Fear and coronavirus (covid 2019)

Life Coaching

I just read that Italy will be placed under lockdown conditions (10 March 2020) because of the outbreak of coronavirus.

I am not a doctor, I cannot assess the danger or risk of the virus or answer the questions “how dangerous is covid19”, “what is the risk of covid19” – and I am jetlagged.

However, I can share some psychological observations that may help explain why we are reacting the way we are reacting – and how it may be possible to turn this into a positive event.

It helps us avoid physical threats and social rejection – which in the time of cavepeople meant… physical death.

Viruses are particularly scary to us because, not only can they kill us, but they can make us contagious to our loved ones (tribe) and thereby not only risk our own exclusion, but risk that we contaminate and decimate our tribe – or that our tribe kills us. We therefore get paranoid about getting sick or about our loved ones getting sick.

We understand “no risk”, “certainty of risk” – or “some risk”. Therefore a 3% mortality rate appears as “too much risk to be comfortable”, even though the risk is unevenly spread: elder people have a much higher risk than younger people.

Apparently, elder people in Italy were asked to take care of their grand children who were sent home from school as the parents had to work. So they all went to the playground, infections spread and many elderly people passed away. So unnecessarily tragic!

Even though we know that… no one knows what will happen, we hope that someone will find out that everything will be ok – or will be terrible – simply to remove the uncertainty. If we have the certainty that something bad will happen, we can brace ourselves and know what to panic about. But now, we have no idea. Even though it is plausible that the fear and stress will make people more vulnerable, we have an unhealthy obsession with finding bad news. And indeed assuming that more news is better than less.

We actually speak about “information”, even though there is not really any information, aside from some rather meaningless statistical facts which we do not know how to analyse, because we do not have access to the full data sets.

This demonstrates also that “more information” is not necessarily “more helpful”.

So what do we do? We get more information (which changes nothing to the risk most of us run). Even with information regarding the risk of travel, for instance, we have no idea what to do with it. In all likelihood, even if someone wanted to catch the virus by travelling to the place with the most sick people and randomly walk around town, it probably would be quite hard to catch it.

But as our brain can’t process probabilities, we still get nervous if an Italian speaking Asian person sneezes.

We do have one certainty: whatever will happen will be different from what we are fearing. Probably very different. Being afraid will not reduce our risk. Washing our hands, taking vitamin C, resting and eating healthy food, on the other hand, will reduce our risk.

Is it the virus? Is it the very low probability that people around us die? Or is it the possibility that people start dying in the near future? Maybe it is death that we really fear. Maybe it is the suffering when a loved one dies, or the suffering of being ill.

Ironically, the more we are afraid, the weaker our body gets and the more likely we are to be ill. Perhaps if we examine these fears and stop being afraid intense sadness, we will lose some of the fear.

We can block any emotion we dislike, but then we lose joy too. Maybe being willing to feel sadness and losing this fear will help us savour life. Our levels of fear will change little to nothing about when it will end – though it may accelerate the end. But our enjoyment and savouring will make it far more worthwhile.

A life lived in fear is not much of a life. A life lived being willing to face all hardships and embrace them sets us free.

We can observe how people react when faced with an unknown danger they cannot really comprehend. We can also wonder “what does this threat prevent them from doing?” – and then ask “why would they not want to do this?”

The obsession with more information keeps our mind busy. From what? Maybe from thinking about our own mortality, and that of our loved ones.

Perhaps this is a good opportunity to consider: if my loved ones got ill and I could not visit them and hug them before they passed away, would I be at peace? Are there any unresolved issues I should address?

Perhaps a lesson is to consider that many things can change quickly. When we worry about a global pandemic, or the stock market losing 7% in a day, or petrol prices dropping incredibly low, or getting quarantined, or never seeing a loved one again, or our friends dying – maybe then we worry less about buying a new pair of shows, upgrading our car, the meal in an airplane.

And maybe when we consider the possible imminence of death, we care less about the stock market or petrol prices.

Adler wrote about “life tasks” and suggested facing them. Maybe we can use this event to remember what is truly important and face as many life tasks as possible. Perhaps one of the greatest ones is putting our life in order so that we can have a peaceful heart when it is time to say goodbye to our loved ones, so we can focus on the pain of losing them and never seeing them again, rather than feel regret or remorse. it is better to forgive the living than the dead, and to apologise to the living than to the dead.

In all likelihood, nothing much will change in the world after this moment of panic – but we can decide to change and improve. After all, we’ve now spent weeks imagining we’re on the brink of the end of humanity, let’s at least make it useful.

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