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Support In A Pandemic - Engaging Fear And Worry

by Dr Christina Baird PhD, Founder and Director of Bread & Pomegranates, is a psychologist, coach and professional supervisor helping people to critically reflect, explore the future and respond creatively through one-on-one sessions and group reflective learning opportunities.

This article was originally published by Missions Interlink in the April 2020 Bulletin. For more information on the work of Missions Interlink, and to sign up for their monthly bulletin, please visit missions.org.nz 

You may have noticed an increase in people’s fear and worry in the face of the Covid-19 pandemic. When we face something this large and this unknown it is natural for people to be scared and worried.

Here are some strategies that you can use to support people who are trying to cope with their fears and worries. In a nutshell: express sympathy, help them to soothe their own feelings, encourage them to be specific about their worries and help them strategise how to manage things that remain in their control.

SYMPATHISE

Respond to the emotion that is behind whatever is being expressed, rather than the details that are given. If someone says they think schools should be closed now, rather than debating that, say something like, "it sounds like you are really worried about your children getting sick". Then normalise the fear and worry that you notice, “It is really natural to be concerned and worried right now, those worries are a normal part of facing danger.” Encourage the person you are working with to explore their feelings and allow them to be, as a natural response to a changing world. Ask if they have any kind friends or family members they can talk to, or suggest they journal or draw about their feelings as a way of accepting them as a normal response. You may also like to enquire about any past trauma or anxiety disorders that may be being exacerbated by the current situation, and encourage them to seek appropriate help with them.

SOOTHE

Living with constant worry, concerns and fears puts our physiology into heightened alertness. It is important that the person you are supporting has strategies to calm (or regulate) their body and mind so that they are able to have some time when they are switching off. You are probably familiar with the fight or flight system that our bodies have, but they also come with soothing systems that help us wind down from the fight or flight response. One of the key ways to activate the soothing system is through affection and bonding with others (this releases oxytocin and other soothing neurochemicals). Encourage the person you are working with to identify a family member or friend who makes them feel safe, connected and loved. They may need to develop strategies for how they will remain in contact with them. At this time when we are being encouraged not to touch others, it can be useful to know that we can use soothing touch to calm ourselves. This can be as simple as giving ourselves a hug or placing our hand on our heart. Talk to the worried person about ways to calm their body too. Activities like prayer, meditation, mindfulness and singing all have calming effects. Breathing exercises are particularly effective, these should be slow and even, deep abdominal breaths, and the out-breath should be longer than the in-breath like a deep sigh.

SPECIFY

People tend to express a vague and amorphous sense of dread. I suspect that some of it is grief that their expectations of safety and how the world works have been turned upside down, but often they can’t articulate that yet. Help them to become more curious about their fear and worry, ask them to specify what it is exactly that worries them. You may say something like “there are so many things to be worried about in this situation, is there something specific that you are afraid or concerned about?"

If you have the time you can gently explore with them what their two or three most pressing worries are.

STRATEGISE

The most stressful situations are ones that are unpredictable and out of our control. When someone is stressed and worried, it can be helpful to assist them to identify things that they can control. Prompt them to make plans and to prepare for things that they might be worried about. Empowering them to take action on the things that remain in their control can help them regain a sense of agency that strengthens them in the face of their worries. Reinforce that no matter how uncertain the world becomes, their behaviour is still within their control. They can still take action in line with their beliefs, values and principles and they can still take action to improve their well-being. If you notice that the person you are working with is very stressed and anxious about all the COVID-19 related information (and misinformation) suggest to them that they limit the media that they consume. Sticking to 1 or 2 reliable sources once or twice a day may be an action they can take to improve their well-being. Finally, it can be helpful to remind the people you help that, on the whole, people are resourceful, adaptable and resilient and that the majority of people cope with disaster remarkably well— coming through it stronger and with a greater sense of who they are and what is important to them. Reassure them that they too can be resourceful, adaptable and resilient, and they will have surprising abilities to cope with whatever they face in the coming days.

Christina Baird can be contacted for virtual appointments by email at: christina@breadandpomegranates.com