Overcoming the Fear of Uncertainty in Times of Stress

Mar 26, 2020 6 Min Read
a women gripped by fear
Fear Travels Faster Than Fact In New Unexpected Situations

In the aftermath of the global novel coronavirus outbreak, these unprecedented times provoked a wave of fear that led people to panic buy and to the spread of false information about the virus. Fear travels faster than fact, and in dealing with a new and unexpected health risk, people took to stocking up on food and other essentials, uncertain of how they should deal with the outbreak.

On March 16, Prime Minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin outlined measures to deal with the outbreak during a special address, which included the announcement of a two-week restriction movement order (RMO).

As such measures work to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus and ease the pressure on our healthcare and other essential services, the question remains: In times of distress, what drives us to act out of fear and panic? More importantly, what can we do as individuals to overcome our fear of uncertainty so that we may contribute to our collective well-being and safety?

Dr Gerard Louis, Dean of the Faculty of Behavioral Sciences, Education and Languages at HELP University, is a counselling psychologist with over 30 years’ experience in education, counselling, and training. He believes that the fear of uncertainty arises when too many changes occur in our environment over a short period of time.

“If there are too many changes in a very short period of time without allowing the person sufficient time to adapt to the change, we will experience a sense of disorientation, high levels of stress and possible mental and physical health issues,” said Dr. Louis.

During this global pandemic, which, as of the time of writing (March 23) has recorded 337,469 cases, our mental, emotional and physical resources will be tested and stretched to their fullest. According to Dr. Louis, those with poor coping skills will find these times especially challenging.

He added, “Together with those who are considered high risk because of their age and with predisposing respiratory illnesses, we need to also consider the impact that this period of uncertainty has over these psychologically vulnerable people in the population.”

To alleviate unnecessary stress, Dr. Louis advised that, while we shouldn’t underestimate the seriousness of the COVID-19 coronavirus outbreak, we should follow accurate health advice with urgency, but not do so in panic mode.

Image source: Barcroft Media via Getty Images

To help reduce panic, it’s helpful to understand why we react the way we do so that we become more aware of our tendencies and can take steps to react to difficult situations in a helpful manner.

Read: Analysing Fears is the Best Way to Bring Them Down

Dr. Louis highlighted that while it is normal to feel some sense of stress and anxiety in challenging times, the key is how we respond in light of those emotions. “It is normal to have feelings of anxiety when we perceive a physical or psychological threat to us or to our loved ones,” he said. “We then act instinctively to try to reduce this threat in order to reduce this sense of anxiety.

“However, when we continuously keep thinking about the worst case scenario of the virus, worrying that we will contract it and likely die, and this is reinforced each day on every news and media channel that we turn to, this heightens our sense of anxiety and we then have this panic reaction to normal everyday decisions that we have to make.

“We basically try to increase our sense of control over everything in our lives to help to assure us that we will be okay. The reality however is that there are many things outside of our lives that we have little or no control over.”

He added, “We certainly need to follow the accurate health advisories and instructions on social distancing, but not allow ourselves to obsess further about the threat of the virus by using the time we have to focus our minds and bodies on getting on with learning to adapt and live in enclosed spaces in a creative and fun way.”

Being creative and productive

Dr. Louis offers the following ways that we can spend our time productively during this time:

  • Use the time you have at home to do the things you didn’t have time before to do. For example, catch up on reading, bond with your family, learn to cook, or teach yourself a skill from the millions of YouTube videos available.
  • Catch up on your learning. For example, do a short course on free platforms like Coursera, improve your language skills via free language sites like Duolingo.
  • Reach out to people in the community who are most vulnerable in times like this (e.g. your elderly grandparents). You can call them daily and speak with them, learn all your favourite recipes from them that you never had the time to do before, offer your time to read stories online to the children of friends and relatives.
  • If you love music, connect with a small group of friends and do a virtual jam session or start a group singing session.
  • If you are working remotely from home on weekdays, keep to your regular work hours give you yourself time after that to shut down your devices and engage in other non-electronic activities.
  • Find ways to keep physically healthy when you’re at home by doing your daily Zumba or Tabata exercises. You can find a wide range of exercises and workouts to follow on YouTube.
  • Practice Mindfulness exercises by doing simple relaxation, breathing exercises or meditation.

Dr Louis added, “Remember, social isolation doesn’t mean social disconnection. By making wise use of the technology we have, we can stay connected with loved ones and maintain our health and well-being at the same time. During stressful times, it’s important to be connected, engage our minds, and also have fun. This will help keep our mental health strong and support others who might find this time especially difficult.”

You may also be interested in: Responsible Leadership in a Time of Crisis

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Sandy is a former Leaderonomics editor and is now a freelance writer based in Malaysia, and previously enjoyed 10 years as a journalist and broadcaster in the UK. As editor of www.leaderonomics.com, he has been fortunate to gain valuable insights into what makes us tick, which has deepened his interests in leadership, emotions, mindfulness, and human behaviour.

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