Fear of the unknown can spook people at the best of times. The coronavirus pandemic has only made it worse.

Nobody knows much about this virus that suddenly crept up on us without any warning. There are so many questions on everyone’s minds: Can COVID-19 be eradicated? Is it always fatal? Is there a vaccine? 

As the pandemic spreads, the lack of information combined with the rampant misinformation has increased anxiety levels among many people. 

The biggest worry is that there is no vaccine. Scientists and pharmaceutical companies are racing against time to find a cure/vaccine and though three vaccines are in clinical trials, they are unlikely to reach the general public for at least another year to 18 months.

Frontline healthcare workers are fighting the respiratory illness that has infected close to 3 million worldwide. People across the world are following the World Health Organization guidelines; however, many still feel powerless.  

SENSE OF DREAD

For several of us, this has led to an increased sense of dread about how things will pan out. What if I get infected? What happens if someone in my family catches it? What if I’ve had it but I catch it again? 

It’s not just chronic worriers or people with anxiety disorders who are unsettled by the pandemic. Experts say it’s natural to be afraid of the unknown. 

“When we feel, ‘Oh my God, there's a new boogeyman out there,’ it comes with extra fear,” USA Today quoted risk communication expert David Ropeik as saying. “When we don't understand something that leaves us feeling like we don't know everything we need to know to protect ourselves … that equates to powerlessness, vulnerability.”

It’s natural to feel overwhelmed by the fear of coronavirus. To be honest, being anxious isn’t all that bad. It’s our body’s natural reaction to a perceived threat. 

In our Embracing Change course, we talk about how the amygdala, the part of the human brain that drives emotions, kept us safe from dangers in prehistoric times. However, as humans evolved, our primitive instincts stayed intact. Therefore, any perceived threat can overwhelm us with feelings of anxiety, even if we aren’t immediately in any physical danger. 

In a pandemic, these feelings only get heightened, because of the uncertainty about when things will turn. But instead of trying to get rid of your anxiety, you could try to manage it better. Here are a few things you can do.

1. Stay informed but don’t obsess: You may be tempted to find a semblance of control by trying to stay on top of all the developments around a treatment/vaccine. However, knowing how the process works—most trials usually fail—means you’ll be in for a lot of disappointment. Instead, limit your news intake to once a day. 

2. Focus on things under your control: You may not be in control of the speed at which the vaccine is being developed, but you can take some measures to protect yourself and your loved ones—washing your hands regularly, avoiding touching your face, minimizing trips to the market, not stepping out unless absolutely necessary, maintaining physical distance, and wearing a mask.  

3. Make a personal plan: Sometimes, the best way to deal with your worries is to make a plan of how you’ll tackle each of them if they come true. Create a list of all your worries and address them individually, without thinking about the perfect response. Just focus on what you can do within your limited means. Once this is done, remind yourself to not worry about them anymore. 

4. Anchor yourself in the present: It’s only natural to be worried about the different ways in which things might unfold. However, it doesn’t help to ruminate about all the ways in which things can go wrong. One way to manage this is to ground yourself in the present moment—by doing some breathing exercises or meditation.  

5. Emotions are contagious: We often don’t realize how the emotions of other people we are interacting with can rub off on us. If you feel like someone you talk to or live with is constantly focused on the negative consequences of COVID-19, politely change the topic or draw boundaries for yourself as to how often or what you will talk about.  

Think of your anxiety as the beast from the fairytale Beauty and the Beast. It may seem menacing in the beginning but when you look closely, you’ll realize beneath the scary facade lies a compassionate creature who’s trying to keep you safe from any kind of danger. 

So, instead of focusing on getting rid of your anxiety, treat it with compassion so that you can bring it down to manageable levels. After all, it’s just trying to do its job. 

Sanjay is a Senior Specialist in the Curriculum team at Harappa Education. He is a Young India Fellow and a graduate from St. Xavier’s College, Mumbai. He hopes to help people realize the power of building social-emotional skills. 


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