We are learning to understand that although it only looks like one contagion, in reality, it is two. One of them is the novel coronavirus itself. The second contagion is ancient, more intractable, and even more contagious: human fear, which can spread faster person to person than the coronavirus.
It’s not just a metaphor. Fear changes human behavior, for better and worse. As scientists and doctors fight the virus, the next challenge is managing the main driver of this second pandemic —the spread of fear.
But while we are receiving guidance to protect our physical health, like washing our hands, social distancing, etc., we are being given very little guidance to address our mental and emotional health. The fear pandemic surrounding the coronavirus is global, and while I am not minimizing the seriousness of the virus, fear is making us more susceptible to its potential spread. We need emotional tools to keep our immune systems strong to combat the disease.
A published model of how disease spreads in a population is called the “coupled contagion” model. It includes two contagions: the disease itself, and the other, fear of the disease.
One hundred years ago most humans experienced two distinct waves of the "Spanish flu," separated by just over four months. The second wave of the disease has long been a mystery. It is considered unlikely that the second wave was a new viral strain, produced by mutation. Instead, it’s more likely that the wave was triggered by human behavior, and, in particular, by contagious fear.
Fear is the normal survival instinctive reaction to danger. It allows us to guide our choices and our actions to avoid taking excessive risks for our health and our lives. However, we all don’t have the same sensitivity to danger. Some of us tend to underestimate it and go ahead no matter the risk, while others are much more reserved - some, even paralyzed - by fear.
When we are faced with a life-threatening crisis that has an uncertain outcome, it is natural to feel worried, vigilant, and even panicky. If the crisis cannot be resolved in a reasonable amount of time, we may begin having trouble sleeping, experience headaches, feel tense and nervous, and become subject to other health problems.
The behavioral immune system
Since humans are a social species that evolved to live in large groups, the behavioral immune system modified our interactions with people to minimize the spread of disease, leading to a kind of instinctive social distancing.
It has been found that fear of disease can influence people’s attitudes to immigration. When we fear contagion, we tend to be harsher and less accepting of strangers.
Fear of the unknown
Although psychological stress is not pathogenic per se, the damage it causes to the body’s cells triggers an immune response that makes us more susceptible to a foreign pathogen. Chronic activation of the stress systems can damage our cells and upset many of the body’s immune functions.
Over-worrying about Covid can increase our vulnerability to viruses by creating an imbalance in immune function. This is because the immune system reacts to multiple breaches on immunity, the way that airport security reacts to multiple breaches in safety, by escalating the response. Although it is important to be prepared during this pandemic, we need to avoid panic.
Excessive anxiety about Covid can trigger an immune response that increases inflammation and readies the immune system’s equivalent of special forces. But too much inflammation does more harm than good; it deregulates immune function, increasing our risk of a viral infection.
What can we learn from this situation?
Every challenge has within it the seed of an equal or greater benefit. But before we can experience these benefits, we need to find that seed, nourish it, and let it bloom in our minds. Ask yourself, “What possible gift could there be for me because of this challenge?”
Sometimes, it’s easy to feel that circumstances are greater than we can handle, and that they have the power to control our lives. However, the secret to maintaining unshakeable peace is to realize that we have the power within us to choose presence and happiness. No matter what’s happening around us, we can create harmony with our circumstances, so that we no longer feel like the universe is working against us.
“Every time your fear is invited up, every time you recognize it and smile at it, your fear will lose some of its strength.” Thich Nhat Hanh
Fear is essential to our survival in times of danger and should be followed as a means of taking appropriate action. However, when fear becomes intense and persistent—interfering with daily life—it needs to be addressed. So, what can be done to help mitigate our fears?
Back to the breath!
Usually, anxiety begins with short breaths which cause negative reactions in our body and can become an anxiety attack. Controlling our breathing overcomes these outbreaks. I cannot emphasize enough the power of the breath.
When we’re dealing with fear or anxiety, the first thing to do is take time out for physical activity requiring deep breathing which can help protect the immune system from the effects of stress.
“Deep breathing can help intense situations feel less threatening. Deep breathing brings awareness which will help us breathe mindfully,” said Juli Fraga, a clinical psychologist.
The following protocols demonstrate the power of the breath and how utilizing deep breathing can calm us.
QiGong, TaiChi, Yoga and/or Meditation activate deep breathing and take our minds away from negative thoughts, thus strengthening the immune system. The purpose of Qi is to establish and maintain health.
These practices activate the life force ‘energy’ (Chi or Qi). When Qi flows it brings ‘healthy’ energy to every cell. Qi is like water moving in the body; when water does not flow, it becomes stagnant. Stagnation of Qi is the cause of all disease, circulation of Qi is the cure of all disease. The purpose of Qi is to establish and maintain health. When the Qi is right, the body/mind is right.
The physical activities of walking, jogging, biking, etc., outdoors require not only deep breathing, but also uses our brains differently. These exercises cause our brains to release more of the happy chemicals — the endorphins! This helps switch our fearful thoughts to clearer thinking, overcoming our fear. We can achieve naturally, what many prescription drugs do artificially.
Eleanor Roosevelt said: “You gain strength, courage and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face. You are able to say to yourself, 'I have lived through this horror. I can take the next thing that comes along. You must do the thing you think you cannot do.”
And, then we have John Lennon who sums it up: “There are two basic motivating forces: fear and love. When we are afraid, we pull back from life. When we are in love, we open to all that life has to offer with passion, excitement, and acceptance…Evolution and all hopes for a better world rest in the fearlessness and open-hearted vision of people who embrace life.”
How are we going to allow the ‘fear pandemic’ to affect our lives? That decision is for each one of us to make! Our quality of life depends on it.
(If you have tested positive for the coronavirus or think you may have contracted it, please consult your physician before considering the options above.)
I am not advocating any particular Alternative technique. I ask that you keep in mind that all the information given is just my web research. It is only meant to give you the basic history and knowledge to hopefully whet your desire to learn more by doing your own research. One must do ‘due diligence’, researching more information than I am able to provide here in order to make a knowledgeable, individual and personal decision as to which route to follow.