Why the coronavirus makes people anxious – and what can be done

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Within a short space of time, things have changed and nothing is what it once was. Until recently, our routine and daily habits sometimes used to annoy us. How boring everyday life was, how little spontaneity it provided. And now suddenly we wish it all back again – our familiar world in which we feel secure and can enjoy our freedom.

When everything changes from one day to the next

As much as we sometimes long for change, it can also be unsettling, cause anxiety or incur resistance – especially when we have "been changed", i.e. when the change wasn’t wanted.

In the situation we face today, people are experiencing this across the world. In addition to the medical challenges posed by the coronavirus, the social and economic changes it creates are dramatic and cannot be avoided.

Fears and anxieties

The feeling of being in control of aspects of our lives or knowing from experience that we can master situations gives us security. When schools, restaurants and shops are closed, trips and events are cancelled and we are bombarded by reports about corona, the security we're used to suddenly disappears – we feel insecure, perhaps threatened and, for some people, this leads to fear. 

Fear is a natural and important emotion. It warns us of dangers and activates the body in order to prepare us for a fight or flight response. It helps us to identify and overcome dangerous situations.

Fear as a form of protection

Fear means we have identified a danger. True. It's better to get out of the way of a snarling, teeth-gnashing dog; to not stand too near the slippery edge of a ravine; to make sure that the fast approaching car has seen you before you step onto the road; to stay at home and observe the instructions and recommended actions to avoid being infected by the coronavirus. This is rational and makes sense. 

Fear blocks action

But when a person's concerns and anxieties grow ever greater, occur more frequently and more persistently than usual, and are more difficult to control, fear takes over. This can happen, especially in the case of such an extraordinary phenomenon as the current coronavirus. And it's only when you face your fears and learn how to deal with them that you can move on.

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Confront the fear

Whether it's the pandemic, general anxiety about your health or that of loved ones, fear of flying or discomfort in large crowds, your fear can be triggered by many things. There are different forms of fear and no universal remedy. The following can help:

1. Reality check: how dangerous is it really?

Many anxiety triggers are linked to a real risk, i.e. somewhere there actually is a danger lurking. Nevertheless, excessive anxiety and fear has something irrational about it. Take the following examples:

  • People with a fear of flying usually have no problem driving their car or riding their bicycle, even though studies show that flying is the safer form of transport.
  • Usually "small animals" are afraid of "big ones". Nevertheless, many people are afraid of spiders or rats.

It can be helpful to make your fear see reality. How likely is it that the danger will strike you today of all days?

Questioning the fear of infection

If your fear is one of infection, your reality check could be:

  • How does my everyday life unfold, am I taking the recommended measures?
  • Are the toilet paper shelves really empty – always and everywhere?

It’s advisable to carefully select reliable sources of information and not to become blinded by negative headlines.

2. Avoiding avoidance

One practical reflex is to consciously keep clear of the danger: if you don’t want to get infected or be bitten by an aggressive dog, for instance.

But in the case of fear caused by something that's not a real threat, avoiding it isn't a sensible strategy, even if you experience less fear as a result. It’s only when you face your anxiety trigger that you find out that nothing bad happens. Somehow you know that it’s irrational to be afraid of a tunnel, a bridge or all dogs. But how can you experience the feeling of surviving a tunnel journey if you never drive through one? Yet it is this experience which is key: it’s not dangerous, nothing has happened to me! This is how you can unlearn excessive anxiety. 

3. Relaxation

Anxiety: how the body reacts

Anxiety also takes place in the body. Since it is a reaction to something that our brain interprets as a danger, the body immediately prepares for a fight or flight response:

our heart rate increases, we breathe faster and we sweat. Or we freeze, as though we're about to faint. We feel exposed and weak, our breath slows down, we feel dizzy.

Just as anxiety reveals itself physically, we can also counteract it with physical means. To combat anxiety, there are various methods of relaxation: progressive muscle relaxation, biofeedback or autogenic training are just a few techniques that can help.

Practice makes perfect

Because it seems impossible to relax when anxiety has already taken control of the body, the rule is: practice makes perfect! The better and more experienced you are at your relaxation technique, the more naturally your body will react to it. This is relevant on two accounts.

Get to know your anxiety

First you should get to know your anxiety. Recognise when it comes, when "the feeling" starts – and don’t let the anxiety grow to its full size. A good way of stopping the process is with relaxation. Secondly, a certain "relaxation routine" can also calm any anxiety that has already arisen and enable you to control your thoughts again.

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