From numerous directions, in and outside of my practice, I have received the call for some positive psychology – a weekly pick me up based on both anecdotal and scientific evidence. This is my answer to that call, to lighten our collective moods during these trying times

Covid anxiety syndrome

Fear is normal. Fear is one of the most – if not the most – fundamental emotional reactions we have. For millions of years fear has prepared our ancestors for fight or flight in the face of looming danger to our existence. Fear therefore is a helpful and essential reaction to any threat, yet for many of us fear can also become an unwelcome and debilitating reaction to unreasonable perceived threats.

The ongoing Covid-19 pandemic has taught us to fear an unseen enemy, we fear exposure to and infection with the virus. We have learned that it is prudent to take measures such as washing your hands frequently, wearing face masks and to distance ourselves from each other. While some of us have learned this the hard way, no one will have escaped the continuous reminders in the news of infection rates and death tolls.

Psychologists differentiate between realistic fear (an appropriate fear reaction in the face of a genuine threat) and pathological fear, where the latter can be considered an excessive, unhelpful or chronic reaction to a nonexistent or exaggerated threat. Considering the real-life possibility of contracting and spreading the Covid-19 virus, we may appreciate the related fear as being purely realistic. However, there are many signs that people tend to suffer a great deal of pathological fear too, related to the pandemic. Many of us may have developed a pattern of maladaptive behaviours, first dubbed the Covid anxiety syndrome by professors at Kingston & London South Bank universities. These behaviours include compulsive checking for symptoms of Covid-19 infection, avoidance of public places and obsessive cleaning and disinfecting. Scientists are concerned that pathological anxiety over the Corona virus may have residual effects that could prevent people from reintegrating into society and uphold compulsive hygiene habits. The difference with realistic fear over the Corona virus is that such a psychopathological response has people ending up behaving in overly safe ways that lock them into their fear. 

Anyone would agree that tackling the spread of the virus and having our lives return to normal can be considered a global goal. Yet it seems that a pathological fear developed during the pandemic may prevent the return to normal life for a significant number of us – preliminary research shows that event after vaccination many people retain their maladaptive behavioural patterns of obsessive checking and compulsive cleaning, out of fear of contracting the virus after all.

A fear of the unknown

What is it that makes people develop this pathological fear of contracting the Corona virus in the first place, and why is this excessive anxiety so hard to shed even after vaccination? Experience with previous pandemics such as with SARS and the Ebola virus have also shown a rise in related agoraphobia – the fear of open and public places, where people fear certain situations so much that they may not leave their homes anymore.

Why is the relative safety provided by vaccination not enough for people to relent their fear and return to normal life? The answer may simply be that we fear that which we do not understand. A fear of the unknown – an unseen threat – and continued uncertainty about how best to protect yourself and your loved ones have spiked perceived threat levels throughout this pandemic, causing many of us to develop excessive and pathological fear. All through human history we have feared, and often hated that which we do not understand. A fear of the unknown, our insecurities and that which we cannot predict have always been a source for unhelpful (pathological) reactions and behaviours. Most psychologists work with people struggling to overcome their excessive fear of the unknown and imaginative on a daily basis. Fear makes us feel miserable and behave in irrational ways, and can lead to some of the most regrettable decisions in human history. Perhaps it is this insight that has lead to one of the world’s most famous quotes:

“All we have to fear is fear itself”.

With the end of the pandemic in sight, our fear of the unknown persists as we await answers on the long-term effectiveness of the available vaccines, as well as what life will look like now that we are returning to the workplace and our children are returning to school full-time.

Xenophobia

Although not considered to be a diagnosable mental disorder by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) used by psychologists worldwide, xenophobia is still considered a debilitating pathological fear. Commonly known as a fear of the unknown, the unpredictable and more often: a fear of strangers, xenophobia is a well known phenomenon which often has a dark side to it. As we have seen, pathological fear tends to make people react excessively and irrationally to a perceived exaggerated threat. As is the case with other forms of fear, xenophobia oftentimes turns people against one another. During this pandemic it is our fear of the unknown and our fear of other people that makes us act out against our fellow man, since there is no guaranteed way of knowing who may or may not be carrying the virus.

Even positive reports of schools opening their doors once more are perceived with mixed feelings. Surely we would all celebrate the day on which we will no longer need to sit in on our children’s daily zoom sessions, but how sure can we really be that their classmates are not going to infect them? Perhaps it’s best to lock ourselves away from society completely…?

If pathological fear such as in xenophobia may be considered a weakening factor to our resolve, where may we find our strength? One obvious source – and an excellent remedy to the effects of isolation – is found in a sense of community. What better way to reduce our fear of what we don’t know about others than to reach out and learn more about them? We may feel uncomfortable not having all the answers, so why don’t we talk to others who may help us answering some of our remaining questions – or at least share a sense of togetherness? After all, we are all in this together.

What we need is a healthy dose of Xenophilia. The polar opposite to xenophobia, the love for other people, other cultures and other ideas is an obvious and pleasant remedy to our fears. Life during the pandemic may have eaten away at our sense of wonder and adventure living in Indonesia, but it may yet be rekindled. As expats, aren’t we all here – at least partially to get a taste of a different culture? We are here to experience the adventure that living in another country brings. Let’s celebrate diversity, let’s discuss differing points of view and let’s overcome the fear of each other that living under Covid had instilled in us, together.

Being global citizens, I dare to bet that at some point you reckoned yourself somewhat of a xenophile, and you were proud of it (as well you should be)! Let us rekindle that spirit and reach out to each other and our partially estranged guest country.

Do you need help?
Are you or someone you know in need of a sympathetic ear or even professional counseling?
Please do not hesitate to contact us directly.

Sasja Breit, Director, Clinical Psychologist.

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