Coping in a Time of Uncertainty

written by Dr. Jane D Moffett

One of the most basic needs we have as humans is to feel safe – psychologically and physically.  Yet many of us are experiencing once simple tasks,  such  going to the grocery store,  as unsafe in our current environment. Without knowing it, our deepest survival responses may be activated in the face of the  invisible threat posed by Covid-19.

Because we are biological beings who are wired for survival, our central nervous systems habitually  scan for danger.

Our response to danger can be grouped into 3 possible responses: fight – flight, or freeze. Which response each of us gravitates towards depends on our constitutions and our early life experience.

Fight: For some our response to threat may be a fight response. In the current environment of uncertainty and possible harm,  a fight response might show up as anger, higher levels of irritability or frustration. 

Flight: For others a threat which cannot be seen or  prevented such as Covid-19  might evoke increased need to get away from what is experienced as threatening and  sense of apprehension going into new situations.

Freeze: For others, there may be closing down of emotion and a sense of detachment or dissociation.

Each of these responses is an understandable response to an unknown and new threat: Covid 19.

Somatic Experiencing teaches us that our central nervous systems may not be able to tell the difference between this new, Covid-19 threat and a tiger. As we approach a crowded pharmacy counter,  the smoke alarm in our brain, the amygdala,  tells our limbic system – the emotional center of our brain,  we are in danger- and our default response, fight, flight, or freeze activates.

Ignoring or minimizing the threat of this virus would be unwise. But we also need to protect our immune systems by effectively managing our stress and reactivity.


Parasympathetic -breathing

The first step is to know your style of reacting to danger: Fight, Flight, or Freeze, or a mixture of the three.  When you find yourself activated, try  calming unnecessary  reactivity by using  simple breath work to turn off that smoke alarm and calm your nervous system.  

Most of us have learned breathing techniques from various sources. What we may not have been taught is the importance of the out-breath. The exhale part of the breath cycle activates the parasympethic nervous system, activating a relaxation response.

You can figure out what that longer exhale for you feels like by experimenting. Try  a long exhale, maybe 7 counts,  and shorter inhale, maybe 3 counts. Repeat it a few times. Emphasizing the exhale, shortening the inhale. Modify this as it suits your needs.


Another way to calm our survival responses (fight, flight, freeze), is through our connection to  others. Because of socially-distancing , we don’t have the opportunity to create a sense of safety and needed comfort though socializing in person.

However, we know from the work of Dr. Steven Porges that our fight/flight/freeze response will become regulated in a warm social interaction.  Hearing the voice of someone we care about, and, if possible seeing his or her face, is especially important when we are in a state of hypervigilance.

On a practical level this means moving beyond text messaging and email for contact. Our nervous systems respond positively to face-to-face contact and hearing the voice of someone we care about. Email and texting helps us stay in touch, but the sense of safety we need now comes best through hearing the voice, and when possible, seeing the face of someone we enjoy while in conversation.

While we are giving up a great deal now for the greater good, we can join in our healing community to add new and life affirming behaviors that may last well beyond this crisis.