In the coming weeks we might all be able to start returning to pre-COVID-19 activities. But how do we feel about that? Are we anxious about possibly exposing ourselves to risks we don't fully understand? We have been told ‘staying home = being safe’ and because our brain is good at making associations, we might easily find ourselves thinking ‘going out = unsafe’. This could understandably lead to a level of fear and anxiety. But how might this fear hinder us?
Fear stops us from doing things. Simple. At times this keeps us alive. Fear of falling to our death keeps us away from the cliff edges. Fear of burning ourselves stops us reaching into the firepit to rescue the marshmallow that has fallen off the stick. But sometimes our thoughts tell our brain that the danger is bigger than it really is. But we get the same ‘Don’t do it’ message from our brain and so we avoid it. We might think ‘the spider will eat me’, so our brain says, ‘Well don’t go in the shed then’. We then get a lovely, comfy sense of relief at not having had to face that fear. But this is like rewarding a child for not doing homework they believed was too hard, and they feared they would fail.
- Pupil: ‘Sir, I’ve not done my homework because it was too hard.’
- Teacher: ‘Well done, by not doing it you did not fail, here’s a star sticker for not failing’.
Do you see how this pans out? We learn that the ‘not doing’ is the solution to the fear. But this keeps us very stuck and the fear untested.
Susan Jeffers wrote a book called ‘Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway’, it’s a great book, I recommend reading the whole thing, but if nothing else read the title. It is crucial to acknowledge that we must feel some fear to overcome anxieties. We cannot simply say to our brain, ‘Don’t listen to my thought about the spider eating me, this isn’t true, you live in England you wally’ and then expect to be able to trot into the shed with no anxiety or trepidation. The brain is our survival, risk assessing machine. Put it into a situation that might be dangerous, and it will respond by prepping our bodies to deal with the threat. Fight and flight fuelled by adrenaline kicks in, the heart beats faster, palms get sweaty. You know the feeling. But we can work on gently showing our brain that we are ok, that some of our fears are out of proportion. We can re-educate it. Start by recognising the fear and what a more rational thought about the situation might be. Then devise a plan to face the fear in a step by step way. With each step our brain will learn that the fear response is not needed in that situation and we’ll then be ready to take the next step. You can use the sheet linked at the bottom of the blog as a template to set out your fear facing steps. I can now go into my shed, I still don’t like spiders but I’ve learnt I can be ok near them and my brain has stopped sending the ‘don’t go in there’ message and has stopped triggering adrenaline and fight and flight whenever I see one. But it took a while.
We might feel fear about getting back to activities we have stopped doing because of COVID- 19. Some things might take longer for us to be allowed to do and we shouldn’t go against government advice and rules. But once we are given the all clear to do things such as using buses, going to work, going to school, simply being out of the house more and all those things we used to do with no thought of danger, we might feel some fear. But not returning to activities we have been told we can do and want to do is not the answer. Be kind to yourself while your brain unlearns the fear and relearns ‘this is ok’. Take it a step at a time. Don’t jump in at the deep end if that feels too scary. And reward yourself for facing the fear, give yourself a pat on the back, or maybe even a star sticker. (Picture by daniel-thiele and stephane-mingot from unsplash)