It is essential to understand that fear is a basic human mechanism. It helps us survive. When something scares us, we are triggered, and through fear, we learn to practice behaviors that will help us avoid that danger in the future. While fear helps us survive, it can lead to something quite bad for our mental health when mixed with uncertainty: anxiety. And when anxiety is spread by social contagion — defined as the spread of effect from one person to another — it can lead to something even more problematic: panic.
There are ways to combat this. Perhaps one that may be really effective is mindfulness. More specifically:
Run a code.
Taking a moment to pause in stressful situations, whether you take three deep breaths or simply pay attention to the feeling in not-anxious parts of your body, helps ground you in calmer emotions. Grounding yourself in more neutral areas can help you stay connected to yourself in the present moment without triggering more anxiety. Another way to do this is to anchor your awareness in an external object (e.g., look out a window at trees or nature, or listen to the sounds around you). These are simple, ten-second practices that anyone can do. Practice them when you feel your heart beginning to race as a sign of a social sniffle so that you do not sneeze and spread social contagion.
Get in touch with your “calm.”
You can also take a moment to pause and notice what it feels like when you are calm among the storm of people unknowingly spreading social contagion. When you do, you will notice that calm feels a lot better than anxiety. Use this to hack your brains’ reward centers. When given a choice, our brains will learn to perform the most rewarding action. Calm is the obvious, more rewarding choice when compared to anxiety. You can also look around to see if your calm catches. It might not be as contagious as fear. Still, done over and over, it can go a surprisingly long way to not only disinfect your brain but spread that natural immunity that comes when you step back and see that we are all in this together.
Take it one day at a time.
If/when you notice that your brain is starting to spin out into future thinking and worry, take a mindful pause and remind yourself to take it one day at a time. Do what needs to get done today, and then take care of tomorrow, when it comes: tomorrow. When it comes to information, the closer to now you stay, the more clearly you will be able to think. For example, you can check in with yourself right now to see if you are hungry or thirsty. Based on that information, you can decide whether you need to eat or drink something. You cannot only remind yourself to take it one day at a time but if needed, to help you stay calm, use an even smaller timescale.
Knowing that uncertainty can spread social contagion through the viral vector of anxiety and coupling this with some simple mindfulness practices can help us stay mentally connected and spread calm instead of germs. In moments of doubt, use the above techniques to calm your mind, stay present, and move forward.
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