more likely to happen than those that are difficult to imagine"

Another cognitive bias to be aware of is that threats that are easily imagined are judged by our brains as more likely to happen than those that are difficult to imagine. With the media onslaught raging and social media streams full of everything COVID 19 related it is easy to fall into the bias of believing the the threat is closer and more dangerous than it really is. Ask yourself this, are your media consuming behaviours helping to keep you informed and safe or are they feeling your worries and fears? Try taking a more passive interest in the news. It is tempting to constantly check the internet for new articles but try to limit yourself to looking at a handful of balanced, reliable and evidence based articles each day and no more. This is enough information to keep you safe and abreast of any important changes in policy, without adding fuel to any anxiety fires. Furthermore, try to remember that graphic and engaging images on social media steams may not be credible and could exaggerate the actual threat. Few people are
posting images of full supermarket shelves and calm shoppers because they are less dramatic, and therefore less newsworthy, than images of bare shelves and panic buying. Here you are entirely in control of keeping things in perspective and can choose to limit your exposure to the news and social media at any time.

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