Guidelines to help adults and children cope with corona-virus fear and anxiety
By Psychotherapist Yaakov Barr (MSc, PG Dip, accred)
It’s the news story that is shaking the world and it is affecting everyone on a scale that has never been seen before. It’s also causing a huge amount of anxiety and fear. The sensational headlines are spreading panic around the world and many are being affected emotionally with crippling health anxiety and excessive fears over germs and contamination.
Here are some guidelines that can help you and your child overcome corona-virus fear.
1. Take a step back from the news
Yes, we like to stay informed, but do we really need to be kept abreast of every fatality as it happens? Being glued to every news report or article discussing the virus might make you a corona expert but it will also fuel and feed your fears. A lot of the journalism today is sensationalist and headlines are deliberately aimed at causing panic and hysteria. Anything that is important for you to know you will find out without the graphic minute by minute reports.
2. Keeping safe in a healthy way
It’s a normal reaction that if you are fearful of something you will try to keep safe by doing whatever you can to avoid it. In psychology there is a concept called “avoidance coping,” which means that avoiding things unnecessarily, actually causes us more anxiety. For example, if you are scared of dogs and started avoiding going to parks and then avoid any public spaces because there might be a dog, is your fear of dogs going to get better or worse? Every time we avoid something, we send a danger alert to the brain. If we are sending too many unnecessary danger alerts then our brain reacts as if we are in a perpetual state of danger. So instead of making up your own avoidances, stick to the guidelines and rules imposed by your health authority. The stories of people fighting for toilet paper rolls in supermarkets demonstrate what unnecessary fear does. Ask yourself if what you are doing to keep safe is sensible or if is it anxiety driven? Buying crates of bottled water (no one has ever suggested that the virus will affect the water) and walking around with a hand sanitizer in each pocket are sure signs of anxiety.
3. Avoid fear-mongers
Fear fuels fear. You will see people displaying all sorts of strange behaviours in their bid to avoid getting the virus. A lot of it is nonsense, like my taxi driver who was wearing a mask and gloves but was then busy rubbing his eyes after he handled the money in his pocket! The more you spend time around those who almost get a sense of comfort from catastrophizing and talking about doomsday scenarios the more their anxieties will rub off on you. Just as you will do your best to minimise your risk of exposure to the virus, you need to do the same with people who fuel your stress.
4. Guiding children
a) Children absorb what they see around them. It is vital that parents understand the difference between normal and excessive precautions. Your aim as parents is to model the “safe but not excessively safe approach”, so children can learn how to keep safe without intensifying their anxiety.
b) It’s a scary time for everyone, but pretending nothing is happening is not going to alleviate a child’s anxiety. They will be aware of what’s going on, so if you don’t talk to them about it they will instead believe the “fake news.” Talk to them calmly and patiently using age appropriate language about what is happening and reassure them about why they don’t need to worry. Be willing to answer their questions and encourage them to speak up if they have any further worries.
c) Kids often feel safe with rituals and naturally more anxious children will tend to resort to various rituals and obsessive behaviours in the hope of protecting themselves from the virus. These can quickly increase and cause much distress to a child. So look out for:
- excessive hand washing and other hygiene behaviours,
- excessive avoidances of people/places
- constantly checking their health and that of other family members
- being overly particular in saying the words of davening (prayer) or doing certain mitsvos (commandements)
- taking on unrealistic resolutions (kabolos)
- asking for constant reassurance
The earlier you identify the anxiety signs, the easier it is to work with the child to reduce their unhealthy behaviours. Sometimes you will need professional help to guide you in helping your child. Many schools have their own counsellors or, if not, can refer you to an appropriate professional.
6. It’s OK not to feel OK
Uncertainty is the root cause of anxiety and, in the current chaotic situation there has never been greater uncertainty. It’s normal to be feeling panicky and vulnerable so instead of denying and suppressing your feelings, make space for them and allow them to be there. We have to be Ok with not feeling Ok. We don’t know how everything is going to unfold, but we do know that Hashem is looking after us. This is our certainty and it is to the One Above where we should place our trust. Remember every time you wash your hands, remember whose Hands you are in!”
7. Take recommended precautions
Most viruses – coronavirus included – are spread through everyday contact, such as a cough, sneeze or touch. Do your utmost to avoid close contact with those who are not well and do your best to practice good (but not obsessive) hygiene habits, such as washing your hands thoroughly before eating and not touching your face. Keeping your immune system healthy and happy is important too, through eating a balanced diet, regular exercise and getting a good night’s sleep.
8. I need help
True strength is being able to admit that you are suffering and need help. Have the courage to reach out and ask for support from those who can help you. If you are struggling to cope, consult with your GP and other mental health professionals so they can advise you on what you can do to reduce your anxiety.