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  • Writer's pictureHenriette Johnsen

Feeling fear? How to remain calm in difficult times!

This blogpost is about fear; what fear is and how can we live with it in these corona times.

Following the press conference on Wednesday 9th March 2020 where the Danish government announced closing schools and other public institutions to beat the corona virus, I have spent the last couple of days setting up online teaching for my students. I have contacted all my therapy clients to set up online sessions for the next couple of weeks. I have supported my own children in making sense of the impact the corona virus has on us all, and I have been on the phone with friends and family from Denmark and abroad.

I have begun a 748-piece jigsaw puzzle of Tower Bridge; I have written a list of cleaning tasks around the house; I have prioritised administrative work, and I have committed myself to getting fresh air and exercise in every day during the lock down. Adding to this, I have spent considerable time considering how to emotionally support the international community in Denmark in this crisis.

We have been encouraged to stay at home, not to congregate and to be careful with personal hygiene. The government are advising us that food supplies will remain open, and that there is plenty of food if we refrain from hoarding. All in all, it is key to prevent a sudden peak in corona contamination as this will present a real danger to our national health system. The reactions to the Danish government closing society as well as the national borders are many: fear, hoarding, denial … the list goes on.

Watching the press conference left me shivering and touched. Shivering as this is unknown territory for us all and initially instigated a feeling of fear in me. Touched as I felt a sense of safety living in a country with a government which take the situation seriously and aren’t afraid to act accordingly. It can’t have been an easy decision to make, but I felt reassured to know our parliament have put aside their usual political differences and now stand together as a united front trying to protect the inhabitants of Denmark. Though reassured, I continued to shiver for quite some time after the press conference; and in the hours that followed, I thought a lot about the concept of fear.

Given my therapeutic training and experience as well as years of living an anxiety filled life in London, I immediately recognised the shivering as being fear. For me, a fear of the unknown, of losing a loved one to corona, of feeling disempowered and of the possible panic reactions of others.

One of the benefits of having undergone therapeutic training is that I have come to know myself and my reactions to outside events pretty well; and having a whole catalogue of strategies to put in place, I was able to soothe myself, be present for my children and continue to carry out the necessary tasks like setting up online teaching, organising online sessions with my clients as well as doing a little shopping to tie us over the weekend without having to shut down my fear, yet not give in to it.

Many of you have probably experienced something similar; and if you are new to Denmark you may even have had extensive concerns such as if you will be able to have the help you need should you or a family member become seriously ill from corona. Will there be an ambulance if needed? Enough hospital beds? Medication? Breathing devices?

Perhaps you suffer from a chronic disease and are afraid of how this relates to corona and of how your condition will be treated now the national health service is preoccupied with corona.

Perhaps you are concerned with not being able to travel to your home country to be with your loved ones. You could be worried about your parents and extended family and your friends in your home country. Perhaps you are struggling to make sense of it all due to lack of appropriate Danish skills. Perhaps …

Fear exists on a spectrum from no fear at all to complete panic. Given we are faced with an unprecedented situation, it’s only natural to react with fear to the unknown in relation to our health, that of our loved ones and to the financial consequences of the virus and the lockdown. Adding to that, many expats are also faced with being far away from their home, friends and family. Expats could also experience trouble trusting the information, they receive from the authorities who may react differently to this force majeure situation than those of their home country. All in all, a perfect cocktail for fear and anxiety to spin out of control.

What is the difference between fear & anxiety?

Fear is the body’s response to a threat or impending danger whereas anxiety is the result of a perceived threat or danger. Even though they are two different aspects of our emotional catalogue, they can cause the same physical changes such as rapid heartbeat, dizziness, shivering, muscle tension, breathing difficulties or sweating. Both can active our fight, flight, freeze and fawn response though I doubt anyone will attempt to fawn the virus.

Everyone who has suffered from anxiety knows what an uncomfortable and debilitating experience it is. Fear and anxiety can eat away at our common sense and ability to self-soothe and keep calm.

There is no doubt that we are in a situation where it is appropriate to feel a sense of fear. In fact, if we find ourselves not feeling any fear or worry, we may have repressed these as we are having difficulties dealing with such strong emotions, and it may be a time to check out if we are really as okay as we seem to be on the surface.

How can we use our fear constructively?

For our own personal wellbeing and for the greater good, we need to use our fear and anxiety constructively rather than allowing ourselves to be hijacked by our thoughts and panic. As a community, we all need to show the best of ourselves to fulfil our solidary responsibility to each other.

In situations like the current one, we instinctively allow the part of our brain which controls fear and anxiety, the amygdala, to take over. Though small in size, the amygdala is strong in its response and can hijack even the smartest in a split second. For survival purposes, this mechanism shuts down all other perspectives whilst releasing a large quantity of adrenalin to allow us to fight or flee a dangerous situation. Blood is pumped to our muscles, and the adrenalin gives us a huge amount of energy which we seek to release in order to survive and go back to feeling relaxed. This response was appropriate back in the time when we were hunters and gatherers on the savanna; and yet it is that same response which lies behind the comfort of buying half a year’s supply of tinned tomatoes, yeast, medication and toilet paper.

In a situation where we feel little, if any, control, doing a big grocery shop gratifies us with a sense of accomplishment and protection towards ourselves and our family; and for a time, we can self-soothe and feel calm. The problem is, hoarding is counterproductive and doesn’t serve the surrounding society, and the feeling of calm proves to be temporary rather than permanent. Furthermore, we risk creating a vicious circle and putting the supply of foods in danger.

When we act unconsciously, we allow our fears to take over and we feel little or no control other than in the moment. These actions are often harmful to us and to our surroundings. Actions rooted in our awareness where we accept our thoughts, emotions and impulses can reflect our values and be beneficial to others as well as ourselves. The important factor in self-development is to build an awareness of our triggers and to build a catalogue of strategies which are more productive than our instinctual responses. The important thing is to take charge rather than allow our autopilot to steer the journey.

The corona virus isn’t a sabre-tooth tiger nor a big roaring lion chasing us on the savanna. There is no immediate danger right in front of us which demands us to fight or flee justifying our released adrenalin; what really happens right now is that we become afraid of our own thoughts and imagination of the situation escalating out of control - a fear of the unknown future. These thoughts can be much more difficult to deal with than an immediate danger right in front of us as we are unable to act our way out of the perceived danger. As such, the adrenaline persists in our system and enhances the feeling of unsafety - there is simply no release to be had!

Most of us would be able to look around us and recognise that we are in fact alright this very minute. That doesn’t mean, the corona virus isn’t out there and that precautions shouldn’t be taken; it just means that in this very moment, you are okay! However, the fear is powerful and very real. When many people are struck by fear, we deal with a collective fear which via social media (and in supermarkets) very easily escalates into mass hysteria.

To avoid all this, it would be tempting to tell yourself to repress your fear, but due to fear being a biological mechanism installed in us for survival is works like a catalyst and driving force for action, and as such cannot be repressed. But it needs to be used consciously to act constructively.

It’s my clinical and personal experience that to manage our fear, we need to

  • Remember, that all emotions are temporary.

  • Acknowledge your emotions. Repressing them only fuels your emotions and make them worse.

  • By allowing yourself to just sit with your emotions, they will decrease in intensity.

  • Remember, that you feeling scared of something doesn’t mean that that something will happen.

  • Be careful not to stir up things! If you don’t fuel your emotions, they will decrease in intensity.

  • Remember, that all thoughts are transitory - like emotions, they come and go.

  • We can witness our thoughts, just like emotions.

  • If we pause, we can choose to engage with our thoughts if they are helpful - and not engage with them if they are unhelpful.

  • It is possible to engage constructively with our thoughts rather than allowing them to hold us hostage.

  • Breathe and pause before acting. Feel your feet on the ground. Feel your body lean against a wall, the chair you are sitting in or the sofa you are lying on. Breathe. Breathe heavier and heavier. Feel yourself settling, grounding.

  • Develop an awareness of how to best help yourself and others.

  • Acknowledge other people’s emotions and thoughts.

  • Talk openly about your thoughts, fears and other emotions! The likelihood is, you aren’t the only one feeling how you feel.

The above takes practise, and if you need help, please contact me for an online session.

Also, remember to:

  • Follow the advice given by the authorities.

  • Keep yourself informed by governmental institutions; not by social media and papers looking to create sensations.

  • Structure your day

  • Eat healthily

  • Keep exercising

  • Go for walks - get some fresh air

  • Sleep well

  • If you are working, allocate hours for this and stick to them.

  • Do things which make you happy - use this time to do things you haven’t got time for in everyday life.

  • Talk to your children and protect them from the mass hysteria in certain media.

  • Talk with your children in an age appropriate way. This website may be helpful!

  • Talk with your spouse - this may be the time to have those conversations which you never seem to have time for in your hectic life.

  • Remember, it’s okay to be bored. If anything, it’s probably quite healthy for most, if not all, of us.

  • Talk to people you care about.

  • Ask your neighbour if you can help them with the shopping.

  • See if you have expertise which your community can benefit from whilst working from home.

  • Call people whom you know are alone and may appreciate a chat.

  • Keep living and take responsibility for your own health and wellbeing.

Fear can bring the worst up in people, but it can also bring us closer together - even from a distance!

Don't panic fingers

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