Life in the time of corona.... packing up your psychological toolkit
Unless you live under a rock, you will have a pretty good idea that there are two major issues affecting the world at this moment in time:
Issue #1 – Coronavirus/ COVID 19.
And issue #2 which the content of this blog concerns itself with – the anxiety and panic the mere words coronavirus/ COVID 19 trigger for us.
My aim in this blog, is not to teach you that there is nothing to worry about in relation to COVID 19. Rather, my hope is that I can share with you, ways in which you can keep your anxiety proportionate to the risk that COVID 19 presents. Throughout this blog, I will offer you some practical tools and techniques that you can use to manage the anxiety you have in relation to COVID 19.
I am going to focus on this by looking at a number of different areas:
· Accessing information
· Thinking affects feeling which affects behaviour
· Tapping into our emotions
· Taking action
Area 1: Accessing Information
It seems obvious, but social media and the internet generally, amidst the good stuff, is awash with mis information, speculation and false news stories. Whilst it is important to stay informed about COVID 19, it is also important to choose your news sources carefully. Remember that whilst it is good to remain informed, it is not good to obsess.
This was me at the beginning: I wanted to read everything for the good and the bad. Let’s face it, there is nothing good about COVID 19 itself (though dare I say it, the opportunity for lots of good things to come out it?? Though that is a blog for another time). However, by obsessing about COVID 19 through ongoing media coverage and perusing of social media, I realised that I was amplifying the negative psychological effects.
So here is the first tool for your toolkit:
#1: Limit your media consumption of COVID 19 to a particular time of day – maybe to 10 minutes in the morning and another 10 minutes in the evening. Refer to sources that you can trust. And as much as possible, ignore everything else related to COVID 19 unless it directly impacts on you, your family and friends or your work.
Area 2: Thinking
A lot of my therapy work focusses on the assumption that how we think, impacts on how we feel which impacts on how we behave. At a time of anxiety, our thoughts can literally grow legs. Before we know it, they end up in a place miles from where that thought started. Sound familiar?? Thought so.
The good news is that there are lots of different tools that we can use to ground our thoughts. Which brings me to my next tip:
#2: Focus on what you can control in the situation. Maybe you can’t control the bigger picture. But what can you control in the small microcosm of your own day to day life? Are you following WHO guidelines in relation to hand hygiene? Are you adhering to social distancing guidance? On a community scale, are you supporting neighbours who may need additional support? Are you in a position to support local businesses by shopping locally?
Errors of thinking are part of my everyday work. There are too many to mention for the purpose of this article, but I would like to highlight one that I expect many of you readers will have experienced at one time or another. Does the word ‘catastrophise’ ring any bells with you? Many of us, have a tendency to believe that a problem (and its potential outcome) will be far more catastrophic than it actually is. So, let’s take a look at my third tip:
#3: The simple act of recognising that catastrophising is an error of thinking is remarkably helpful. Call the thought out. Highlight it for what it is: An irrational thought that is unlikely to happen. Doing this helps to reduce their occurrence and ultimately their effect on our overall mood and behaviour. Remember: A THOUGHT IS NOT A FACT. Acknowledge it, but you don’t need to engage with it and follow it down the rabbit hole…
Area 3: Emotions
We are living in very unusual circumstances. We are social animals who have been asked to limit our social contact for the time being. This is weird for us. We are a society who like to hug and kiss; to reach out to each other physically. Limiting our contact with the outside world is likely to awaken emotions of fear, anger, sadness and frustration (amongst others) in us. It’s completely natural. Let’s take a look at my fourth tip.
#4: It is good to label your emotions. Acknowledge that you are feeling sad. Or angry. Or bored. It might not take your emotions away, but it will help you to perceive them more concretely. This takes us nicely onto the next tool for your toolkit:
#5: Talk to others about how you are feeling. You may find that it helps to speak to others who are experiencing similar emotions. It also may be helpful to hear how others express these emotions that you too are experiencing. It puts things into perspective. Talking is good. Listening is as important.
Area 4: Taking action
As human beings, we generally want to ‘do’. Taking action, helps us to feel in control. Well, until it doesn’t… Let’s look at a real example that I have noticed in relation to the current pandemic. Have you noticed the same thing that I did at the beginning of this crisis? Stockpiling of toilet rolls, pasta, chopped tomatoes… With this visual in mind, let’s add another tool to the kit.
#6: Don’t do things that increase panic without resulting in any benefit. The stockpiling habits of the initial weeks, (that thankfully I am seeing less of now… though I couldn’t get flour for love nor money locally. Thank you Grain and Sustain in Burntisland. You have supported my need for homecooked baking goods!) has not been helpful for a number of reasons. Firstly, it meant people were going without essential goods. Arguably more worrying is that empty shelves fuel more general panic. The only thing more virulent than COVID 19 is panic itself.
#7: Keep a routine. It seems obvious, but it is important to maintain a daily routine. Go to sleep and get up at a reasonable time. Eat, and eat well at regular intervals during the day. Don’t forget that we can still get out to exercise during the day. Walk the dog. The cat. The goldfish. Whatever! Put on your running shoes. Change the scenery. It will do you good.
#8: Taking physical action is good. It is also good to take mental action. It’s ok to acknowledge that this situation that we have all found ourselves in is crap. It is ok to feel unmotivated, disheartened, even despondent. Be gentle on yourself and recognize some of the things you have done today. And what it took for you to achieve them. Balance frustration and sadness with hope.
As a final note, it is worth mentioning that this worldwide pandemic has affected all of us. Some financially, some physically, others emotionally and psychologically. I think I can say with almost absolute certainty that virtually all of us have been affected in some way.
It has been a source of great comfort for me in recent times that the age-old cliché actually rings true: we are all in this together. We are all interconnected, fighting a common enemy at this strange time and this leads me to my final tool for your kit:
#9: Practice loving kindness. To me, it has never been more important to practice loving kindness. Those of you who practice meditation may already be familiar with the Buddhist Loving Kindness meditation. It involves sending kindness to yourself, to a loved one, to someone who is neutral to you, to someone with whom you have a challenging relationship and finally sending loving kindness out to all sentient beings in the world. I’d love to share this recording with you that guides you through the loving kindness meditation. Feel free to use it and enjoy!
Thanks for reading. Look after yourselves and those around you. And stay safe x