Recently, we have been living through a time of intense fear. Even if we have not personally been gripped by fear of the virus, we all know others who have been terrified into a state of panic. The very environment about us is filled with fear; if not fear about dying, then the often overwhelming fear of disaster.
Fear may be a helpful and healthy emotion when experienced in the right situation. But in a pandemic such as this, extreme fear and anxiety are the opposite of what is needed, because when fear is ongoing it degrades the immune system making you even more susceptible to a multitude of sicknesses, in addition to COVID-19. What we can do to assist others, and even ourselves, to cope with dangerous situations such as pandemics is an important question to address.
Fear, when short-lived in an immediate situation of danger, is necessary and useful. It informs us that we need to enact our coping mechanisms to address the danger. It can even be considered a gift, as the world-renowned personal protection specialist, Gavin de Becker, highlighted in the title of his best-selling book, The Gift of Fear.
The coping mechanisms ingrained in our bodies are the well-known primitive responses of orient, fight, flight, or freeze. When we face danger, the blood moves into the major muscle groups and internal organs. Our carotid arteries constrict to prevent our heightened blood flow from inducing a stroke. We orient, looking to find the threat. We are prepared to fight and not bleed to death; the major muscles in the legs fill with oxygen, prepared to run. If running or fighting are not options, we play possum: we freeze.
We do all this to survive the moment, but we do so with the momentary sacrifice of fine motor skills (it is difficult to dial 911 when in the moment of panic) and cognitive flexibility (our brains are not getting the blood oxygen necessary for studied, rational thought). However, once the danger has passed, the blood flow returns to normal and we reengage our usual lives. Imagine the herd of antelope chased by the cheetah. In coordinated panic the antelope focus on running. They do not stop to eat, drink, or rethink their strategy. They just run until the cheetah either gives up or takes down one of the herd. The instant that happens, the remainder of the herd stops and returns to normal grazing. It is the same with us in many ways. This is the enacting of normal, healthy fear.
The situation is quite different for unhealthy fears, which we know as phobias, anxiety, and trauma. For example, trauma is induced when we are placed in out-of-the ordinary, life-threatening situations from which there is no escape and where we have no control. Trauma is the enactment of the freeze response when the freeze does not end. When an opossum “plays possum” it does so to make the predator think it is dead. Once the predator leaves, the opossum will jump up and run. The freeze is only there until we can either flee or fight. In trauma reactions we never experience the option to leave the freeze. Psychotherapy for trauma is centered upon the undoing of this freeze response.
The recent national shut-down (induced by panic and spoken of as a virtually unending threat) was and is the perfect recipe for trauma. That we haven seen a large number of people so traumatized, and will see more in the near future, is a significant warning coming from the American Psychiatric and American Psychological Associations.
Another unhealthy fear response is anxiety. Anxiety is the fear of what might be, rather than the fear of what is happening in the moment. When we experience anxiety, it is constantly with us because it is never quite real; it is always being anticipated, and as such is never ending. Anxiety and trauma are fears that never seem to resolve. So, the body and mind are overwhelmed in a constant state of danger. The antelope never stop running. Exhaustion, irrational thinking, and lowered immune systems are merely a few of the detrimental aspects of such anxiety.
When we realize this, we gain some idea of how to help others and avoid the problems ourselves. When considering deep-seated phobias, long-term anxiety, and trauma, psychotherapy is often necessary. However, there are prescriptions for prophylactic behaviors, for ways of thinking and acting that can guard you and others from these unhealthy fears. Fascinatingly, three of the best ways, pointed to by evidence-based psychological research, are also forms of wisdom that have been promoted for the millenia.
Jesus wrote the prescription for anxiety during his Sermon on the Mount. There he said “Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life? And why are you anxious about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is alive and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith? Therefore do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you. Therefore, do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble.” (Matthew 6:25-34)
It is in the last sentences that the answer is found. “Therefore, do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble.” Or to paraphrase: live in the What is not in the What if. Tomorrow is not yet real and when it is real it will be today. To worry about tomorrow is to live a not yet real existence and to concentrate on the What ifs of life. These produce anxiety. To counteract anxiety, we are provided the wisdom to live solely the What is of life. To hold this thinking is health-giving. We may ask ourselves, “Am I living today dealing with What is, or am I looking to tomorrow and the What if?” Am I thinking, “What if I get sick and die this fall? What if I have no money? What if…?” Think like this and you cannot help but experience anxiety. The better questions are, “Am I sick today? Am I broke today?” If I am sick today I will deal with it. If I am broke today, I will deal with it. What ifs lead to being frozen. What is leads to healthy and appropriate action.
The second manner of dealing with unhealthy fear is to focus on the positive. Billions of dollars of research has gone into cognitive restructuring, and cognitive behavioral therapies. Very simply put, we can summarize much of it in the words of St. Paul: “Be anxious for nothing…Finally, brethren, whatever things are true, whatever things are noble, whatever things are just, whatever things are pure, whatever things are lovely, whatever things are of good report, if there is any virtue and if there is anything praiseworthy—meditate on these things.” (Philippians 4:8) In other words, look at a situation, assess the negatives and the positives, but then focus on the positive.
Whether it is living in the What is of life or focusing on the positive, these statements are simple, but the enacting of them is obviously difficult. At least they appear difficult, as so few persons, both Christian and otherwise, seem to embrace them. We all are in need of help from others and God here. That might be why Paul recommends prayer in the midst of the above statement.
A third—and for the moment final—help is recognizing the need for action and purpose in the midst of times of fear and helplessness. To embrace purpose and meaning lifts us out of the helplessness of anxiety and trauma. Proverbs assists us here letting us know that: “Where there is no vision, the people perish” (Proverbs 29:18). It is conventional wisdom that when in the midst of depression and worry about oneself, working to help another is good medicine; it is the embracing of purpose.
Dr. Christine Whelan—a psychology professor from the University of Wisconsin, Madison—put together a brief exercise she wished to share with others in order to find a daily purpose, and so cope with the present pandemic. I share it as well as a final exercise:
First, think about the question “What do I value today?” Write down three responses. Then, ponder “What are the core values I wish to bring to today?” Record these. Next, ask, “What three strengths do I want to bring into today? What strengths do I want to use?” Record these. Ponder, “What three causes, groups, or people do I want to positively impact?” Record them. Moving on, ask “What are my fears and anxieties today?” Write down three of them. Then, “What and how would I like to feel?” Finally, “What would I like to do today to live out my purpose?” Once you have done this you fill out the following:
Because I value _______________________ , ___________________ and ____________________ today I will use my gifts for ______________________ , _____________________ and _____________________ to positively impact ___________________________ , _____________________ and ______________________. I accept my anxieties about ______________________ , ____________________ and _______________________ and still make conscious, purpose-based commitments to ______________________________ , ___________________________________________ and _________________________________________.
There certainly is more that can be said about things such as mindful breathing, meditation, and more on prayer. But for now, if these three coping mechanisms are utilized, they should go a long way toward helping each of us assist ourselves and others toward living a more healthy and wholesome life.