Something very different happens to us when we face an epidemic as opposed to a natural disaster.
When a natural disaster hits, there is anxiety, and traumatic loss but such events have a clear beginning and end. Natural disasters are devastating but there are few unknowns. With the collective loss, there is often collective care and support. In the aftermath of a hurricane that destroys and our neighbor’s home, we run to help him rebuild.
In the face of epidemics we lock our doors. Threatened by contagion, terrified by unknown risks, we move into fear-based survival mode. We isolate. We ruminate. We become saturated with media warnings and shaken by shards of frightening information and even conspiracy theories.
Fear Overrides Empathy
Such fear challenges empathy. Leslie Jamison, Author of The Empathy Exams tells us that the word empathy comes from the Greek (em) meaning “into” and (pathos) meaning “ feeling.” She suggests that to be empathic is to be willing to enter into another’s feelings – their emotional country. It means to cross the boarder to enter into their experience.
We resist entering into illness and death. We can’t go to that country literally or emotionally.
- We guard against empathy and identification with the victim.
- We justify our distance with blame.
- We cover our anxiety with anger – toward the victims, their governments, their doctors, our government, our medical mistakes.
- We struggle with the uncertainties.
- With the exception of some very courageous medical volunteers and only recent financial donations, we can’t seem to go there.
We are human and we are frightened.
- The problem is that anger, blame and emotional distance don’t take away helplessness or uncertainty. Like any other “ fix” we have to keep fueling them at a cost to ourselves.
- Physically, anger and blame keep us in a dangerous state of hyperarousal. Research tells us, for example, that stress as well as anxiety, anger, hostility and social isolation play a significant role in cardiovascular symptoms and outcome, particularly heart attack risk.
- Cognitively when we use anger and blame to reduce anxiety—we actually lose our distance and objectivity. We remain anxious because we lock ourselves into what frightens us. We become reactive rather than discerning of information or options.
- Emotionally, empathy can be lost in the face of unknown risk of contagious illness; but to lose it is to lose touch with better care of ourselves and others.
Coping with the Fear and Uncertainly of Ebola: Strategies
Working from the Body Out
One of the most important ways to cope with fear and uncertainty is to pay attention to body rhythms.
- In his book, Uncertainty, Jonathan Fields speaks of the importance of personal rituals as certainty anchors to offset the unpredictable and stressful aspects of life.
- Daily routines like exercise of any type, walking your dog, playing with your pet, a crossword puzzle, watching your evening sitcom (laughter is a great stress reducer), listening to your favorite music all reduce the hyperarousal associated with the body’s fight/flight stress reactions.
- In frightening situations small is big—Shutting off the news and taking a walk or cooking a new recipe for you and your children equate to stress reduction.
Sleeping is crucial in regulating the anxiety and worry that disrupt body’s rhythms.
- A recent study on the impact of fear on insomnia offered unexpected results. Whereas it was predicted that the greater the fear, the greater the insomnia or lack of REM sleep, the finding showed that it was a subject’s response to safety that was the important factor. Regardless of how much fear a person had (as measured by startle response) the ability to re-establish a sense of safety made the difference in sleep.
- Children and adults need bedtime rituals to create safety. There are many options in this culture. Anything that resets your sense of safety from free mini relaxation sessions http://www.calm.com/to your favorite book, blanket or prayer can make a difference. The consistent use of it conditions your mind and body for a respite.
Finding A Way Back to Empathy
Empathy toward others – compassion for, concern, outreach puts us in a positive place physiologically and psychologically.
- If you are so frightened that you can’t put yourself in the shoes of a victim, it is worth following the suggestion of Travis and Aronson, authors of Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me).
- They suggest putting a little space between what we feel and how we respond, a moment of reflection before we blame another or hold on to beliefs not based on facts. Stopping to take that moment may reduce fear-based negativity and destructive patterns of self-protection.
- Often some reflection invites us to become aware of how helpless we feel. Helping others – be they related to the Ebola crisis or others in need– can take us to a place of caring that almost always reduces anxiety and benefits others.
- In the midst of all the reports about fear, loathing and life in Quarantine for Ebola, it is important to hear of those people who chose to quarantine themselves because they were near the second nurse infected in the airport and wanted to prevent spread of the disease. Their friends leave food at their door. Similarly, it is with great respect that we can read of the medical professionals who have traveled and put themselves in harms way for the sake of others.
Becoming Informed-Not Flooded
- The urge in the face of the Ebola is to be vigilant about gathering information. The problem is that there is a tipping point between being informed and being flooded.
- We need to moderate our media exposure as well as our continual focus on what is frightening.
- The mind-body connection is such that if you are subject to non-stop media news, or versions of predicted doom, your nervous system will be so strained that you are likely to be too depleted to make sound judgments when they are needed.
Balancing your focus on Ebola with your focus on daily life, enjoyable events, your children’s issues, marriage plans and work related goals is a valuable way of staying aware and staying healthy. Living your life the best way you in spite of fear, fuels the resilience we need to deal with what we cannot control.
Finding a Way To Hope
Holocaust Survivor, Elie Wiesel tells us, “…Just as despair can come to one another only from other human beings, hope, too, can be given to one only by other human beings.”
In the face of frightening life events with unknown causes, it is often another person’s words, beliefs, touch, laugh, or courage that stirs and helps us hold on to hope.
A vital factor to holding hope is our human connection.