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Love in the Time of Covid-19: Quarantine Your Fear

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Published in the Humboldt Independent on March 31, 2020

We are living through one of the scariest times in recent history, and humans are not very good at being scared. Experiencing an overwhelming global crisis coupled with the prospect of radical changes to our lives and livelihoods can leave us feeling uncertain or apprehensive at best, and downright terrified at worse. And being the unique little snowflakes we are, we express these feelings through a number of different behaviors. The process of transforming fear into other emotions over time is part of life, but when we are overwhelmed, our poise can falter.

What is fear?

Situations like this pandemic can provoke our fear response, leading to potentially long-term difficulties.

Fear is a chemical consequence of having senses. Within the brain, our thalamus collects sensory information, which is interpreted through the sensory cortex and relayed to the appropriate department: stimuli that evoke memories are sent to the hippocampus, “fight or flight” information is sent to the hypothalamus, and things which provoke fear itself are routed to the amygdalas, which release the hormones that get our heart beating faster, increase our alertness, and generally prepare us for a less than ideal situation. In general terms, there’s a sort of brain circuit made, where the amygdalas are provoked into response based on prior experiences, whereas the “fight or flight” mechanism remains in place for emergencies like the proverbial charging grizzly bears of the world. Broadly speaking, extended or habitual exposure to terrifying things has well-documented effects that have been studied extensively in trauma victims and combat veterans. Situations like this pandemic can provoke our fear response continually as well, leading to potentially long-term difficulties.

And here we are, all sitting at home getting more and more scared. We are bombarded with countless hot takes and breaking statistics about the spread of this pandemic and its consequences for the global economy. Many of us are out of work, or on reduced hours. We’re worried about supplies and logistics and money and we’re given plenty of free time to mull on it without much potential for action. While the future is always uncertain, the relative normalcy of our lives has been disrupted and we don’t know when or if it’s coming back, and in what form.

Staying sane

Staying healthy is one step, but staying sane is another, and that’s what we need to work on right now. Steps can be taken to mitigate this cumulative dread, and we can create our own normalcy when the world is unwilling to provide. Consider your efforts to contain and manage your fear and sanity an equal priority to your efforts to stay healthy and sanitized. With some assistance from our friends at the CDC, the National Institute of Mental Health, and the World Health Organization, here are a few suggestions for activities once worrying starts to lose its charm:

Staying healthy is one step, but staying sane is another, and that’s what we need to work on right now.
  1. Connect. Reach out to friends and family via email, phone call, text message, or video chat. Connection and companionship are natural stress relievers for humans, and even the most curmudgeonly cave dwellers among us need to bump proverbial elbows with someone from time to time. Opening up and sharing experiences reduces the feeling of isolation, and many of us are missing out on our daily dose of civilized discourse.
  2. Exercise. Exercise is known to increase health and happiness in general, and this is a perfect time to start that new workout routine, since you can’t leave the house anyway. Many of us are missing our gym time, but there’s a wealth of fitness related resources available online. Many yoga teachers and fitness instructors are taking their classes online as well, so reach out to your local fitness community and see what’s happening.
  3. List Your Fears. Organizing and prioritizing one’s anxieties might seem to be the last thing you’d want to do in a time like this, but structure and organization can help to make a nebulous swarm of fears something tangible and surmountable. Prioritize them in order of scariness and come up with solutions or courses of action for each one, if possible. This technique is called a “fear ladder” and is a common practice in therapy.
  4. Check Your Facts. There’s plenty of misinformation floating around, and social media has been a predictably egregious source of it. Since you’re on lock down, might as well dust off the old critical thinking glasses and do some research. Learn about viruses, how they spread, and the history of pandemics around the world. The amygdala’s fear response is a bridge between what we know and what we don’t, and so by mitigating the latter and enriching the former, we might even be able to cross off a few items on our fear ladder from the previous step.
  5. Quit That Thing. Cigarettes, booze, lottery tickets…we’ve all got something we ought to not be doing. Now’s a perfect time to take a crack at a healthier lifestyle. You won’t have to worry about snapping at co-workers (or your boss) and the social elements common to many of our less desirable habits have been forcibly derailed.
  6. Go To Sleep. We all need it, and we all have issues with it (except my Dad). If you’re prone to bad sleep habits, boredom is standing by to help you adjust to a more healthy schedule. Avoid the endless panoply of media before bed, let yourself relax and enjoy something not related to the potential downfall of western civilization.
  7. Start That Other Thing. Your garden, your art career, and your dusty piano are all simply elated to learn you’ll be stuck at home indefinitely. Haven’t you been meaning to learn Polish for years now? Shouldn’t you really try learning to meditate? Cross some of those daydreams off your list and throw yourself into a new normalcy of your own design. Welcome a new distraction to blot out the media malaise and focus yourself on something you can do, in the face of all that

Galen Lastko, submitted on behalf of the SoHum Health’s Outreach department.