Fear and Anxiety in a Time of Coronavirus

When you ask a person what the difference between fear and anxiety is, you get a range of answers. Some people will raise subtle differences between the two while others might describe them as the same thing. In the next few sentences, I want to take a moment to talk about fear and anxiety in relation to the current pandemic. Anxiety and fear are different. Fear is directly related to something specific. For example, I am afraid of snakes. Even seeing a Garter snake in my yard will cause me to scream like a little girl, jump up in the air and run away. Anxiety, on the other hand, is “free floating.” It is not attached to anything. Internally, anxiety gives a similar sensation to fear, but the person experiencing anxiety can not put their finger on what is actually causing the feeling. As we look at this current pandemic event going on in the world right now, both fear and anxiety are at play. Obviously, we fear contracting the virus ourselves and the impact to our lives and our health. We also fear our loved ones becoming ill or dying as a result of catching the virus. These are legitimate fears that are based in reality. The response to these fears is to take steps to avoid contracting the virus. In other words, attempt to control what you are able to, while also recognizing that you can’t control everything. In addition to the fears that exist during this time, anxiety is also present. The collective anxiety of us as a nation is best demonstrated by watching the news. Everything is sensationalized and pushed “over the top” contributing to the increase of our individual and collective anxiety. This was manifested in people purchasing obnoxious amounts of toilet paper and hand sanitizer. The truth be told, anxiety is probably doing more damage to our mental health at this time than fear is. There are things that we don’t know. When will this virus trend down? When can the country re-open? Will my job be there when the pandemic deescalates? When will Kroger get more toilet paper? For those of us working in healthcare, there is often the sensation of impending doom. It is as though we know that something is coming, but we are unable to conceptualize or fully prepare for what that might be. As we deal with the fear and anxiety, they rapidly become intertwined with one another and become more and more difficult to separate. They seemingly form a toxic mishmash of negative emotions that robs us of our peace and our sense of being safe. I think that it is important to work to separate our fear from our anxiety. There are somethings that we can control, but there is much outside of our control. In times like these, the words penned in the prayer of theologian Reinhold Niebuhr ring true:

“God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”

In his prayer, Niebuhr is calling us to separate fear and anxiety from one another. He is calling us to work to change and control what we can while also accepting that somethings are outside of our ability to change and we must simply accept those things. Yes, our current societal crisis is fear and anxiety producing, but it will eventually end. We must focus not on the future, but on the present moment which is the only place where we truly have any control. We must trust that we have all of the tools that we need to deal with any situation in this present moment knowing that the culmination of the all of our present moments equate to our future. Control what you can and let the rest go.-

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