SAN ANTONIO – Editor’s note: Read more tips like this in our Mental Wellness section and keep an eye out for an upcoming KSAT town hall livestream on mental health this month.
Have you ever been so afraid of something that it held you back in your life? People around you acted like it was no big deal, but to YOU it was an astronomically big deal?
Fear and anxiety are these unpleasant feelings that occur when you are worried about something happening in the future. Our brains are adapted to go to the worst-case scenario first. While some people move past these negative feelings quickly, others get stuck in the feelings so much that it negatively impacts their lives.
This was me when it came to the COVID-19 vaccine.
For most of my life, I’ve had to deal with anxiety and panic on a daily basis. At a very early age, I was diagnosed with panic disorder. So for a large part of my life, I have been dealing at times with debilitating anxiety. A large part of panic disorder has to do with a fear of dying and a fear of not having control, so you may be able to imagine how extremely challenging the past year has been for me. I am acutely aware that it has been a mentally challenging year for just about everyone.
I’m not a big fan of shots. If I’m being honest, last fall was the first time in my life that I got the flu shot. When the COVID-19 vaccine was first announced, people around me rejoiced at the thought of getting back to normal life. I, on the other hand, starting going through all the questions: Are the vaccines safe? Is there enough research about this? What does it mean to get back to normal life? Why is this happening so much faster than other vaccines?
I saw a lot of conflicting information online about the vaccine that produced unwanted fears and prompted my brain to imagine all of the bad things that could happen to me if I got the vaccine. I thought for sure I would have an instant anaphylactic allergic reaction, even though only 2 to 5 people out of a million have an issue.
What was interesting to me was that when I spoke to people who don’t live with a panic disorder, they were having similar fears. The more people talked about this fear, the more normalized the emotion became. It made me realize that we are all in this unknown situation together, and it gave me a bit of comfort.
I wanted to share what I used to get through making the hard decision on if I should get the vaccine or not. This is a list of seven things you also can use if you are anxious about making a decision:
- Look for Reputable Data – When making a decision, such as a medical one, do not look at someone’s Facebook post or a blog. For good or bad, these are opinions. Instead, look for scientific data that has been researched over a period of time. For the vaccine, the Centers for Disease Control is a good, reputable resource that has up-to-date information.
- Remember Everyone has an Opinion – When making hard decisions for yourself, the only opinion that matters is yours. You are allowed to have your own thoughts and feelings, and your experiences are real to you. We often want someone to commiserate with us, but be careful because their differing opinions might confuse you more. If you need advice, find a reputable source who is an expert in the field. I found Dr. Paul Offit’s advice about the vaccine helpful when I did my research.
- Check Your Imagination – Switch the “what ifs” to the “can dos.” It’s natural for the “what ifs” to be there in the back of your mind. But recognizing them for what they are (just in your mind) will allow you to get control back of your thoughts. Frequent check-ins will allow you to assess if your thoughts are being blown out of proportion.
- Make a Pro/Con List – If you are like me and thrive off of lists, this is a good time to run a risk versus benefits analysis of the situation. Only your opinions and fears go on the list. After running the list, you can think through what option works best for you.
- Stay in the Moment – Don’t let your mind wander in any direction. Remind yourself that you are here, right now, and you are working through this decision one step at a time. Learning mindfulness techniques will help you not go to the future, where fear and anxiety thrive.
- Make a Plan – If you have fear about something, map out a plan. Write down how you will get from each step and what rewards can you give yourself for reaching certain goals. For me, I rewarded myself by purchasing some nice smelling bath salts and enjoyed a relaxing bath after my first shot. Executing your plan gives you control where you can.
- Talk to a Professional – If you are feeling overwhelmed, make an appointment to talk to a professional. It could be a therapist or even a primary care physician. They can walk you through what you are going through and offer solutions to ease your fear.
Ultimately, I chose to get the vaccine. It wasn’t an easy choice and it actually made my anxiety spike two-fold. All I could do was obsess and sometimes let my ruminating thoughts get the best of me. I would tell myself “I am going to do this. I have to do this” but my best friends – fear and anxiety – would respond with “should I do this?” The cognitive dissonance, where your brain tells you something is good but the non-rational part tells you there is danger, produced conflicting information that made my fear skyrocket. I had to rely heavily on positive self-talk and staying in the moment.
I survived both shots with only mild side effects. It was profound for me to realize that I created all of these fears and may have even created some physical sensations as my anxiety looked for reactions. Our minds are so incredibly powerful like that.
For me, I now tell myself that I can do hard things because I overcame my extreme fear and anxiety of getting the vaccine. It was an extremely difficult journey for me, but it was worth it in the end.
The great thing about the techniques listed above is that we can use them in other parts of our lives too – whether it’s a hard conversation you have to have or even going to a doctor’s appointment.
The most important thing to remember is that there is no one who can make the decision for you except for YOU. If fear and anxiety are stopping you from making a big decision, such as whether to get the vaccine, there are so many ways to work through your concerns and come out on the other side of your decision feeling more confident and able to reclaim a piece of your life.
Read more like this on our Mental Wellness page: