What if I get the virus? What if someone I love gets this virus? What if the economy never bounces back? Should I go to the grocery store? Am I having a panic attack or a heart attack? Why can’t I think?

We can find ourselves spiraling down a deep dark hole of anxiety and fear when we start asking ourselves these kinds of “what if?” questions, but never pursue the answers. During this especially unsettling time as we grapple with all of the uncertainty brought on by COVID-19, it’s helpful to have a basic understanding of the differences between anxiety and fear and how both can affect us.

Anxiety vs. Fear

Fear

  • is directed toward some concrete, external object or situation that is in the range of possibility (real and imminent)
  • has a focus that is more external than internal
  • affects the whole body

Anxiety

  • is in response to a vague, distant (in the future) or unrecognized danger
  • has a focus that is more internal than external
  • affects the whole body

Note that both fear and anxiety affect the whole body. They do this by creating a fight or flight response. In this response, the brain perceives a threat and gets us ready to either fight or flee from our enemy. As a result, everything increases: blood pressure, heart and breathing rates, and adrenaline and cortisol kick in. Cortisol is the stress hormone. If it is in your system too long, it can cause an immune system drop. Since the brain doesn’t know the difference between real and imagined fears, it will initiate this response, so it’s important to have strategies in place that prevent our brains from going into overdrive.

Managing fear and anxiety

Right now, during this pandemic, it’s important to acknowledge that we are experiencing both fear and anxiety. We do have a real and threatening virus in our midst that we all could get. And the financial implications something like this can hold are very real. Here are some strategies that can help us rein in the worry and keep our brains from responding in ways that are unhealthy:

  • Focus on what is in our control. We can greatly reduce the possibility that we will get this virus by limiting our exposure to other people and by staying home. We can be careful with spending and recognize that many are experiencing similar challenges.
  • Watch how we talk to ourselves. What do we say to ourselves and therefore, hear from ourselves? Instead of using words like always and never, which are rarely true, we can substitute phrases like for now, this is temporary and at this time.
  • Try to answer those “what if?” questions. When we ask “what if,” we go to the future where we have no power, which also creates anxiety. Explore the answers for each “what if” we have. For example, “What if I can’t pay my bills? Then I will borrow money, pay a little on each bill, call the company and negotiate a payment.” Once we have a plan for the worry, then we find our anxiety and fear levels diminish.
  • Practice mindfulness. This is awareness that emerges when we pay attention on purpose, in the present moment, in a nonjudgmental way to an experience moment-by-moment. This includes breathing techniques, meditation, and just the practice of staying in the "now" through awareness of our surroundings. Mindfulness is proven to reduce anxiety, elevate mood, and lower blood pressure, heart rate and breathing rate. By practicing breathing techniques every day, we’re better able to draw on these skills during times of stress.
  • Retreat to writing. Constructing a peaceful scene in writing can help reduce anxiety. The scene should incorporate as many of the senses as possible. What does the place look like? What can we feel, smell, see or hear? Who is with us? What emotions do we feel as we insert ourselves into the scene?
  • Try Yoga. Yoga requires that we be in the present moment and breathe correctly for each pose. There is usually a guided meditation at the end. Some people who have trouble with meditation prefer the activity of yoga.
  • Get outside and enjoy nature. Listen for different bird sounds, notice the temperature, and be aware of signs of seasonal changes and other things we might not notice when we are busily going about our day.

While all of these tools may not work for everyone, simply being aware that there are ways to minimize fear and anxiety can be helpful. Finding the best strategies that work during stressful times like the present will leave us armed to better manage everyday worry and anxiety as well.

About the Author

Connie Fisher is the Director of Mental Health Promotion for Mental Health America of Eastern Missouri.  She is a licensed clinical social worker with 26+ years private practice experience.  Connie has presented numerous workshops on a variety of mental health topics including stress management, burnout, compassion fatigue and resilience.  In addition, Connie has 16 years of experience as an Adjunct Professor teaching a variety of courses on psychology, social work and human services.