“The only thing we have to fear is fear itself,” said Franklin D. Roosevelt during his inauguration address in 1933.
I agree… and disagree.
Fear is the singular greatest barrier we must overcome to thrive and rise in our lives. However, fear also serves a crucial purpose.
It alerts us to potential threats to our safety. Yet when fear starts running rampant, we have to be extra vigilant to discern between those fears which are serving us from those which are just stressing us out and keeping us from making smarter decisions, taking better actions and keeping our cool (particularly when others have lost theirs).
I write this now in Singapore, where, I’m pleased to report, the supermarket shelves have been restocked since coronavirus-induced panic buying wiped many clean last Saturday.
Not because there was any real threat of Singapore running out of food. Rather because for many in Singapore, memories of SARS firmly etched in their minds, automatically catastrophized worst-case scenarios when the government raised the threat level from coronavirus to “code orange” last Friday.
Fear does that. It hijacks our imaginations and discards facts. Or at least focuses only on those facts that justify alarm.
As Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong shared in a measured and reassuring video message to a Singaporeans on the weekend, “We are psychologically better prepared [than for SARS.] Singaporeans know what to expect, and how to react.”
Of course, no-one denies the dangers of coronavirus or the toll it’s already taken on human life. At the time of this writing, it has infected over 40,000 people and claimed the lives of over 900 people.
But as I wrote in this recent Forbes column, like all potential threats, it’s important to put it into perspective.
Many things in this world are dangerous.
Focusing solely on all the dangers can do more harm than the danger itself. Indeed, as I share in my latest Live Brave podcast (episode 47), getting totally stressed out about getting sick only puts us more at risk of getting sick! Not only does dwelling exclusively on a perceived threat produce acute stress that lowers our immune function, but it keeps us from taking the very actions that would make us safer, healthier and more secure. As Prime Minister Hsein Loong rightly stated:
“Fear can make us panic, or do things which make matters worse, like circulating rumors online, hoarding face masks or food, or blaming particular groups for the outbreak.”
You may be nowhere near people who are walking around in face masks, jumping when you hear someone sneeze within earshot or checking your temperature (as I’ve had done twice today.) However, chances are you can easily find at least a reason to feel afraid right now – to baton down the hatches and retreat to safety. Perhaps many. After all, fear sells. Fear wins votes. Fear is easily be weaponized or commercialized.
So, if your anxiety levels have dialed up in recent times (or have been on high for longer than you can remember), I encourage you to do these six things to keep your fear in check, stay calm and carry on (particularly when others around you aren’t.)
1. Focus on what strengthens you (not what scares you)
Our brains are twice as sensitive to what could go wrong (or be lost) than they are to what could go right (or be gained!) As such, dire images of pandemics (or other similarly cataclysmic events) have a way of capturing our imaginations that an ordinary flu just doesn’t. It is why people are more afraid of dying in a plane crash than a car crash when statistics prove air travel to be a safer mode of transport. (Americans have a 1 in 114 chance of dying in a car crash, according to the National Safety Council versus a 1 in 9,821 odds of dying in air or space crash.)
Fear has a way of hijacking rational thinking, driving us to terrorize ourselves with horror images that, in reality, are very unlikely, if not outright implausible. The more anxious the climate, the more deliberate you need to be to reset your attention toward the positive outcomes you want to create rather than fretting about all you don’t. After all, worrying is akin to praying hard for what you don’t want to happen.
2. Double down on empowering rituals and practices
The best safeguard against any virus is a strong immune system. And few things compromise our immune system more than stress. So when fears loom large and problems press in, the best thing to do for yourself is investing time in whatever helps you destress, feel stronger and handle your challenges better.
Exercise. Eat well. Get sleep. Meditate. Journal. Get out in nature. Prioritize your schedule. Do more of whatever activities recenter, recharge and reset your headspace. And if people around you are leaning on you for support and reassurance, then all the more reason to prioritize the practices that ground you. In short, do as I shared in my recent podcast and put on your spiritual oxygen mask first.
3. Speak calmly (and avoid melodramatic language)
Our words create our reality. If you start describing a situation with Armageddon-like language that’s exactly who your body and mind will experience it. This isn’t about denying unpleasant realities and downplaying legitimate dangers. It simply means that you don’t talk them up.
Next week in Singapore I am attending two events around the launch of my new book You’ve Got This! (and yes, no irony lost on its timing.) Several people have asked if I’ll be canceling them. “No,” I’ve told them.
One asked, “But what if the government quarantines everyone at home? What’s your plan for that?”
“To make a new plan,” I replied. “Whatever happens, I’ll figure it out.”
When you use language that implies that you trust yourself to meet your challenges as they arise, you not only spare yourself a lot of stress, you also spare others by not spreading it. Which brings me to the next point…
4. Avoid fear-mongers (or at least don’t let their fears become your own)
Fear fuels fear. If you’re continually engaging in conversations with anxious people who are absorbed in fear-casting and catastrophizing, you’ll find it hard not to let their anxieties become your own. While it’s important to avoid negative energy-draining people at the best of times, when fear is running amok, it’s even more critical. So just as you try to minimize exposure to viruses, you also need to minimize exposure to people who fuel stress. And if you’re in an online chat group with dooms-dayers and panic merchants, do yourself a favor and get out of it.
5. Educate yourself (find the facts beyond the headlines)
We’re all wired with a negativity bias. It’s why we sometimes have to do a “self-intervention” and actively look for information that balances out all the negativity we’re being fed. For instance, while coronavirus is highly infectious, outside of China it has a mortality rate of 0.2% (compared to SARS which was about 10%.) Every year 60,000 people die of ordinary influenza and very few people outside of Wuhan province who have contracted coronavirus have died outside of the elderly and those with pre-existing conditions. Of the 45 people who’ve contracted coronavirus in Singapore, seven have already been discharged from hospital (with more headed home soon.) So yes, be careful, wash your hands, up your hygiene, and stay home if you’re feeling unwell but you don’t have to cancel your life.
Speaking of which…
6. Get on with your life (as it encourages others to get on with theirs)
I flew to Texas last week to speak at a conference. Tomorrow I fly from Singapore to Australia to speak at another one. Someone told me yesterday they thought I was crazy doing all this travel given the coronavirus. (Then again, some think I’m crazy traveling this much anytime!) Of course, I’m mindful that travels may be disrupted or plans derailed, but I’m also very committed to not letting my fear of what could go wrong keep me from getting on with my work and my life. I simply don’t want to give fear any more power than it warrants.
I want no less for you. To take sensible precautions, and then get on with your life.
It’s by taking a few deep long breaths, then taking calm decisive action in the presence of our fear that we dilute its power, and amplify your own. Hence, it is times like these that each of us is called upon to reel in our fears and start leading the change we’d like to see in those around us. Because just as fear is contagious, so too is courage.
This piece originally appeared at MargieWarrell.com on March 2, 2020. Since it was first published, COVID-19 has been declared a worldwide pandemic. Margie is safe in Singapore on lockdown in her home while her husband fights coronavirus in quarantine. Read more about their COVID-19 experience here.