Getting Through Uncertainty: Can you survive Coronavirus related anxiety in Calgary?
For most of us, it seems like our safe little world here in Calgary has turned upside down. One moment, we were all going along – living our regular lives, going to work, enjoying time with friends and family, dating, going to the gym and the theatre.
The next moment, we are working from home, never leaving our homes and becoming best friends with Netflix while crazed shoppers obsessively buy up every square of toilet paper on the planet – for some unknown reason.
Suddenly, the survival of our friends, family and even our country is at stake! We sit, glued to our televisions, watching even world leaders and their partners struggle with a deadly Coronavirus. At the same time, our lizard-brains make constant anxiety-based judgments about everything we see, touch and eat. The uncertainty that is flooding every social media feed we see is overwhelming, and our brains hate uncertainties.
Social science has repeatedly shown that we are always much calmer when anticipating inevitable pain, such as vaccination, than we are when facing only a small chance of it. Studies done by Industrial-Organizational psychologists have demonstrated that the ongoing fear of losing your job is always much more damaging than actually being fired. Research on domestic violence has shown that many victims of this kind of abuse will often trigger a domestic assault, just to get it over with. It’s not that the victim wants to be abused, it’s that the uncertainty feels worse.
We will do almost anything for certainty.
So, we imagine what is around the next corner, assume the worst, personalize threats, jump to conclusions, underestimate our capacity to handle the risks we face and do anything we can to get even some sort of certainty, so we can take action. Perhaps we wash our hands until they are dry and cracked, repeatedly take our temperature, obsessively watch the news or continuously play nightmarish scenarios through our minds.
If it worked, that would be one thing, but we know it will do little. And, as the shared stress and anxiety begin to dominate every conversation, we begin to discover how anxiety seems to have a mind of its own. We find out how anxiety loves to focus on and ruminate about things – particular things. We focus on things over which we have no control, and we ruminate on the terrifying consequences of them happening to ourselves, or someone we care about that we perceive to be in an “At risk” group. Our stress responses go entirely haywire, and our fight-or-flight mechanisms spike to the highest levels of arousal.
Why? It’s all in the name of survival.
There are, of course, necessary and practical steps that you can and should take to reduce your risk of catching SARS-COV-19. Some of the calm and level headed steps recommended by Health Canada and other experts right here in Calgary include:
But, even if we do all of those common-sense steps, the anxiety is still there. And, it’s utterly exhausting.
We know that scientists have thoroughly reviewed all of these steps and that they do work. We all know the research, statistics and the likelihood of ourselves or those we care about being impacted by COVID-19, but the grey shadow of anxiety persists. Deep inside, we don’t want more confusing statistics; we want reassurance and certainty. We want someone to come alongside and say, “I have a crystal ball, I’ve looked into it, and you and everyone you care about will be fine.”
But, no one can entirely eliminate their risk of illness. Nobody has that crystal ball or the ability to predict a completely unknown future. Obviously, there are many steps we can take to reduce the risk we face but there is no 100% guarantee. At least some uncertainty is going to remain and learning how to deal with that uncertainty becomes our only healthy option.
Yet, there is real hope! Anxiety doesn’t have to keep you up at night, destroy your health or keep you trapped in rumination.
How to deal with uncertainty:
Contrary to popular beliefs about optimism and songs about, “Don’t worry, be happy,” one of the first steps of dealing with uncertainty is acknowledging how bleak our present reality is.
One of the most surprising pieces of information to emerge from studies of Vietnam prisoners of war was that those who attempted to muster up blind optimism were the ones who died. They would tell themselves, “We’ll all be out by summer.” But summer would pass without a rescue. Then they would move to the belief that rescue would come by thanksgiving and then by Christmas or Easter. Eventually, they would die from the loss of hope.
That acknowledgement of current reality, however, also requires developing the capacity to look through it towards a brighter future. Obviously, given the fact that few of us will not experience some sort of loss through this pandemic, that seems almost impossible right now. But, doing so makes all the difference.
Holding onto a deep faith that things will work out for good is not in any way incompatible with the hard pragmatism necessary to face reality square on. When we can clearly see the path ahead, we can then also imagine the steps needed to walk it and access the strength to keep on trying – even if we do keep on getting knocked down.
Choosing to live in Self Compassion:
North American culture, to a very high degree, holds to an emotion-denying world view, which often responds to the expression of feelings with ridicule or criticism. From the earliest of ages, we are taught that “Big boys/girls don’t cry.” We learn that our emotions need to be controlled, suppressed and treated as a weakness. As a result, the experience of intense emotion often causes us to suppress our feelings. We then berate and shame themselves for feeling them, especially when they emerge out of past experiences of trauma.
When we suppress emotions, we are communicating to ourselves that we lack value, and our needs are not worth addressing. The repression of self and emotion is the primary means by which anxiety is created. Learning how to feel our feelings, listen to what they are telling us about our world and then cultivating at least a little compassion for ourselves can defuse the suppression-anxiety link.
The fact of the matter is, this is a hard time for humanity, and it’s not your fault that you feel some fear right now. Maybe someone you love is immunosuppressed or otherwise at higher risk? Perhaps you or your partner are already not in the best of health? It’s ok to feel fear of dying or losing someone precious to you. Anxiety paralyzes, but feelings can allow you to take action.
Think, for a moment, how gentle you would be if someone you love shared those same feelings with you – now treat yourself in the same way!
Seriously! Cut off your news feed:
There is so much in the way of Corona virus-related information flooding our collective news feeds today that it’s difficult to read about anything else. We continuously check for updates, but what we’re really looking for is reassurance. The problem is, no one has that reassurance, because no one knows what is going to happen. The more anxious we are when we read that information, the less able we are to sort truth from error.
Because our society has long since abandoned any pretense of objectivity in favour of partisan journalism, the news is basically a sea of conflicting information. Ironically though, both sides of this debate only have one agenda: Controlling you through the creation of an emotional state which political strategists call FUD (Fear, Uncertainty and Despair.)
While the Left seeks to scare you into a fear-based expansion of socialized medicine, the Right seeks to make you more terrified about risks to the economy (and the fortunes of billionaires) than people’s lives. Though they pursue different goals, they both want you to remain anxious.
The Left uses its dominance over most conventional media to spread fear over the evening news. In contrast, the Right uses a well-documented network of algorithmically regenerated stories distributed by over a thousand fake news sites to flood the internet with their brand of terror.
It leaves us all with only one option: For the sake of our emotional health, we have to tune out!
Make a pact with yourself that you will not read or listen to anything about this virus that is not a primary source for at least the next week. Stick to peer-reviewed medical journals, The World Health Organization, The Centre for Disease Control, Health Canada or Alberta Health — that or LOTS of NetFlix. See what happens to your anxiety if you quit listening to FUD.
And, while you are at it, just quit talking about COVID-19 with your friends and family. Your sister, who is addicted to Alex Jones/InfoWars, or your uncle, who thrives on CNN’s permanently elevated panic state, are just as toxic to your emotional health as listening/reading it yourself.
Make reasonable preparations:
This virus and the associated social distancing guidelines most sane governments have put in place are going to inconvenience you and create the need for change – perhaps very rapid change. It’s always helpful to think through what may happen and prudent to plan ahead to ensure you are prepared.
Perhaps you need to devise a plan for working remotely or line up emergency pet or childcare? Maybe you need to ensure that you have all your required prescriptions filled in advance or that your fridge or freezer is well stocked with food should you need to quarantine? Take the time to fill your car with gas, set up grocery or other deliveries and have money in your wallet should you need it.
But then, this is the crucial piece: Write your plan down, stop thinking about it and put it away until you need it! Knowing that you have considered things and that there is a plan in place will help reduce stress, but only if you are not continually revisiting it.
Take steps to improve your health:
Exercising regularly can do wonders for both your mental health as well as your immune system. Sleeping at least seven solid hours per night, cutting out garbage carbohydrates and eating quality high protein meals is essential to both emotional and physical health.
Take a hard look at any habits involving too much Sugar, Caffeine, Marijuana or Alcohol and seek help in changing them if necessary. All of this will provide considerable benefits to your life even after the COVID-19 crisis is just a distant memory.
Learn to live in the here-and-now:
Living in the past creates regret and guilt or shame. Living in the future creates panic and anxiety. Both of them prevent you from living in the present and trap you inside of your head with your heart pounding, your palms sweating and your mind racing. And, the more you practice that trapped and panic-stricken state, the ‘better’ you get at it, and the more likely it is to be triggered next time.
The problem is that most of the scenarios we make up have little to no chance of happening, and all of the energy involved is likely wasted. Learning how to stop the hurricane of our thoughts frees up all of that energy for other things.
There are so many techniques that can be useful for interrupting the anxiety response, but some of the most proven and effective are different styles of meditation. In nearly every country on earth, veteran’s hospitals focus a lot of their mental health resources on Mindfulness-Based Meditation or Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy as they help traumatized soldiers. Almost nothing works better than teaching these servicemen and women how to ground themselves in the present through these styles of meditation.
Go onto your smartphone’s app store and search out a quality mindfulness-based meditation app and use it every time you find yourself beginning to catastrophize or even just overthink things. You’ll be so glad you did!
Yes, Health Canada or the Centre for Disease Control have recommended some temporary lifestyle changes, but take note when you are starting to go beyond them. When you begin to make decisions out of fear instead of facts, both your wellbeing and family can start to suffer.
There is a reason that competent politicians tend to go silent and step back at times like this!
They do so to allow key medical professionals to take the lead. When medical problems emerge, we need the steady hand of calm and rational scientists who have studied the problem for years. When these people issue guidelines, they base them on facts that have been peer-reviewed by thousands of brilliant men and women. You can trust them.
Trust that they know far more about what they are talking about than some grandstanding media personality or showboating politician. If they are telling you that they don’t know, don’t buy into the idea that some YouTuber does. When they tell you that they have not yet validated a treatment, know that they are just as afraid for their friends and family as you are and would NEVER withhold a proven cure.
Neither do any less than they recommend, nor any more!
Maintain social connections:
We are an inherently relational species and, for nearly all of us, social distancing is painful. However, just because you need to stay two meters away from others doesn’t mean you have to be alone. Video applications can enable you to stay connected with those who have helped you with your anxiety in the past. Find a way to live as normal of a life as you possibly can. Most of us have a phone on us at all times that can do much to eliminate loneliness – if we take the risk and reach out.
Be careful about the stories you tell yourself:
When someone merely choking on a sip of water from their bottle can cause an entire sidewalk of people to jaywalk to the other side of the road, rational assumptions may no longer govern us. Contrary to the mind-numbing rantings of so many, cell phone towers do not create viruses. There are no secretly suppressed treatments or diabolical plans to hide a cure. Blowing hot air up your nose, gobbling random nutritional supplements or drinking tonic water will not cure this virus, and no one is putting tracking-microchips in vaccinations. Politicians still remain a terrible source for accurate scientific information about pretty much everything. Health Canada is not into hoaxes, and there is no evil master plan intended to take your freedom away inherent in social distancing guidelines.
Reach out for help:
Getting help is safe and easy! You won’t ever have to leave the social-distance related safety of your own home to talk to a Christian Psychologist in Calgary. All therapists are available during all of our regular business hours via Telepsychology during this time. We have over fifteen years of experience delivering quality psychological counselling via phone and ultra-private video. Our Calgary Christian Counsellors can help you both address the uncertainty and anxiety as well as help you come out of this time more resilient, healthier and more in charge of your life and well being than you ever believed possible.
Don’t suffer alone; reach out for phone or video Christian counselling sessions today!