This morning on the way to work I arrived at an accident scene right after it had happened. There were three cars that had hit each other, each one more crumpled than the one before. My heart went out to the drivers as they now have an event that is going to change their life. This is just one of the things that can happen to cause trauma and fear.
Pandemics. Crisis. Accidents. Abuse. It is starting to feel harder to feel secure. At least for now, fear has become part of the Canadian experience. Sometimes fear is an appropriate response. Fear is not always a bad thing, for it can motivate us to protect ourselves. It is the fact that we fear further spread of COVID-19 that has moved the nation to stay at home, wear face masks, and protect our vital interests. If we were not afraid, we would not take those steps and would be much more vulnerable. That fear which protects us is very important and very adaptive.
There is a difference between appropriate fear that protects and being in a state of fear that prevents everyday life. When fear goes past its function of keeping us alert, it interferes with our ability to connect to the things in life that are important to us. We find it more difficult to function well in our significant relationships, our work, recreation, and the rest of the activities that we hold dear to our hearts. At that point, we need more than protection from the things that are causing the fear. We need protection from the fear itself.
What helps with fear and trauma? There are some very real and practical things that you can do that will help you to deal with your anxiety and get back to living well.
Please keep in mind that some of these were written to address other fears in traumas not related to the COVID-19 crisis.
Connection to others. There is nothing that helps with the feelings of security than being around others. Other people ground us when we are dealing with sickness, loss, trauma, and even death. We are created (even biochemically) to feel better and calmer when we are with others. But just being in a crowd is not enough as it is the connection that matters and with social distancing, it is not a good idea to be in the physical presence of other people right now. We must have our hearts woven together and find true connection. Which means being vulnerable with each other. Talking to one another about our fears, insecurities, and emotions. We must learn to give and receive support. If you struggle with this find someone who does this well and learn from them. In this time, it is important to get close to the ones you love, the ones you feel supported by personally, and connect with the larger community that you are a part of, like a church, synagogue, mosque, club, or other organization that is addressing the situation and helping you through it.
Create structure. One of the things that a trauma does is destroy some of the structure of life. When normal routines have been interfered with, like weekly networking meeting, travel, monthly choir practice, going through COVID-19 screening questions at the office, etc. it causes us to stop feeling normal. Life has changed, and that can be unsettling. So, make sure that you are taking control of the things that you can control, like your schedule, your work, and even connecting to others. Make a routine time that you are going to meet a few friends every week over Zoom or Facetime or have an online group where people just gather and talk about the issues in their lives. The important thing here is that there is a certain time each week, and a certain structure you can rely on. Also, keep a routine of other things that already have structure to them. If you pray, do it routinely. If you go for walks or exercise, add some order and structure to it. Predictability brings contentment.
Examine your thought process. One of the most effective ways of dealing with fear is to stop and listen to what you are telling yourself. Many people do not know that they are saying things to themselves like "I will never have a normal life again”, “This is going to get worse”, “We’ll forget how to hug or shake hands.” There is no end to the scary thoughts or beliefs that people can tell themselves without being aware of the thought. Slow down and listen to yourself. You could write them down to see what you are running through your head. This helps with replacing the dysfunctional fear with something more accurate like “This is unlikely to get worse because now we are taking much more precaution and measures to contain it and eliminate it.” “I do not have exactly the same life I had, but I have been able to deal with the few inconveniences and find moments to enjoy.” There are much more rational thoughts than the ones that create debilitating fear, and the only way to combat them is to challenge the frightening ones with reality.
Engage in Life. Research has shown over and over that the worst thing we can do is avoid doing the things that frighten us as it cripples us. The only exception is if it is too overwhelming and cause someone to be unable to function. But most fear is not like that. It does not make us have a breakdown; it just makes us very uneasy. One of the best things that you can do to eliminate the fear is to do the thing you are afraid of. Driving will get easier each time you drive. Meeting with people will get more comfortable the more you go. And on and on. For the most part, we are better off facing our fears as the best way to get over them. Get a supportive friend or loved one to accompany you and live your life. You will gain a feeling of mastery over the fear and find that courage is a great benefit of your actions.
Find good models. Remember when you were in school and you did not want to study with the person who was freaked out about the test? This situation is a lot like that. Fear can be learned from others, and so can courage. Stay around people who are facing life with acceptance, and just watch them. Hang out with the ones who are going about life in a fulfilling way. The more you are around these strong people, the more you will become like them. Your mind will say, “Oh, he or she is not afraid. I guess I don’t have to be either.”
Learn relaxation techniques. Don’t give in to coping methods that will only make you worse, like substance abuse, overeating, impulsive sex, etc. Instead, learn and practice proven relaxation techniques, like progressive muscle relaxation, deep breathing, spiritual activities like meditation, prayer, exercise, and the like. Download an app on relaxation training and practice it. It will help the fear and be good for your health.
Develop a spiritual life. Faith, and values that do not change with circumstances. When the things in life that can change and be destroyed are in tumult, we all need to be more connected to things that transcend day to day life. We need to be grounded in things that never change, like strong values, love for others, and a spiritual life. Research has shown that spiritual beliefs and a meaningful relationship with a higher power are advantageous to our health and well-being. Faith overcomes fear. This might be a good time to deepen your own spiritual life or do some honest seeking if you do not have one. The more you are grounded in values, contributions, relationships, and spiritual truths that outlast life itself, you will be lifted to a higher plane and what goes on around you will be more in perspective.
If needed, get professional help. Sometimes fear and anxiety can get to the point where it just becomes unmanageable by yourself and interferes significantly with your ability to function. That is the time to get help. Get a good referral for a psychotherapist or counselor who has experience in helping people overcome fear. You might be experiencing fear and anxiety from other sources that this situation has brought to the surface, and that is why it is so bad. Current trauma can activate past trauma, and there is good treatment for that.
Develop self-compassion. Like we saw above, some fear is normal. Some anxiety is normal, and even more than “some” is normal at times like these. When people get into trouble is when they begin to get afraid of the fear. Fear of the fear leads to panic attacks. So, if you feel anxiety, give yourself permission just to let it be there. Don’t get afraid of it. It will pass, and all it can do is make you uncomfortable for a little while. The more permission you have to have some fear, the less apt you are to develop a fear of the fear.
Lastly, avoid information overload. Some information helps us feel secure because it keeps us informed. Overexposure to the same frightening information, however, tends to create more anxiety than it resolves.
Hard times come and go, and the reality of that history is that people overcome challenges and we have handled crisis before. We will overcome this and be even better than we are now. So, in the meantime, while it is unsettling, have courage, faith, hope and love. Those are the things that last. Take courage, this too will pass.