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Coronavirus Anxiety and Fear

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has been pretty busy dealing with COVID-19.

 The CDC website has a lot of information on it, and they’ve recognized the unique stress the pandemic has introduced. Here’s an article by the CDC on how to “Manage Stress & Anxiety” amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. There’s useful information about stress tailored to the general public, individuals at greater risk for COVID-19, parents, individuals being quarantined, those dealing with mental health and/or substance abuse issues,  and first responders.

Several people may be experiencing fear and anxiety related to COVID-19. In sessions, I often have clients who use “fear” and “anxiety” interchangeably, and many of them find it helpful when I clarify the similarities and differences between the two. The main similarity is that neither emotion feels good because they’re both often associated with thoughts and feelings about something bad happening. We should help our clients know the value of acknowledging that these feelings are real and therefore should be and can be addressed in counseling.

Understanding the difference between fear and anxiety. 

So, here’s the difference between fear and anxiety and why understanding these differences can significantly help with managing the symptoms associated with them. Fear is defined as “an unpleasant emotion caused by the belief that someone or something is dangerous, likely to cause pain, or a threat.” We fear certain animal bites, heights, fights, etc. because of the danger and/or pain associated with exposure to these things. Anxiety is defined as “a feeling of worry, nervousness, or unease, typically about an imminent event or something with an uncertain outcome.” We’re anxious about speaking to others, starting a new job, being around other people in some situations, flying, driving, how we look and/or dress when out in public, etc. because we may be uncertain about how we’re going to “perform” and/or be perceived or responded to by others.

Anxiety sounds very similar to fear, but there are some subtle yet significant differences between the two. Fear is knowing something bad is either likely to happen or is definitely going to happen based on some specific circumstances or conditions. Anxiety is not knowing what’s going to happen and/or the uncertainty of what could happen. Fear can often be a good thing if we respond to it accordingly to prevent ourselves and/or others from experiencing harm. Anxiety if often only a good thing when we learn to embrace it and use it to help us through things rather than letting it interfere with how we do things. Generally, we’re only nervous about things we care about. Actress Amy Poehler has this take on it, “I think it’s glorious to be nervous. Being nervous is great! How often do we get nervous on a daily basis? Being slightly nervous means you care, and you’re alive, and you’re taking some kind of risk. Hooray for being nervous! A friend told me to substitute the word ‘excitement’ for ‘nervous’. That way you acknowledge the physical feelings without putting a negative spin on things.”

Understanding the benefit of distinguishing between fear and anxiety.

The benefit of distinguishing between fear and anxiety is that it can help clients better understand why they are feeling either or both and it can help them determine how to cope with what they are feeling. Generally, the best way to deal with fear is to figure out what the danger is and what options you have to avoid or neutralize the danger. Generally, the best ways to deal with anxiety is to figure out what the person is uncertain or nervous about and provide as much information and interventions as possible to address those concerns. It’s also helpful to point out that often times exposure and experience can naturally improve anxiety because the uncertainty then begins to shift to the person seeing and adjusting to the reality of what they’re facing in the experience they were previously uncertain about.

Here’s an example of clarifying between the two where it’s often the case that “fear” is being used when anxiety is really the issue. 

A client says, “I’m afraid of what’s going to happen during my company presentation tomorrow.” Are they actually experiencing fear? Ask them what “danger” they are in or what “pain” they may experience. Even if they give a bad presentation in the meeting, is anyone going to do harm to them? They’re likely actually experiencing anxiety. They’re uncertain about how they’ll do or uncertain about how others will respond to the presentation. They can rely on past experiences with company presentations or similar things they and/or others have done to ensure them that they’ll be ok. Help them acknowledge and embrace the emotions and nervousness, and then help them identify ways to cope with those emotions before, during, and after the presentation. If they’ve properly prepared for the presentation, encourage them to take comfort in that. Ask them what happens when they or others don’t do well in presentations? If they’re aware that it then becomes a chance for professional growth through supervision and feedback from others, then encourage them to embrace that that will be the likely outcome. You can also help them identify and prepare to respond to “worst case scenarios.” Yes, there may be consequences of a bad presentation (embarrassment, feeling inadequate, maybe even a performance-related consequence), but that’s all stuff the person can work to properly prepare for in how they give the presentation and/or learn to properly prepare for in the event of the bad outcome.

Get clear on the anxiety and fear you’re feeling with the Coronavirus (COVID-19). 

In regards to COVID-19, the differences between fear and anxiety can first be dealt with by ensuring clients are properly educated on the disease prevention process (including proper prevention and precautions such as washing hands, disinfecting surfaces, social distancing, following the Shelter-in-place protocols, etc-all of which is information available on the CDC website). Once they have the information, they can then proceed with taking as many reasonable steps as possible to adhere to the various suggestions for prevention. Having the information and doing something with the information can help ease the anxiety associated with COVD-19. If you have a client who says they’re experiencing fear with COVID-19, try to get them to clarify what the actual danger they are experiencing is and then work with them to find ways to neutralize or avoid that danger. This may include helping them to see that they’re actually experiencing anxiety over COVID-19 rather than fear. Clarifying the difference can then help you help them better understand and better manage the symptoms through education and taking proper precautions. In theory, some clients may be experiencing legitimate fear associated with COVID-19 based on exposure they’ve had to infected individuals. The best way to support these clients is to help them explore their options for being tested and getting the proper medical support in the event that they are displaying symptoms of infection.

About the Author

James Warren, LCSW

James Warren is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker, where he graduated from the University of Illinois. He has been a member of the Champaign-Urbana community for over two decades, gaining experience in multiple local institutions. James has worked in a near-by detention center, where he found his niche working with boys and girls in their teenage years. James is also well-versed when it comes to foster care systems, school systems, and within family systems; he worked with local behavioral health organization, Rosecrance, as well as in the Urbana School District. He enjoys working with parents to increase education, awareness, and family involvement.

James’s approach is considered to be client-focused; he uses coaching aspects to empower individuals, as well as encouraging ownership and accountability. James also uses his experience as a Christian to guide sessions, when asked.

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