Coronavirus Fear: How to Tame it as Things Return to “Normal”

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As I write this, after sheltering in place for weeks and weeks, I’m on the threshold of being allowed to leave my house—per Tennessee’s governor and the head of my county. But according to the mayor of Chattanooga, where I live, the city’s stay-at-home order does not yet have an end date.

Woman Sitting on Park Bench Wearing Face Mask |

So … I think that means I should expect to keep staying home—although if I drive two miles, which I do for groceries, as permitted, I’m outside Chattanooga’s boundary and can soon roam freely. And if I drive 20 miles, I’m in Georgia, which loosened restrictions today. Confusing. You might be in a similar situation or face it soon. It’s the perfect blend of scary circumstances to induce fear. But what does that really mean for us?

What is fear?

Psychology experts tell us it comes from a perceived threat. I see this as positive, thanks to the word “perceived.” Many negative emotions are rooted in fear, even the mundane “I look awful with this haircut” (fear of ridicule), which is to say: Because it depends on our perception, fear can easily have its way with us.

What causes fear?

When there’s a bona fide reason to be afraid, fear is an essential emotion, “a basic survival mechanism” as University of Minnesota’s Earl E. Bakken Center for Spirituality & Healing explains. It’s part of the whole fight-or-flight bit: great if someone is about to tackle us, but mentally and physically draining if an imminent blow isn’t actually present.

The novel coronavirus falls into a gray zone because some people who have it don’t have symptoms—the presence of a threat isn’t obvious. That makes leaving the certain confines of my house scary.

“When people live in constant fear, whether from physical dangers in their environment or threats they perceive, they can become incapacitated,” according to the Earl E. Bakken Center for Spirituality & Healing.

Given the psychology of fear and that I’m under three layers of somewhat conflicting directives (four, if we include federal guidelines), the best way to get back to some semblance of normalcy involves relying on medical experts, science and data, plus looking at the long run. Of course, I can speak only for myself, but maybe my approach will help you.

Returning to “normal” – weigh pros and cons

Seems lots of people are in desperate need of haircuts and color touch-ups. As it turns out, hair salons are getting clearance to reopen. This is perplexing. It’s impossible to properly distance a client from a stylist—no one’s arms are six feet long. Instead of going to a salon, I’d rather follow a video or pay my stylist for tips on handling my hair myself.

Here’s a trickier dilemma: I teach yoga at a climbing gym, or at least I did until the gym halted classes in mid-March. When classes resume, I could return to doing something I love and make money at it. But yoga involves lots of breath-work. Not great considering the virus is a respiratory illness. I’ll have to see what up-to-the-minute data and science say when I’m tapped to start again, so I can weigh pros versus cons.

Be more cautious than not

I won’t be hugging anyone except my husband for a long while. That’s sad given studies show getting a hug can do wonders for a bad day, and boy are there lots of bad days right now. But it’s also smart.

It’s even smarter to stay more than six feet apart, and I plan to keep doing that when I head out. A covid-19-related study published March 26 in the esteemed JAMA shows respiratory droplets can travel a good 20 feet. At first that freaked me out. Now I consider myself better informed, and I function accordingly.

Knowledge is power, and power helps counteract fear. I’ll keep wearing a mask too, even if I’m not instructed to.

Adopt a distant view

Things are weird. They’ll continue being weird in coming months, despite shops opening and folks returning to parks or beaches. People will still avoid each other in ways that would have seemed offensive prior to the pandemic.

Nobody knows for sure what the future holds, but if I look out over a long horizon—we’re talking years—there’s reason to feel hopeful, based on past traumatic events of massive magnitude (world wars and the economic rebounds that followed, for example). Plus life, if not the universe, abides by contraction and expansion, peaks and troughs, and leaning on the consistency of past millennia is more helpful than fretting over fear.

Mitra Malek’s reporting and writing have appeared in The Washington Post and USA Today, and she is a contributing editor for Yoga Journal.