Uncertainty and second-guessing are part of the human condition. While the anxiety they engender “feels dreadful,” she stresses, “unlike denial and underreacting, you will not die from it.”
Identify the source(s) of your anxiety.
We are hard-wired for a fight-or-flight response. “The greater the simmering anxiety,” Dr. Lerner explains, “the more you will see individuals stuck in fighting and blaming on one hand, or distancing and cutting off on the other.” This is normal, she says, but if we can identify our anxiety-driven reactivity, “we can get some distance from it, rather than being propelled into action before we have calmed down enough to do our best thinking.”
Refrain from shaming and blaming.
When survival anxiety is high and goods feel scarce, it’s easy to blame or scapegoat others, forgetting that we are all in this together. “Our target may be a particular group or an individual, like the woman who sneezes in line in front of us,” Dr. Lerner says, “which leads to a lack of recognition that humans are more alike than different.”
While we can’t fully eradicate our fears, “we can work to understand how anxiety operates and how it affects us — for better and for worse.” Anxiety, she explains can be useful when it signals a problem and motivates us to unite to solve it. “If we make a deliberate effort to hold onto our humanity, it can bring us together.”
Don’t be afraid to ask for help.
Now is the time to turn toward each other. “We are here to help each other out,” Dr. Lerner reminds us, “so avoid being a do-it-yourselfer when you’re not qualified. Grab some other clear-thinking person to ask what she thinks or what he would do about stockpiling food, or taking that plane trip, or talking to little Billy about what’s going on with grandma in the hospital and his school being closed. You may choose not to follow the advice you seek, but it’s essential to have other perspectives.”
Don’t procrastinate about preparing for the worst.
Anxiety, Dr. Lerner says, can push us to under- or overreact: “So we either engage in compulsive hand washing or we do the opposite and act like the germ theory doesn’t apply to us.” And this anxiety, she says, will mount if we postpone or ignore expert counsel: “Passivity and inaction will make fear grow.” So, instead of giving up and saying, “I can’t keep my hands off my face,” Dr. Lerner suggests we trust our capacity to make necessary changes, recognize where we have agency and take common sense, precautionary measures now. “If you haven’t done your best to get a couple of extra weeks’ supply of food or medication, do it today. If you feel frozen, ask a buddy to push you to act and help you make wise decisions about how much you need of what.”
Connect, connect, connect.
Social distancing and mandates to shelter in place may require us to stay in our homes, but that doesn’t mean we have to isolate. “It’s essential to stay in communication with family, friends, neighbors and other resources,” Dr. Lerner says, “and find ways to keep calm. Use the phone, text, email — all means possible — to stay connected to friends, neighbors, your adult children, anyone who matters to you. Especially those who induce a sense of calm rather than chaos. People need to hear your voice — and vice versa.”