With pandemics, fear is normal. Nothing can pump up stress like the inability to control or predict what will happen next, especially when we’re concerned for our very lives. In fact, those two conditions are the most powerful stress boosters out there. One consequence is that when public officials fail to meet our personal expectations for taking control or providing needed information during a pandemic, it not only becomes fodder for more political arguments; it also increases fears.
The good news is that we are in fact resilient. We will get through this, the same way we’ve survived disaster for millennia. And, there are specific ways we can override the body’s stress response when it gets out of hand, perhaps even put the energy to good use in days to come.
However, just as the inner lizard causes problems during political discussions, he can lead us astray during a pandemic. Running and fighting do not really fit well with either scenario. In fact, getting too pumped up at times makes things worse. But the inner lizard does not recognize that differing survival tactics are needed for situations like pandemics and political divides.
So what do we do with all this extra energy and passion, besides stew in our own juices? Or, start doing unproductive things like panic buying, living and reliving fantasies of worst possible scenarios, or believing whatever we read no matter what the source?
Fortunately, higher-functioning parts of our brains have the ability to override fight or flight. We do have the option of refunneling that energy into activities like appropriate preparedness, staying informed, and following the advice of health experts. But then what?
We cope by using these three steps: noticing the feeling, intercepting it, and replacing any unhealthy reactions or impulses with something useful.
Here’s one way to go about it. When feeling anxious, frightened, or angry:
• Be kind to your inner lizard. After all, he must live with this built-in negativity bias that always suspects the worst. Thank him for pointing out the existence of a threat. That way he knows he’s been heard, and need not continue pressing the panic button. Compassion toward the self or others has been found to reduce or even block anxiety.
• Slow down your thoughts. Activities like mindfulness, meditation, and relaxation techniques are good for this. Even a hot bath or leisurely walk in the park may help. You cannot both slow down and give in to lightening-speed gut reactions at the same time. Afterwards, you will be better able to think logically, put things in proper perspective, and move on to useful problem solving.
• If you feel especially wired up, find an exercise activity you enjoy. It doesn’t matter what kind. It will help use up the extra adrenaline.
Here’s another way to notice, intercept and replace excessive anxiety:
• Note that, in this present moment, you are actually fine. Your heart still beats, you are still breathing, and the ground is still solid beneath you.
If you’ve been involved with the National Conversation Project for long, you’ve likely already developed your own personal strategies for keeping your cool when discussion gets heated. Those very same strategies may also prove useful for coping with the stress of a pandemic. Now is the time to dig deep. What hidden strengths and resilience might you bring to bear during this new challenge?
Never forget—our social support systems are especially healing. Even when sequestered we can stay in touch with loved ones by phone, email, and social media. And given our usual busy lives, this pandemic also offers a chance to reestablish or build on dialogue and intimacy among those with whom we’re sequestered.
There are many other ways to handle stress during a pandemic. Experts have prepared a number of valuable resources that provide suggestions for coping during this time, such as the following: