In Conversation with Fear & Anxiety. A Story About Covid Conspiracy Theories
Three weeks into this Covid fear and conspiracy theories are increasing on my Facebook feed. This isn’t so much fear over the virus as it is in how the social distancing has gone.
A meme of a man being arrested for swimming alone in the ocean and a caption that decries our lost freedoms. An angry red post about Covid death counts not including secondary causes of death, such as lifelong conditions or injuries. The 5G Network triggers viruses. 45’s financial stake in big pharma drugs throws shady motives on its Covid-treatment potential. Seemingly endless posts on lost American freedoms and how the government will “never forget how easy it was to take it from us.”
“Meh,” I hear myself think. “Scroll on.”
“Scroll on?!” I scarcely believe myself, because reacting to scary social media posts is something I used to do quite often. Where is this neutral voice coming from? Don’t I care if this was a plot to kill or control us all? Don’t I care about finding the truth anymore?
“Well, how was that working for you?” My Self asks. She sounds like my therapist right now. “Do you think reading all those posts brought you closer to the truth before?”
Some of these points give one pause. So I do pause, and read them, and consider the source, and try to remember counter-arguments and perspective. I’m also skeptical of the herd; a counterpoint or challenge often creates a more balanced view. I try to be a diligent fact-checker. I see grains of truth in all these weird posts; a little truth is probably a prerequisite for a good viral rumor. But, for all the merit of being knowledgable about conspiracy theories and rabbit-trails, I’m having a hard time believing or even feeling curious about any of them.
I think its because try as I might, I can not feel paranoid or afraid of the unknown right now. I can not allow myself to fantasize or aggrandize my fears. I’ve slapped a boundary down on fear: it’s not allowed to run the show between my ears or drive my life. And, most importantly, I’ve learned the hard way to be careful about what I feed my fears.
No Matter When It Just Ate, My Fear Is Always Starving.
Fear loves memes. It loves spooky coincidences and giant villains. Fear salivates when someone asks, “Okay, so how long should we stay hidden in our homes? A month? Two? A year? Will there ever be an end?”
When my Fear read that, it unbuckled its seatbelt and jumped up and down in the backseat of our Brain-Car, trying to ride up front and get in my face about this situation. Fear is so interested in looking out for me that she would love to be in charge, especially in big situations like this. But I tried living that way and it is no-Bueno.
Fear’s face started turning red and it suddenly got very sweaty.
“Hiding in our homes? No freedom? No shopping?
Essentially a prison?
This isn’t living!
What happens if the government forces a vaccine that includes a tracer and they start requiring it for everyone?
That sounds like the Mark of the Beast!
That sounds like Revelations!
You’re in so much danger!
It’s the Apocalypse!
You can’t trust anyone, especially the government!
Never trust the media!
You can only trust these memes on Facebook! They are sharing the truth but only while they can, only until someone shuts them…”
“Quit it,” said Reason.
Fear sputters when Reason speaks. I try to let Reason ride shotgun because she’s so good at remaining calm, even in dangerous times. And after telling Fear to hush, Reason said, “Let’s regulate.”
The ability to self-regulate diminishes when Fear and her pet, Anxiety, start to run the show, which can quickly trigger a full-on panic attack. The first sign is the cascade of thought-vomit that starts gushing when Fear is spiraling.
Fear thrives on unreguluated emotion because that’s where anything is possible. As Anxiety has been whispering all along, everything and anything can go wrong––and often does when fear is fueled with wild emotions––which Fear interprets as having been right all along. And as more things go wrong, more emotions rise, creating a tornadic cycle that sweeps up and sweeps away.
Reason has learned to spot the spiral. Before she deals with whatever has Fear so worked up, she plays stop, drop, and roll.
Stop talking. Drop into your body. Roll with the emotion.
“Let’s regulate. Let’s breathe,” Reason says.
I breathe. In and out, in and out. Then down to my navel. Then in a square: in for 4 beats, hold 4 beats, out for 4 beats, hold for 4. Repeat. Without breaking eye contact with Reason, Fear sits back down. Anxiety curls up in a ball on the seat and like a cat, quietly pretends to be sleeping while listening.
In my metaphor, it’s Intuition’s turn to talk. She’s the one in the driver’s seat.
Intuition Reminds Me That The Sky Is Not Really Falling
A month before the Covid outbreak, I was meditating on my future. I’ve been through a year of significant changes in my career and on this particular morning, I was feeling tired. I got up from the table where I write my prayers and went to the fridge. I said, “Maybe what I need is more work-from-home days. A later start to my morning. More rest.”
I felt the reply in my belly. “All will be well.”
I took that to mean all would be well even if my routine stayed the same. In my wildest dreams I wouldn’t have imagined a societal shut down on a global scale would have ever happened, and certainly not to give us all more rest! And then, someone must have screamed, “PLOT TWIST!” Because well, here we are.
All is well, according to my little daydream. I do work from home more (always). And my day does start later since I don’t have to run my son to the parking lot where he catches the bus. And I am getting more rest.
Intuition is who came and stood with me the day I first noticed the quieting skies. With her gentle-knowing, Intuition got me out of my pajamas and into a routine after three days of feeling sorry for myself because life feels hard. Intuition tells me all will be well because even when I can’t imagine how that will be. I have to keep Fear and Anxiety in the back seat, listen to Reason, and allow Intuition to drive.
I guess that’s why Intuition is now scrolling for me. If an item of content feeds Fear, it probably does not qualify as Information. If the headline is click-bait, I can be smarter than a fish.
Let’s Have a Conversation Not Just About Fear, But With Her.
Regulated, it was time for a family meeting, with Reason in charge of questions. Fear asked to sit on my lap because she needed her concerns taken seriously and then, comforted. I wasn’t always able to hold Fear this way; it’s a skill I grew in therapy. I had a habit of letting Fear get really big. But when Fear feels heard, she usually stays small enough to be held, and is quite docile then, and feels appreciated.
Reason asked, “Tia, are you hiding in your home?”
“No, I live in my home.”
“What does that look like?”
“Well, I get up and get dressed every day, usually at the same time. I have coffee and feed my pets. I log into work. Sometimes I walk the dog or take a yoga break.”
“That sounds like a nice life.”
“It is. I’m very aware it’s not like this for everyone. Some people don’t have jobs that can be done from home or have to jostle more responsibility. Some people are afraid.”
Fear looked at me, worried, and Anxiety’s ears perked up.
Reason spoke to them, “Yes, someone who feels like they are hiding might be afraid to go out.”
“Because the virus is going to get them! Or the government! Or the wireless signals!” Fear and Anxiety triggered Empathy. Empathy is often invisible but materializes whenever someone is hurting, not unlike her arch-rival, Anger.
“People who are hiding are hurting,” Empathy whimpered.
Reason sighed, “Yes, but think about the word ‘hiding’. We aren’t supposed to go out. We have chosen, as a society, to trust the scientists and stay inside. We’re doing good work by staying inside.”
Empathy said, “Well, that’s a kinder way to look at it.”
“It all comes down to how you look at it,” said Intuition.
“But what about shopping? And friends? Going out? The economy!?!!” Fear accelerated as she went and Reason shot her some quick side shade.
“What do you do when you need food, Tia?” Intuition raised an eyebrow.
“I go to the store,” I answered.
“And how do you see your friends?”
“I use video calls and Marco Polo and social media.”
“And what do we know about the economy?”
“That it’s a big issue. It can crash. It can surge. But most of all, it shifts.”
“Okay, good,” Reason nodded. She took a look at her inventory. “I see here that you’ve taken some steps to prepare for an economic shift.”
“Yes,” I said, “Because projects were good stress relief and I wanted to be proactive.” When I said this, I felt Fear relax in my arms, like a baby ready to go to sleep.
“The truth is,” Reason said, “Is that change is constant. This particular change could be longterm. But you prepared for it and you changed your mindset. That’s why we aren’t getting riled up over these Facebook posts, okay?”
“So, you’ll cross each bridge when you come to it. You’ll focus on your work and living your best life today, whatever that looks like, and you’ll live one day at a time. You’ll read scientists and journalists. I want you to LIVE in your house, not hide in it.”
“Okay, I can do that.”
Just Say No. We Aren’t Going There Today.
Reason held up her hand. “I have more. You WILL NOT entertain fears about the apocalypse, end of times, or any kind of tribulation crap relegated to your religious trauma.”
At this, Fear started to cry and wrapped her arms around me and I held her close, a sweaty and snot-crying heap of concern for me. Empathy resurfaced and started crying too. Anxiety leaned in for a group hug and we sat there together in a small, puddly heap. We remember.
Intuition nudged Reason and she sat up straighter. “Oh! I see now! That’s what’s at the bottom of this, isn’t it? Old stuff. Being controlled under threat of abandonment. Being locked out. Having your freedom––and ultimately your life––taken away. These Covid fears touch on the deeper stuff, don’t they.”
Reason rolled her eyes. She has little patience for religious issues, and only slightly more for childhood fears and old trauma. Reason tried to help me with those for years to no avail. So, I looked towards Intuition. She’s my go-to girl for all matters of faith these days.
“Tia, do you feel in your belly that this is the end of days?” Her face seemed pained because she knows how close to my core this goes. But, she likes what she hears me say:
“No. I can see how some might feel that way, but they might have also during the Spanish Flu, the Great Depression, and the World Wars. My belly feels like we’ll get through this, and that in some ways, we might even be better off for it.”
“And who do you trust? Do you trust the government or the media?”
“I listen to sources who study and who can admit when they are wrong. I listen to journalists who provide information and cite where they got it, and to leaders who don’t act as they know it all, but who rely on experts in their field to make their plans stronger. So, the answer is sometimes. Sometimes I trust what I’m hearing and sometimes I don’t.”
“I also trust in the goodness of people. I trust that the vast majority of people want what’s best for us all. That doctors and nurses are doing all that they can, that seamstresses are sewing, grocers are working overtime, and scientists are studying. I trust my loved ones are here for me and I’m there for them. I trust in resiliency.”
“You think we’ll be okay?” Fear asked.
“I do,” I nodded. “I really do.”
“And look, Fear,” said Reason. “She’s even going to wear her mask. It won’t keep the virus out completely but it helps keep her own germs in, anytime she goes out. She’s going to do her part.”
These exercises help a lot in soothing fears and anxieties.
So, maybe personifying emotions and having a family meeting with your Self sounds super-weird. It works for me, as part of my strategies for dealing with fear and anxiety. It’s been helpful to have touchpoints on my radar to see how something I randomly come across, like Covid conspiracy theories and other dramas I have no power to solve, can have an impact on my mental health, especially if left unchecked.
Three more weeks from now, I’m not sure what the Covid-Lifestyle change will look like. I assume we’ll have more clarity on “the peak,” the school-year, and other societal impacts. Also, I expect to still be isolating at home. I hope I can sit and have a family meeting with my thoughts and feelings anytime something seems out of whack. I’m going to let Intuition lead, especially when I scroll.