Experiencing fear is not new for individuals and families experiencing illness. But fear arising during this worldwide COVID-19 pandemic is new. It is family nurses’ moment to assist individuals/families with how to address and alter fears that arise during this time of social-distancing or self-quarantine.
But what if nurses themselves are at home in either social-distancing or self-quarantine? These fears, even for nurses, can become contagious within and between families and friends and dominate their thinking. When unchecked these fears can lead to unnecessary suffering. Fear is usually experienced as an unpleasant emotion triggered by a constraining belief (Wright & Bell, 2009) that something unwelcome is about to happen, or something is dangerous, or the safety of someone is threatened. Paradoxically, the more we resist what is happening to us, the more fearful we become, and the more we suffer.
I am writing this blog on March 31, 2020, on day #14 of self-quarantine in my home in Calgary, Canada following my recent international travel to Colombia. During my quarantine, I have listened to the many press conferences on our national television and each day I learn of the worsening conditions of this virus in Canada and the world. With every passing day, and perhaps because I live alone, I began to experience minuscule, micro-fears. It is not my nature to be a worrier. I usually tend to be an optimistic and positive person, but some days during this quarantine it was becoming more difficult to keep fear away from the door. One of my fears was actually comical if not ridiculous.
The most comical fear during my two weeks of self-quarantine was my belief that popcorn might not be available at the grocery store when my quarantine was over and that it might leave the planet for good. I could not stop thinking about popcorn, desiring it, or imagining the taste of it. Some lovely friends shopped for groceries for me during my quarantine and of course popcorn was on my grocery list. When the groceries were left outside my door, I excitedly looked for the popcorn. What? It wasn’t there! Immediately, I called my friends and said, “There’s no popcorn in the grocery bag”. They had forgotten it and kindly made a quick stop to a store and returned with the treasured popcorn. Within 10 minutes of receiving the popcorn, I was enjoying it. Perhaps my popcorn fear was my distraction from COVID-19 news. But it caused unnecessary fretting and worry about such a trivial thing as popcorn.
Because of my trivial “popcorn fear”, I am not judgmental of others’ fears during periods of social-distancing or quarantine. It reminded me of one of the great lessons I have learned in clinical practice, that we can never compare or judge another person’s or family’s suffering as it influences our compassion (Wright, 2017). We must also never judge or ridicule one another’s fears at this time.
During this past two weeks, I have listened to a whole range of fears from friends, family, and clients/families. Worries about not having a haircut for several weeks or a manicure; or not being able to get fresh fruit; or and the proverbial worry of running out of toilet paper. Of course there are the more serious fears being expressed by parents having to home school their children; teenagers worried they will have lost some friends when they return to school; university students worried about what will happen to their academic term; elderly concerned that they may never again be able to plant their garden; and deep worries about not being able to visit an elderly parent who is very ill or worse yet dying (Wright, 2019); not being able to pay their rent; and pervasive fears about losing livelihoods and businesses. All of these fears are valid.
It’s fascinating that so far, I have not heard one person who is self-isolating or in quarantine directly express any fear of actually contracting the novel coronavirus. Maybe they are keeping this fear to themselves or maybe this fear seems to be reserved for those marvellous, heroic, and angel nurses and doctors working on the front lines who are in direct patient contact with those who have been diagnosed with COVID-19. Individuals and families who are self-isolating seem to be more anxious about how COVID-19 has or will impact their lives. I also have not heard of anyone else who has experienced the “popcorn fear” while in self-isolation, but maybe some secretly do. Our fears at this moment in time highlight that we are the benefactors and victims of our first-world society.
How to Conquer Fear While Being Self-Quarantined or Social-Distancing
Here are a few useful ideas I have found most effective for myself and that I have offered to family members, friends, and clients/families to feel less fearful and anxious and to live more peacefully while we adhere to the social distancing and self-quarantine policies of our respective governments and public health officials.
1. We do not have to believe all our thoughts…especially those that are fear-based.
The brain has a negativity bias as we have learned from brain science (Wright, 2015a). The amygdala is activated by both positive and negative emotional experiences but it registers fearful experiences more than positive ones. During this pandemic, our brains seem like they are working overtime in conjuring up fears. When we believe our fears, we open the door to all its companions like discouragement, anger, frustration, and disappointment. These inevitably lead to suffering as our constraining beliefs become more locked in, more rigid. The key to managing our fears is to calm the amygdala. Optimism, hope, and courage come from a heart and brain not burdened by fears.
2. Feel your fears.
Notice what they are and bring them into your awareness. With awareness about what is happening in your mind, comes freedom. Ask yourself “Why am I making myself fearful by thinking that?” It is your thought forms that make you fearful. With awareness, your fears serve no useful purpose. Your fears are only in your imagination of the events that have not even happened as yet. The way to move away from fearful thinking is to bring your attention to something else, to feel your inner body.
When I offer workshops and/or lectures to health professionals, I like to illustrate being in the present moment and experiencing the inner body by having participants sit upright in their chairs, close their eyes, and focus on their breathing, in and out. We focus on our breathing for usually just 30-60 seconds. But it beautifully illustrates the biological impossibility of thinking thoughts when we are attuned to our inner body. It also illustrates how we can stop fearful thinking in its track.
Another sterling example of how to stop the thoughts that encompass fears is to focus on the energy field in your hands. Often fears come out more strongly in the middle of the night and this is a particularly good practice to calm fears. First, close your eyes. Focus on your hands. Can you feel them? It is usually possible to feel some energy or stimulation in your hands. And as your feel your hands, your alertness is taken away from your fearful thoughts. You can also apply the same focus on your feet, your legs, and eventually your breathing. As you engage in this exercise your thinking activity will subside, almost completely. Your consciousness has now moved from your conceptualizing mind to your inner body.
3. Talking is healing (Wright & Bell, 2009).
We are constantly being reminded these days to practice physical distance (the now famous 2-meter distance) but to remain socially connected. Yes, daily phone calls, emails, and texting is healing, if we take the opportunity to express our fears and worries to trusted family members, friends, and/or health professionals. Being vulnerable increases our courage (Brown, 2011). Expressing our fears, serious or trivial, can invite healing and a more peaceful mind and spirit.
4. Give yourself and others permission to give up the idea of forward progress.
While self-isolating many time management experts are advising a strict schedule to reduce anxiety and fears. But I recommend an odd day/even day ritual as another intervention on ourselves to manage our fears (Wright & Bell, 2009; Wright & Leahey, 2013). On even days, create a schedule for working, eating, exercising, and decreasing your news watching and increasing your connections with family, friends, and colleagues. But on odd days, I recommend binge-watching Netflix; tune in to as many news conferences you desire, stay in your jammies all day; purchase something on Amazon; join a singing group on YouTube; Google and learn about the first place you will visit when this virus has ended its terrifying days. On the seventh day, be spontaneous and choose either a scheduled or non-scheduled day. Realize these are times to allow ourselves to be hugely human. Then evaluate what works best for you, scheduled or non-scheduled days or a little of both.
5. Do not resist “what is”.
The “what is” is that we are in the most severe worldwide pandemic of our lifetime. The now familiar words of “unprecedented and unbelievable” are sadly true. This virus is affecting every aspect of our lives and relationships. But if one can primarily live within the present moment when in social-distancing or self-quarantine, accepting “what is”, rather than focusing on the past or future and challenge any constraining beliefs, there is no fear or suffering. If action needs to be taken with a particular issue with regard to managing our fear and worries, the idea or inspiration for solutions will come from a peaceful state rather than one of suffering and angst. This may sound idealistic, but I have witnessed this in my own clinical practice and life but did not previously conceptualize how resistance is such a large part of the experience of fears and suffering related to one’s constraining beliefs. Resistance stifles inspiration (Wright, 2015b) and we need all the inspiration possible to deal with this destructive and devastating virus.
In conclusion, a shout out to all nurses around the world who are conquering their fears every day, especially those who are in direct patient contact with those suffering with COVID-19. For those of us only being asked to self-distance or self-quarantine, we can conquer our fears too. Finally, for those who appreciate the wisdom and comfort of ancient scripture, you may like 2 Timothy 1:7 “For God hath not given us the spirit of fear: but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind”. Now go and make some popcorn!
Brown, B. (2011). Daring greatly: How the courage to be vulnerable transforms the way we live, love, parent, and lead. Penguin Random House.
Wright, L.M. (2015a). Brain science and illness beliefs: An unexpected explanation of the healing power of therapeutic conversations and the family interventions that matter. Journal of Family Nursing, 21(2),186-205.https://doi.org/10.1177/1074840715575822
Wright, L.M. (2015b). Eckhart Tolle’s spiritual words of wisdom: Application to family nursing practice [Guest Editorial]. Journal of Family Nursing, 21(4), 503-507. https://doi.org/10.1177/1074840715606244
Wright, L.M. (2019). Older adults and their families: An interactional intervention that brings forth love and softens suffering. Journal of Family Nursing, 25(4), 610-626. https://doi.org/10.1177/1074840719864093
Wright, L.M. (2017). Suffering and spirituality: The path to illness healing. 4th Floor Press.
Wright, L.M., & Bell, J.M. (2009). Beliefs and illness: A model for healing. 4th Floor Press.