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The Best Pandemic Advice Ever? By Dr. Amen

Think we’re living in an unprecedented time of fear? Consider the following passage from CS Lewis’ Atomic Age from 1948 and replace “atomic bomb” with “COVID-19.”

In one way we think a great deal too much of the atomic bomb (COVID-19). “How are we to live in an atomic age (COVID-19)?” I am tempted to reply: “Why, as you would have lived in the sixteenth century when the plague visited London almost every year, or as you would have lived in a Viking age when raiders from Scandinavia might land and cut your throat any night; or indeed, as you are already living in an age of cancer, an age of syphilis, an age of paralysis, an age of air raids, an age of railway accidents, an age of motor accidents.”

In other words, do not let us begin by exaggerating the novelty of our situation. Believe me, dear sir or madam, you and all whom you love were already sentenced to death before the atomic bomb (COVID-19) was invented: and quite a high percentage of us were going to die in unpleasant ways. We had, indeed, one very great advantage over our ancestors—anesthetics; but we have that still.

It is perfectly ridiculous to go about whimpering and drawing long faces because the scientists have added one more chance of painful and premature death to a world that already bristled with such chances and in which death itself was not a chance at all, but a certainty.

This is the first point to be made: and the first action to be taken is to pull ourselves together.

If we are all going to be destroyed by an atomic bomb (COVID-19), let that bomb (virus) when it comes find us doing sensible and human things—praying, working, teaching, reading, listening to music, bathing the children, playing tennis, chatting to our friends over a pint and a game of darts—not huddled together like frightened sheep and thinking about bombs (viruses).

They may break our bodies (a microbe can do that), but they need not dominate our minds.

CS Lewis could have easily been describing life in the current pandemic. The same fears and anxiety people felt about the atomic bomb are replaying today. The atomic bomb isn’t the only example from history that relates to what people are feeling in the pandemic.

Look at the following quote: “The hospitals will be stormed, traffic will cease, the homeless will shriek for help, the city will be a pandemonium.” Sound like a description of life today during the pandemic? It’s actually a quote that appears in Erik Larson’s book The Splendid and the Vile from a British military planner about the World War II bombings in London.Other officials during that time predicted that British civilians would sink into undisciplined mobs, widespread panic would take hold, and people would be driven insane, according to research in the Journal of British Studies.

To prevent the German bombers from being able to identify cities as targets for air raids, the British government imposed strict blackout restrictions. Citizens covered the windows of their homes and businesses to keep any light from filtering out. Car headlights and streetlights were turned down. And people hunkered down in underground shelters during nighttime air raids. Despite thousands of lives lost and many buildings destroyed during the Blitz, the Brits showed true grit and resilience. They carried on.

The overwhelming fears we’re facing today echo those that Londoners felt about the WWII bombings, as well as those that people faced during the atomic age, those people faced when the Black Death plague swept Europe and took the lives of 200 million, and so on and so on. Like so many past generations, we’re facing fears about losing our lives, losing our loved ones, and losing our way of life.

Fear in the Brain

Fear is deeply ingrained in the brain and is a useful emotion in terms of survival. However, when fear is disproportionately high compared to the actual danger at hand or when it is prolonged, it leads to mental health issues such as anxiety.

When researchers look at the brains of fearful and anxious people, they often find a number of areas of the brain with heightened activity, including the:

  • amygdala—a major player in fear processing

  • basal ganglia—involved in setting anxiety level

  • hippocampus—important in forming emotional memories

  • insular cortex—a region that activates when we experience fear or anxiety

  • areas of the prefrontal cortex (especially on the right side)—the amygdala communicates with the PFC in fear

Brain SPECT imaging shows that when areas such as these are overactive, people are more likely to be overwhelmed by stressful situations and may have a tendency to freeze or become immobile in their thoughts or actions. If your brain is overactive and you’re filled with fear, anxiety, or panic, you can calm your brain to reduce anxious feelings with a variety of natural therapies, including:

  • Diaphragmatic breathing: Inhale for 3 seconds, hold it for 1 second, exhale for 6 seconds, hold it for 1 second, and repeat 10 times.

  • ANT (automatic negative thoughts) therapy: Challenge your fearful and anxious thoughts.

  • Meditation: Even a few minutes a day can help.

  • Self-hypnosis: Hypnosis can help soothe anxiety.

  • EMDR therapy (eye movement desensitization and reprocessing): This psychotherapeutic technique can be very helpful for people who have been emotionally traumatized.

  • Natural supplements: GABA, l-theanine, magnesium, vitamin B6 can help calm an anxious, fearful brain.

In addition to these techniques, you can also benefit from some of the strategies that helped the Brits fear during WWII.

What You Can Learn from the Brits in WWII on Coping with Fear and Anxiety

You don’t have to let fear rule your life or fill you with anxiety, even when you’re faced with dire situations like a war or pandemic. The following strategies that helped British citizens overcome fear and anxiety during WWII can help you today during the pandemic.

Take action:

During WWII, the British government and its citizens were taking actions every day that provided some sense of control over their situation. The Royal Air Force was carrying out missions, Prime Minister Winston Churchill was firing off memos with red “Action This Day” labels for his staff, and citizens were doing their part to contribute to the efforts.

Pandemic strategy: In the face of fears, look for things you can control, no matter how small they may seem. You may not be able to control the virus, but you can take responsibility for your own health by shoring up your immune system, eating brain healthy foods, and exercising to

Stay connected: During the Blitz, Londoners huddled together in bomb shelters, building community and a sense that “we’re all in this together.” Unfortunately, this is much harder for people to accomplish with the pandemic.

Pandemic strategy: Take advantage of technology to stay socially connected. Video phone calls, online meetings, and virtual events can help you feel more connected to others.

Laugh more: The Brits were able to find humor in their situation no matter how dire it was.

Pandemic strategy: You may not think there’s anything funny about the threat of COVID-19 or being in lockdown, but you can seek ways to laugh a little. Watch a comedy on TV, watch funny videos on social media, or listen to a humorous podcast. Laughter also supports the immune system, boosts moods, and gives your brain a healthy dose of the feel-good neurotransmitter oxytocin, as shown in a brain imaging study in The Journal of Neuroscience.

Develop a sense of purpose: During the war, civilians felt a tremendous sense of purpose in fighting for a common cause.

Pandemic strategy: In our fractured society today, it’s hard to find common ground. However, knowing your own purpose in life can give you the resilience to withstand challenging times. According to Dr. Viktor Frankl, a psychiatrist and World War II concentration camp survivor, and the father of Logotherapy, a form of psychotherapy based on the idea that humans are strongly motivated to live with purpose, “We find meaning as a result of responding genuinely and compassionately to life’s challenges.” Frankl believed there were three ways to create meaning:

  • Purposeful work, or being productive—asking questions such as “Why is the world a better place because I am here?” or “What do I contribute?”

  • Love—loving the people who are central to your life.

  • Courage in the face of difficulty—shouldering whatever difficult fate we have and helping others shoulder theirs.

Anxiety, panic attacks, excessive fear, depression, and other mental and behavioral health conditions—can’t wait. During these uncertain times, your mental well-being is more important than ever and waiting until life gets back to “normal” is likely to make your symptoms worsen over time.

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