COVID – 19: Beyond Handwashing

Navigating Uncertainty and Fear

This post was originally published March 15, 2020, and I believe we can use a bit of a refresher after 3 months of living with Coronavirus. Thanks for reading!

The Coronavirus continues to dominate headlines all over the world. Most, if not all of us, know the basic protocol regarding handwashing, coughing and sneezing, disinfecting surfaces, eliminating handshaking, etc. See www. CDC.GOV for up to the minute complete information.

Yes, we need to be informed and knowledge is power… BUT it is also critical to realize that our attitudes and stress levels greatly impact our ability to optimize our immune system and resist infections.

Is our fear of this virus as concerning as the virus itself?

I do not want to minimize the risks here, yet it’s so important to realize that there are many factors contributing to our tendency to panic as the virus spreads.

David Ropeik, an expert on risk perception and communication, tells us that there are a number of psychological reasons why the Coronavirus crisis is triggering our fears a lot more than the flu.

 COVID-19, this novel Coronavirus, is NEW.   “When something is new, we don’t know all of what we need to know to protect ourselves, and that feels like powerlessness. And that’s what makes it scary,” Ropeik said.

A lack of control is another important factor influencing our heightened fear response. Most of us aren’t scared of driving, despite the risk of a fatal traffic accident, because we feel like we’re in control behind the wheel.

Our lifetime odds of dying in a car crash are about one in 100, according to the US National Safety Council, and the odds of dying as an airplane passenger is about one in 188,000. Yet fear of flying is more prevalent because passengers have no control over the flight itself.

Our current lack of control is very apparent and very disturbing. For example, we know we should avoid sick people; yet it appears that the virus can be spread by those who exhibit no symptoms.

So we continue to feel helpless as stress hormones begin to flood our systems. When we remain in this state of stress for hours, days, weeks or longer our immune systems become compromised affecting our natural ability to heal.

From David Hanscom, M.D.:”..fears that continue to escalate in the U.S. must be addressed and mitigated in order to allow our immune systems to operate at maximum efficiency.

…Anxiety is a normal and essential physiological response to a threat–whether it is mental or physical. It is the sensation generated by your elevated stress hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol…

Short-term anxiety is useful and necessary to escape danger. It is when the elevations of these hormones are sustained, that your immune system is compromised…Unfortunately, since humans can’t escape their thoughts, all of us are subject to sustained elevations of these chemicals.

Remember, anxiety is not the cause of the elevation but a reflection of a fired up nervous system on alert. So, paradoxically, the legitimate and sustained anxiety about the Coronavirus epidemic, compromises your body’s ability to fight it.”

Here are some TIPS TO BUILD IMMUNITY AND EASE FEAR

TIP #1: STAY CONNECTED

Humans are hard wired to connect. Although we are currently limiting our physical exposure to others, a phone call or Skype session with a trusted friend can help to diffuse fear. When we express our fears, we decrease inflammatory and stress markers while boosting the immune system.

TIP #2: TAKE BREATH BREAKS

Slow, controlled breathing mediates stress circuits and catastrophic thinking. It quickly shifts us into a mindful space that opens us to calm and peacefulness. This simple practice acts rapidly to calm the stress response.

Sit upright in a comfortable position, with your feet flat on the floor, your spine straight and your chin parallel to the floor. Breathe in slowly through the nose allowing the breath to expand your low belly and exhale slowly through pursed lips like breathing out through a straw. This slows the breathing significantly. You’ll notice that after you release all the air, there is a delay before the next natural breath. Allow the rhythm to evolve naturally while continuing to breathe in a relaxed manner. A few minutes of this breathing will calm your fear circuits as you become more present. Two to ten minutes is great.

TIP #3: EASE FEAR

When we are faced with the unknown and have no idea what to expect, our natural human response is fear. Our brains shift into a protective mode focused on catastrophic predictions and worry. When we simply STOP and notice and name our mind activity, we begin to detach from and tame the stress response.

Let’s practice focusing on all of the little things happening around us that bring moments of joy and affirmation our way – the birds singing, the sun shining, smiles and laughter, our favorite music, cuddling our baby, lover or pet, a hot beverage on a cold day, etc. Savor these moments for 10 to 20 seconds and begin to create better health. As the body shifts into relaxation mode, our immune system strengthens.

TIP #4: GO OUTSIDE

Create opportunities to get out in nature even if it’s just gazing up at the sky for a bit. A short stroll or energetic walk outdoors expands our perspective and calms the brain’s worry center.

TIP #5:  EXPRESSIVE WRITING

Writing or journaling about an issue separates us from our thoughts. It results in our brain developing new circuitry that helps calm the nervous system. Simply write freely about your thoughts and feelings uncensored for 10 to 20 minutes.

As we navigate this challenging time, let’s turn our attention to these profound words from Martha Beck:

“Bring yourself fully into this moment, right now. Enjoy life now. Love freely now. Trust the Force now. We can never cope with what is not now, but we can always cope with now.”

 And always remember – YOU hold the key,

Elaine

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