Even if our health is not directly affected by the coronavirus, we may still hold question marks over our families, our business, our travel plans…while we may want to “keep calm and carry on”, decisions being made minute by minute can leave us unprepared, and in some cases, literally stranded or isolated.
Unfortunately this is contributing to a growing sense of anxiety which in turn can have repercussions for the very thing we are anxious about – our wellbeing! The stress response compromises our immune system - the very thing that will help us the most right now.
We have seen that anxiety is causing people to behave in socially irresponsible ways – stockpiling unnecessarily (which has resulted in a shortage of certain goods in some cases), and even stealing things such as soaps and hand gels. Some people are trying to profit by selling hand sanitizer with a 400% mark up, and others have caused injury through chemical reactions by trying to make their own. All this is resulting in actual physical harm. That is before we talk about the mental damage that some shows of "social distancing" and figures of speech can cause.
Anxiety seeks a target and that causes more problems
We are practicing social distancing to protect the vulnerable. We may be closing borders as the world works together to contain the pandemic. BUT, the difference between fear and anxiety is that fear is related to a trigger that we can define eg. A fear of flying. Anxiety does not always have an obvious cause. So one of the problems is we create a target to project our fear onto because that helps us feel in control. Yet, this act of creating an "Object of fear" causes further - and unnecessary - harm. While the procedures of washing hands, self monitoring and being wary when you cough – especially if you are in contact with those whose health or age may make more vulnerable, or if you have been to an area which has a high number of cases is sensible. Spraying someone who looks Chinese with disinfectant, beating them shouting “I don’t want your coronavirus”, bullying East Asian children by telling them they are dirty or dangerous is unacceptable. This is what anxiety is doing – creating a target for our fear that causes physical harm.
Three things to consider
1. I'd like to make clear that sometimes what we see, eg reports of behaviour we may be outraged or upset by while true are not always the majority. Research has shown that 70%of people try to hold and act to positive moral values but believe that as many do not. In otherwords while 70% of us are trying to be positive and kind we are still lumped in with the opinion that 70% of the population are selfish! Be aware that the media picks up on the cases of very bad behaviour rather than recognising the positive acts that occur every day...because people ARE naturally kind and social...and that's not "news".
2. Remember that lot of the time the fear response is caused through a lack of information and lack of clear direction. As humans we feel more in control when we believe we understand a situation…just think of the fear that learning a new skill may cause. But if accurate information is not available, we may make things up, or grasp for anything that makes immediate sense. Or if we feel things need to be done and they aren't we may try to take matters into our own hands.
Therefore it is the media, the governments, those with the platform that have a responsibility to send the clearest messages. Make clear decisions, have clear procedures, explain as much as possible in terms as understandable as possible will always help. If you are about to close borders, try to give people some sort of preparatory warning...and say it in a way that makes it clear it is part of a global, collaborative response.
3. Change the narrative you weave too. No-one learns through ridicule or shame, in fact it makes people more likely to stick doggedly to their beliefs. So think before posting something through outrageous or self righteousness. Maybe you are shocked with someone's action and maybe you had every right to be, but if you must share something that makes you look at the dark side of humanity, also share something which reminds us of the good in people too.
Kindness to others and to yourself is healing, and this is a time to work together rather than point fingers.
...and if anxiety has made you behave in ways you are less than proud of, try not to add guilt to those feelings. Apologise if apologies are needed, but then focus on doing what you know to be effective and appropriate in future.
Audrey is a chartered psychologist, author and speaker. Follow her @draudreyt (Twitter/Instagram) or watch her on the Chrissy B Show, Mon/Wed/Fri 10pm Sky191.