Okay, everyone needs to just take a deep intentional breath or two and reflect for a moment.  Although it is unprecedented and very difficult to accept( much less understand), over the past week, the coronavirus has completely changed the  world and life as we have come to know it.  Even worse , even the experts don’t know how bad it is going to get or how long it will be before life returns to normal.

Indeed, these are frightening times and being afraid is normal and not a sign of paranoia or some other anxiety disorder. That said, while it is normal and okay to be afraid, it is important not to panic.  Here are some basic tips to help you tell the difference between fear and panic  and how to manage fear rationally :

The key difference between fear and panic is rational proportionality.  First of all,  Panic , is that sense of extreme terror which often associated with irrational behavior, is a primal reaction to a perceived external threat. Panic stems from the primitive part of the brain called the amygdale. The amygdale, which we have discussed before , is instinctive and not rational.  Its primary function was to protect and to survive.  It is important to understand that, in the course of human evolution, our brain evolved from a more primitive animal brain.  Further, our species is essentially an anxious lot.  Other humanoid competitors, who were less anxious, did not react to threats effectively. Thus, they did not survive and did not  win the evolutionary race.

Despite our anxious origins, humans developed the neo-cortex part of their brain which distinguished them from lower animal forms.  The cortex is the human part of our brain that allows us to think, to create artistically and to socialize and love.  With respect to external threat, the cortex made it possible for threats to be logically and factually assessed and evaluate the extent and seriousness of the danger and then to proportionally respond.

By contrast , rather than having gradations of reaction, the amygdale reaction is all or nothing. The “all” (fight or flight) response, since it is not selective or tailored to the particular situation, can often be exaggerated and more than necessary.   In times of crisis, an exaggerated reaction can cause more problems than it solves. A good example of a panic reaction is the Seinfeld episode where George is at his girlfriend’s birthday party for her son and smells smoke.  Instead of rationally assessing the situation, he immediately is terrified and runs for the door.  In the midst of his panic, he loses all concern for others and pushes an elderly woman aside, steps on the birthday boy and even  shoves his girlfriend out of the way to escape.


AWARENESS So, the deal is this.  As much as possible, in the wake of frightening news reports or events, it is important to develop an ongoing awareness of one’s stress level.  Neurologically, when the level becomes too high, access to our cortex is broken and all we are left with is the primitive amygdale  to direct our feelings, thoughts and actions . If we are mindful when our anxiety levels are on the rise, we can call “time out” before we lose the connection with the rational part of our brain.

LIMIT EXPOSURE Cutting back the exposure from disturbing stimuli, like  upsetting conversations, television or internet material, when combined with basic stress-management techniques  like breathing, yoga, physical  exercise, along  with journaling and meditation can effectively prevent having uncomfortable episodes  of panic or can shorten their duration if they occur.

TRIAGE THE THREAT Another equally important aspect of increased mindfulness is becoming more aware of what actually threatens you.  Some aspects of the virus  are  immediate.  If you are older or have a compromised immune system or have regular risk of exposure to infected people, coronavirus is an existential threat which requires making the necessary practical accommodations. Identifying as specifically as possible the actual risks that you can control will convert a generalized or global sense of anxiety into a specific fear which can be addressed and a problem which can be solved.

Some aspects of coronavirus pandemic are not immediate but are more anticipatory and beyond your control. Accepting what is not under your control is a crucial acknowledgement.  It is important to not waste time or suffer needlessly worrying about things that are out of your control.  Doing so frees up energy to focus on reasonable things that are in your power to control and regulate.  You can always control breathing and slowing your rate of taking breaths will help lower your sense of anxiety and help you to gain control over emotions and behavior.

ACKNOWLEDGE THE GRIEF Rational fear-management also means realizing that we are  experiencing is a real loss. In this present situation, the loss is ( for the some indeterminate time ) a way of living.  Serious loss always involves  a grief reaction, which includes sadness, discouragement, despair, confusion and anger.  These feelings are normal and inescapable.  Giving yourself permission to feel and express your feelings, whatever they are, is  the best way to process these difficult experiences and to prevent impulsive and panic driven behaviors.   

DON’T ISOLATE OR GO IT ALONE  Finally,  not going it alone or trying to deal with this global crisis  all by yourself is crucial. Share your feelings and concerns with family and friends. Allow your self to be vulnerable when supported by them . Likewise, being there for others can also be a powerful and restorative experience to get you outside of your own fears.

BE OPEN TO SPIRITUAL SUPPORT  All of this said, there is something about these recent events which goes beyond rational explanation or meaning.  As a Pastoral Counselor, I realize that there are moments in life which lie outside scientific or human understanding.  Indeed, in extraordinary times of uncertainty and danger, it is necessary to look to spiritual resources for comfort and support. Faith informed by the sacred texts of one’s religious tradition acknowledge the limits of human influence and understand  that, ultimately, our destiny lies in the hands of a loving God.

Rev. Michael Heath, LMHC, Fellow AAPC    3 18 2020

Image attribution and acknowledgement (video capture) https://medium.com/the-soulpreneurs-project/pep-talk-for-those-who-freak-out-8b8b786ac821