• Eylül Meriç Gençer

How to cope with anxiety within the context of Coronavirus

As humans, we have the tendency to demand to know with certainty what will happen to us in this unpredictable world. This is quite understandable in the sense that we inherently want to survive. It is coded in our genes, instinct for survival is a fundamental evolutionary trait. And uncertainty about the future can be perceived as a threat to our survival. This, in some, induces anxiety and stress. Science has allowed us to discover what happens to us physiologically when we over-activate our primitive brain and release glucocorticoids (stress hormones) in a fight or flight response, which is a mechanism also triggered while we suffer from anxiety. It is not pleasant, and causes significant health problems, especially if chronic (stress & elevated levels of glucocorticoids).

Fight or flight response makes a lot of sense for animals who don’t have the higher cognitive functions as we do and don’t possess the ability to have abstract thought. This is because, the physiological burden of stress hormones in a dangerous situation (fight or flight) is a good trade off from an evolutionary point of view, considering the survival outcomes it helps achieve (i.e. you run faster or fight harder because of adrenalin). It is advantageous because for most animals it is temporary, is not chronic and does not last longer than it should. However, for animals such as us, who have the ability to trigger the fight or flight response, just by thinking about a dangerous situation (not actually living one in the moment), our more advanced cognitive abilities, become a detriment to our physical wellbeing.

It is important to be aware of this intellectually, and internalise behavioural mechanisms, with the view to at least limit the activation of fight or flight response, and stress hormone secretion. Especially in an environment, where there is a ‘perceived’ and for a vulnerable but still sizable minority a ‘real’ threat to our health and wellbeing.

Yes, I am talking about the Coronavirus Pandemic. We finally are in a situation where the zeitgeist is changing. Not sure in which direction, but for some, it clearly demonstrates that our problems are global, and doesn’t matter which country we live in, as in reality we are citizens of a global capitalist civilisation, with an ability to create global crisis irrespective of borders and nationality. The virus is indifferent to your socioeconomic status, your wants&desires, or ethnicity (however true that the poorer and elderly are the most vulnerable). But people of all ethnicities, nations and classes do suffer from increased levels of anxiety as a result of it, as perceived threat for all has increased. And it is human to be anxious about what is happening around you.

Here are some things to remember then:

This is a global problem, and we need to act collectively both at a local level and at a global/international level. We need to stop selfishly hoarding supplies and try to be rational.

This is not only a physical health problem, but also a mental health problem, where how we cope with a sense of diminishing safety, and our ability to deal with uncertainty is critical.

We are dealing with uncertainty. This is uncharted territory globally. But it is now time to realise that it is not politicians who have the answers, but actually scientists and experts. It is important to trust scientists, experts, mathematical models, statistical analysis, share this knowledge, collaborate and support international institutions like WHO. What this truly shows us that we need to put the charlatans of our recent political past, who have insulted experts every chance they got behind us. We now live in an age where we will be tested with real crisis, be it pandemics, climate change, or diminishing natural resources. People who are truly qualified to deal with these are not politicians, but scientists and experts. We need to elect leaders who are not dismissive of experts, but who rely on them to make decisions.

Think about your childhood. When you were scared of darkness, surrounded by uncertainty (maybe a monster in the closet), you were reassured by the knowledge that your parents are next door if you cry. Now it is time to turn to evidence to reassure ourselves, not hearsay or fake news. It is absolutely important to be vigilant to prevent misinformation or speculation overtaking evidence driven, expert sourced true approximations of reality. If this means you need to filter your exposure to false information (i.e. rely on selective, validated news sources rather than WhatsApp groups or social media posts, go ahead and do this).

Social media can be distressing for some people. Unfortunately, people will develop perceptions from what they are exposed to, but unlike 15 years ago, now we are exposed to significantly higher number of unreliable information, that are not backed by evidence and are most of the time untrue. Taking breaks from even main stream news, checking your phone less, or limiting your interactions with anxious friends will be beneficial for your mental health.

Taking care of yourself and your needs is very important. And to be honest it is true that it is not ideal to have to live through a pandemic, no matter if you’re medically vulnerable or not. I am not going to go ahead and propose ‘positive psychology’, or say try to think positively etc. What I am saying is, you should try to allow yourself to sit with your difficult emotions (which for many will be anxiety) but try to replace anxiety with concern at this point, as it will be more rational, realistic and easier to deal with.

Taking a break from what disturbs you does not mean ignoring the facts. It means that you just focus on real news, truth, and reliable, validated guidance and information rather than everything you hear or read. Hopefully with this outbreak people can learn how to rely on only science again, or at least develop mechanisms of critical and evidence-based thinking.

In life, there are bad things and good things, right? And how bad or how good same things are for different people will be subjective and unique to the individual and their perceived experience. However, isolating yourself at home without knowing for how long – and possibly a threat to your health or your vulnerable loved ones are not jolly things. You must have seen better days, like travelling, going to a theatre or a musical, or partying at Ibiza when you were 20. Anyway, what is crucial at this point is separating unhealthy negative emotions and healthy negative emotions. And gauge the threat levels based on what experts are saying, which in short is that this is not a dangerous disease for an overwhelming majority, but still dangerous enough for the vulnerable minority, and measures to protect them affects all our lives.

Having negative emotions is quite natural under these circumstances. Things are anxiety provoking but still manageable. But treating this situation like a walk in the park, or an end of the world type scenario would both be destructive for us. We should try and find a balance between these two approaches. First let’s focus on practical stuff:

1) Ensure to follow the government’s advice, this depends on the country you’re in and how trustworthy your government is but try to weigh what they are saying against other governments internationally and scientific institutions and experts.

2) Only focus on scientific facts, not at all the outcomes that may theoretically be possible. Even in a world without Coronavirus there are still millions of things that may happen to any of us.

3) Try to acknowledge your anxiety. Get to know the feeling. Is it becoming unhealthy? Or is it okay? Would everyone feel like this in this situation? I know sometimes it is not easy to accept some facts when you know that you cannot change them but is it easier to just acknowledge the fact that this is what is happening right now.

4) Universality of emotions. You are not alone. We can use this, let’s get through everything together. So, talk to your friends, talk to your family about how you feel, see that you are not alone, and share how you are managing things. Supporting each other is essential. Practically and psychologically we need each other.

5) I am not saying that we have to act like business as usual, because it is not! I do not find this optimistic approach useful when all the toilet papers run out, when everybody is panic buying cans of food and emptying paracetamol racks. Again, let’s remember this is not good but it does not mean that it will be like this forever unless we have good evidence to support this.

6) Don’t believe everything you think! We know that our beliefs, emotions, behaviour, physical reactions are interrelated. It means that if you think something this will affect your emotion in the similar direction.

7) As a goal, don’t try to feel “nothing” or “not anxious at all” as they are unrealistic goals for any reality. It is more pragmatic to focus on having healthy concerns and anxiety towards the current situation and exploring ways to cope with these.

8) When you are dealing with healthy anxiety or concern, it is important to focus on things that you can do to reduce anxiety. I am talking about things that you can control. Giving your attention to what you can do when you fully understand your limits, would be helpful.

9) By the way, these are not easy. It does not mean that you have to like the circumstances you are in. Do not forget we live in a world where our desires, wishes, wants not necessarily align with reality. We can still want them, there is nothing wrong with this. However, when these wants, desires become a “demand” like I should not feel any threat to my existence, or I should not feel any danger or any uncomfortable feeling, this may be detrimental to our mental well-being. You don’t have to like the situation, but this is completely different than “I can’t cope with this”, yes you can still cope. Even though you don’t like it, and you want something completely different to happen. It is similar to wanting to see a clear sunny sky but living in the UK. We don’t get depressed every time when we see the clouds right? We kind of accept that we can’t demand this from the world because it is less likely to happen. Similarly, just because it is a tricky, challenging situation for everyone in the world, it does not directly indicate that we cannot tolerate this. Yes, we can, yes, we will. Like everything in our life in the past. Like all our ancestors that have lived through challenging situations, If you are still alive, still breathing, it shows you something; you have tolerated so far, even though you did not like certain things in your life you have bared them, you could cope with them. Even though it is objectively a bad situation to be in, it is still not %100 bad right? We know that there is always a worse scenario. World is still here, this is not the apocalypse, people can still make it, we have better technology and awareness to deal with these hard times. It is not awful then but still bad. Let’s focus on having and accepting this normal, natural anxiety for today’s reality. This can be an opportunity to teach ourselves to sit with difficult, unwanted, uncomfortable emotions when we hate having them. This emotion is an annoying guest and we look forward to him to leave our house so that we can get back to binging Netflix.

Eylul Meric Gencer


Psychologist/CBT therapist

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