Uncertain Times: The Impact of Fear and What to Do About It

Insights and advice from psychiatry expert Dr. Gail Saltz
July 31, 2020 Updated: August 3, 2020

These are uncertain times. The pandemic that swept over the world has shaken our sense of security, disrupted our comfort zones, and awakened our most fundamental fears. We’ve responded by establishing new habits, routines, and behaviors that may stay with us longer than anticipated. For some of us, shaking this unease may be easier said than done.

In search of practical tips to move forward, I asked Dr. Gail Saltz for her insights on what she’s observed and advice for individuals to best cope with “the new normal.” She is a clinical associate professor of psychiatry at New York Presbyterian Hospital/Weill-Cornell Medical College, and a psychoanalyst with the New York Psychoanalytic Institute. Here’s what she said.

The Epoch Times: How does fear impact us in general?

Gail Saltz: Fear is a normal response to danger. It turns up the sympathetic nervous system, the fight-or-flight response causing the physical response of increased heart rate, faster breathing, blood shunted to muscle, and slowing functions related to eating, sex, and sleeping. Prolonged fear stresses the body by increasing the normal response such as cortisol release which increases blood pressure, heart rate, etc., in ways that, if it goes on for a long time, are not healthy for the body.

The Epoch Times: What, in your observations, are the most common ways people have reacted to and coped with the fears brought on by the pandemic?

Dr. Saltz: In positive ways, by being motivated to wash hands, socially distance, wear masks, etc. even though these things are hard. In negative ways, by feeling constantly anxious or becoming depressed, having difficulty concentrating for work, and difficulty enjoying anything.

The Epoch Times: It seems some people handle fear well while others really struggle. What do you believe accounts for that difference?

Dr. Saltz: People more susceptible to anxiety may find they are made constantly anxious by fear, that it precipitates panic, or makes them so anxious that it makes it difficult to function. Other people are able to let fear go when immediate danger is gone or are able to compartmentalize their fears and not have it impact them as much.

The Epoch Times: What lifestyle or behavioral adjustments can people make to better handle the uncertainty of these times?

Dr. Saltz: Structure your day so it has both structure and regularity. Exercise each day with 30 minutes of aerobic exercise to reduce anxiety and boost mood. Use coping tools like deep breathing, mindfulness, or yoga to relax periodically throughout the day. Problem-solve around frightening issues. After that is done, one has to accept a certain amount of uncertainty, which really we do every day.

The Epoch Times: What specific recommendations do you have for people struggling to break out of a feeling of panic or anxiety at this time?

Dr. Saltz: Use the above coping tools, after that, in addition to talking to others in your sphere for support, if you’re still overwhelmed consider reaching out to a therapist for telemedicine treatment.

The Epoch Times: After the pandemic passes, the psychological and emotional effects of this experience may stick around. What do you believe the long-term impact will be?

Dr. Saltz: Many people will be able to function and move through the difficulty and feel better. Some—those closest to the trauma—may develop PTSD, and a number may find themselves even more resilient after this is all through. In the short term, there could be a rise in divorce rates, like in China, there already is a rise in domestic violence, there could be a rise in substance abuse and suicide rates, especially in the face of ongoing economic downturn.

The Epoch Times: What actions do you recommend people take to prepare as they re-enter into “normal” life?

Dr. Saltz: Build coping tools now to manage the fluctuations in anxiety and fear. Seek therapy if you think you may need it. Talk about your feelings and get support and be supportive of others, practice gratitude for what you do have, and help others if it’s possible, which will help them and also you.

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