By Danielle Schroeder, MA, RCC firstname.lastname@example.org
“A global pandemic adds several more layers of logistical and emotional overwhelm to the already overwhelming time of parenthood.”
What is Fear?
Fear is a natural response when we experience a sudden threat to our survival. Fear is fuelled by feelings of loss of control, powerlessness, helplessness, dread, hopelessness, & isolation when faced with the unpredictability and uncertainty in life. Our fear is often greatest immediately following the threat when the harsh reality strikes and we feel our “normal” predictable life shaken up. This is moment when our survival mechanisms kicking into gear to determine “AM I SAFE?”
Fight/Freak out-flight-Freeze Response
This is our survival mechanisms that prepare our BODY to either fight or run from danger. It is important to note that this response is INSTINCTUAL (**NOT RATIONAL**) and often comes on very intensely as a surge of energy from inside of us that needs to get out somehow. Adrenalin and cortisol levels increase dramatically, producing hyper-vigilance and hyper-arousal. Breathing quickens, heart races, blood pressure rises, perspiration covers the skin, and muscles tense. A “fight/freak out” response usually looks like yelling, slamming doors, picking fights. A “flee” response usually looks like running away, keeping really busy, distancing yourself. A “freeze” response usually is experienced as going numb, shutting down, dissociating. When we are in fight-flight-freeze we shut down part of our thinking brain and as a result get more FEARFUL & REACTIVE. We call this a DYSREGULATED SYSTEM.
Examples of Dysregulated Behaviours in the Pandemic
•Catastrophizing (going to worst case scenarios)
•Freaking out/Losing it on our kids
A panic attack is an intense wave of fear characterized by its unexpectedness and debilitating, immobilizing intensity. Your heart pounds, you can’t breathe, and you may feel like you’re dying or having a heart attack. It can be very frightening. It’s peak usually lasts for about 5-10 minutes. The best way to get through a panic attack is to get ourself into a safe space, ideally with someone you trust who can be by your side offering you some calming words of reassurance, and supportive touch to help ground you until the peak passes. As you are riding the intense waves of physical sensations it helps to hear yourself or someone else saying “this is a panic attack” “this will pass” “keep breathing”.
Self-Reflection Exercise #1: What are my triggers?
Your trigger buttons are essentially anything that makes it more likely for you to lose it-on your partner, your kids, family members. Some common triggers right now for people might be:
•Anytime you think about all the uncertainty attached to the pandemic
•Worry about loved ones
•Worry about finances
•Worry about what the future holds
•Difficult conversation with someone
•Hard time of the day
•Watching/listening to the news
•Certain people in your life
Once we can get to know what our triggers are we can start to do things to help reduce our triggered state.
Take a moment to reflect on, then write down:
1. Since the Pandemic started, what have been ‘my trigger buttons’ that have caused me to go into a super-high anxiety state (fight/freak out, flight or
2. When I am triggered what does that look like? Do I tend to mostly fight’/’freak out’ (yell, pick fights with others), freeze (go numb, shut down), or want to ’flee’ (run away, keep really busy, distance yourself) to protect myself?
“There is a storm coming. There’s something bad out there. With a virus, this kind of grief is so confusing for people. Our primitive mind knows something bad is happening, but you can’t see it. This breaks our sense of safety. We’re feeling that loss of safety. I don’t think we’ve collectively lost our sense of general safety like this. Individually or as smaller groups, people have felt this. But all together, this is new. We are grieving on a micro and a macro level.”-David Kessler
Sometimes what we think is fear is actually ‘anticipatory grief’ which are feelings of loss we carry about what this threat means in terms of our current life and our future. It’s our mind going to the future and imagining the worst (“what if…”).
When does Fear become Immobilizing?
Your fear becomes immobilizing when it becomes such a constant companion throughout your days, and in the months and years following that it interferes
with your ability to enjoy life:
•You feel anxious, worried, and afraid all the time.
•Consumed by thoughts of worst case scenarios.
•Feel powerless to change how you feel.
•Feel that family and friends become impatient with your fearful
preoccupation. They feel helpless to know how to help.
How Does Fear Diminish?
Once we can accept that it is not about getting rid of the fear, but learning how to live with fear, we start to regain a sense of control in our lives. We need to not be alone with our fears. And we need an action plan/roadmap-a sense that something is being done about our fear. For example, in our current situation with the pandemic, the more daily updates and information we receive from our local and national leaders the more we can start to gain some sense of direction. It also helps to create structure and routine in our day to day lives as a way to help us feel more in control as we adapt to a rapidly changing situation.
Strategies to Help with Fear & Anxiety
“What do I do when I feel I can’t handle what’s going on? Where do I look for my strength and in what do I place my trust?” -Pema Chodron
How Do I Talk to Myself When I’m Stressed and Afraid?
First and foremost, we need to be aware of any negative self-talk happening. We need to STOP saying to ourselves “You should…”. We need to practice KINDNESS towards ourselves and how we might be struggling, repeatedly saying to ourselves, “I’m doing the best I can right now”
Three Strategies to work with Fear:
1. Focus on ways to SELF-REGULATE in super-high anxiety states
2. DISTRACTING from the fear
3. FACE THE FEAR with honesty and curiosity
Self-regulating helps you learn to listen and understand your body’s signals in moments of super-high anxiety and fear. It helps you gain (or regain) a sense of control over your emotions, behaviour, and overall life, teaching you to tolerate uncomfortable sensations in your body. Self-regulating is what enables you to move from super-high anxiety states, to calmer more clear-thinking states. You learn to develop appropriate, mature ways to respond to these intense body signals = LESS REACTIVE!
a) Top-Down Approach - Reassuring self-talk (Cognitive mode):
Saying to yourself-
“This is going to pass”
“One day at a time”
“I am OK for now”
**Unfortunately this approach doesn’t always work in super-high anxiety state**
b) Bottom-Up Approach
Research has found that patterned, repetitive rhythmic activity (body mode) can be the most effective way to self-regulate when in a super-high anxiety state. This includes activities such as:
Repetitive meditative breathing
Doing your self-regulating activities in predictable, small doses throughout the
day (say for 5min every hour) is considered the most ideal way to keep your
anxiety levels consistently lower. Rather than just once a day for a longer period
What Can we Do as a Family to help each other regulate?
One of the most effective things you can do as a family is to create daily routines and structure that includes self-regulating activities. Structure and predictability build RESILIENCE. Also offering each other reassuring messages throughout the day can help a lot. An example could be, “We are safe, we are solid as a family, and we can get through this, one day at a time” MOST IMPORTANTLY, stop watching too much news!! When you do, have it very structured and stop at least 2hrs before bed!!!
1. Spend Time with Someone you Trust
Let them know you are feeling fearful/afraid and ask them to help you take your mind off of it.
2. Do Something Physical.
Releases tension and shuts your mind off.
3. Come back to the Present Moment
Anytime we can come back to the present moment we are reminded that, “right now I am safe, we are safe, we are OK for right now.” Some examples of things that bring us to the present moment include, a) name five things in the room. “There’s a computer, a chair, a picture of the dog, an old rug, and a coffee mug,”
c) Use your senses and think about what they feel. The desk is hard. The blanket is soft. I can feel the breath coming into my nose.
4. Do Something Creative
Art, music, writing, cooking, gardening, cleaning, or creating beauty, will bring you into the present moment and gives you something more positive to focus
5. Do something Comforting
Anything that makes you laugh. Things, activities that are familiar or remind you of your childhood (e.g. favourite movie growing up, comforting foods)
6. Turn Towards Faith or Spiritual Practice (if you have one)
Often brings comfort and gives you a larger perspective to focus on.
Exploring your Fear with Honesty & Curiosity Why face our fear? Why not just distract ourselves all the time? How does facing our fears help and not make them worse? Facing the fear helps the fear have less control over you. It also highlights which fears you can do something about. This helps minimize feelings of helplessness and loss of control. Facing our fear helps you build trust in yourself to handle whatever life brings your way. You learn that fear most often lives in our mind (connected to the past or future) and ISN’T ACTUALLY HAPPENING RIGHT NOW.
Self-Reflection Exercise #2: What am I most afraid of?
Write a list all of your specific fears:
Fear of…getting really sick,
Fear of…my parents getting sick
Fear of…losing my job
Fear of…being isolated
Fear of…the future
***Writing down your fears DOES NOT MEAN THEY ARE GOING TO HAPPEN. Most of what we are afraid of never happens.
Naming your Feelings
Our emotions need motion. When we can name our feelings we are able to take what is sitting inside our head and heart out. This helps us feel it, and move
through it. It’s important we acknowledge what we go through. We tell ourselves things like, “I feel sad, but I shouldn’t feel that; other people have it worse.” We can — we should — stop at the first feeling. “I feel sad.”
Self-Reflection Exercise #3: Naming your Grief
Write Down all the Losses you are carrying
Loss of…social connection
Loss of…a future that feels predictable and safe
Find a mentor, or counsellor
If you find you are finding it difficult to manage your fear, anxiety and loss it never hurts to reach out to a trusted mentor or counsellor who can help you explore and learn about what you are struggling the most with. When we aren’t alone with our fears they feel less scary. Sometimes when we say them out loud to others we realize they aren’t as menacing as we thought they were.
Engaging with Hope & Inspiration
“Hope is being able to see that there is a light despite all the darkness.”– Desmond Tutu
During these more fearful and uncertain times it is necessary for each of us to find ways to connect to our hopefulness. Often this can be done by thinking about the small things each day that gives us a feeling of hope or inspiration. Something as simple as the beauty in nature, can uplift and inspire. Tributes such as applauding and banging pots and pans every night to nurses, doctors and medical professionals fighting the coronavirus can also offer glimmers of hope. “Showing gratitude and appreciation can help give these workers a much-needed boost to continue working,” says Dr. Boulos. “Giving gratitude also helps individuals feel better and makes this difficult time more bearable as we can see hope at the end of the tunnel.” (http://health.sunnybrook.ca/covid-19-