There is a significant amount of fear and worry over the recent developments surrounding the coronavirus (COVID-19), primarily because of the unknown factors associated with this virus.
High levels of anxiety are not uncommon during periods of uncertainty. It is essential that you do not allow your imagination to run wild. It will feed fear, create more distress and eventually lead to fear-based behavior. Real data and evidence are critical in challenging irrational beliefs that fuel fear. Whether that fear is real or imagined, it still evokes the same psychological and physiological response.

How do we discern between what is real and what is imagined? Because there are so many unknowns surrounding the coronavirus, it becomes difficult to feel emotionally and physically safe. In essence, we are all struggling with not being in control. Remember, control gives us a sense of safety and reassurance.

So what can you do to reassure yourself that you are going to be okay? It is important to plan and prepare and not catastrophize the situation. There are some news stations that promote fear and worry. I would recommend that you limit your exposure to those news channels. We want to stay in-formed; we want to plan and not react.

Physiological response to a real or imagined threat

When a perceived threat to one’s safety occurs, the brain’s fear center, the amygdala, sends a 9-1-1 call to other brain structures, which then notify the body to prepare for a fight-or-flight response. The body does exactly that by activating the following internal responses:

  • The heart begins to pump faster sending more blood into the fighting muscles of your body.
  • Breathing becomes faster sending more oxygen to your muscles.
  • Your pupils begin to dilate to increase your range of vision.

You may begin to feel faint, dizzy or unsteady. As a result of changes in blood flow, nausea, diarrhea and stomach discomfort result from blood moving away from your digestive system. Accompanying this change is an increase in blood pressure and a sudden burst of adrenaline. These are just some of the symptoms we may experience when danger is either real or imagined.

Psychological reaction to threat

When our brain short-circuits, we can experience this response when there is not a real or perceived threat to our safety. This response by the brain center is so fast that before the conscious mind can smell or touch anything, or before you even know you are afraid, you already are. Fear is often described in the same sentence as anxiety. Although they are different and distinct emotions, they are brothers and cousins to stress and depression and reside in the same emotional family. Once you invite one in, the others more often than not will join. They may also bring along their friends — worry and self-doubt — to join the party.

Once in their grips, you’re in for one heck of an experience. Panic often occurs along with anticipatory anxiety, which together create a heightened state of terror.

With many uncertainties facing all of us today, in particular the most recent concern surrounding COVID-19, change is not merely a concept; it is an ongoing phenomenon we all face.

The real question is: How well am I handling the current situation today? Fear does not discriminate; it doesn’t care who you are and where you come from. You can invite it into your life, or it can come unannounced. When fear comes un-announced, it may often bring its twin brother — terror — in an attempt to create panic. When fear is in your life, it will in-fluence everything you think and do. In her book, “Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway,” Dr. Susan Jeffers describes an exciting journey out of the grips of fear. As Dr. Jeffers writes, “Until you fully understand that you and no one else creates what goes on in your head, you will never be in control of your life.”

In his book, “A Man’s Search for Meaning,” Viktor Frankl writes, “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space lies your freedom and power to choose your response. In those responses lie your growth and your happiness.”

It is important to remember that you always have a choice about how to respond to and deal with any situation, as well as the fear that may accompany that experience. You can become emotionally paralyzed, fall apart, buy all the toilet paper, canned goods and water; or you can wrestle with it, accept it, or work through it. Eventually, you will have to surrender and accept your circumstances if you are going to move through your fear. It is also helpful to know that you can make choices throughout the process based upon new information. Change is incremental and requires a series of decisions and choices.

Be smart. Be prepared. Take precautions.

Former law enforcement officer Dr. Michael Bizzarro is the clinical director of first responder treatment services for Penn Medicine Princeton House Behavioral Health.