The Coronavirus is a threat that is unprecedented for many in the UK as we have been incredibly fortunate to have not previously experienced something of such magnitude.
A situation like this is anxiety provoking for many. There is the real risk to those who are more vulnerable (the elderly and those with pre-existing health conditions). There is also the ripple effect of a likely recession and the impact this will have on many people’s livelihoods. As we stand on the precipice of a likely shut down in tertiary services, the economic and social cost is unknown though likely to be severe.
Ordinarily when people talk about stress and anxiety, we can point to it being an error in thinking, something that feels like it is catastrophic and although not ideal is not life threatening. When people feel that they have too much work on and are stressed, there is normally no real disaster. They feel however, “as if” there is a real external threat and produce adrenaline and cortisol accordingly and are propelled into the typical “fight/ flight/freeze” state of mind. How do we deal with anxiety and stress when there are in fact real potential threats to our lives, income and way of life?
Freud talks about the difference between “ordinary happiness” and “misery”. His notion of therapy was to help people move from the latter to the former. Translated, this would mean that concern, worry, sadness, and a whole host of other emotions is “ordinary unhappiness” when thinking about our current situation. It would be unhelpful and possibly risky to not feel these emotions and so deny what is happening and make no changes. However, getting flooded by anxiety, panicking, taking overly cautious measures, is also not helpful, and though understandable, is not going to work best especially as this may continue for quite some time.
So how can we manage our emotional states to acknowledge the real risks and carry on with measure, rationality and what can we do to influence and shape our responses?
Tara Brach, psychotherapist and meditation teacher in her seminal book, “Radical Acceptance”, talks about the power of her “RAIN” method of managing emotions. Of Recognising our anxiety and emotional responses we may have whether that be through the thoughts we have or how we feel things like anxiety in the body; of Accepting that this is how we feel and not beating ourselves up or trying to get rid of these feelings; Investigating the feelings and thoughts in terms of where they are coming from, what other experiences may we have that are contributing, what assumptions and beliefs might be around e.g. telling ourselves this is going to be catastrophic, I am not going to cope; and Nurturing ourselves and others in times where we may be experiencing difficult feelings and acknowledging that we may struggle in these times where there is real threat around.
If we let our anxiety and stress dominate (which is different from acknowledging it in the RAIN method), we then have to adopt strategies to manage it (these have generally been learnt very early in life when as infants or children we developed ways of managing when emotions became too distressing). Some of these strategies may be denial or suppression, i.e. pretend that there is no risk and take no precautions; catastrophising, feeling like this Armageddon; fixating on being able to take control of what is happening and make it better for everyone and a whole host of other behavioural responses. The more out of control, powerless and uncertain we feel about what is happening, the more we are likely to do this. Evolutionary psychology shows how uncertainty and feeling out of control increase anxiety, stress and flood us with adrenaline and cortisol. This adversely affects our thinking, our health and subdues our immunity system; when we are fearful we are more likely to catch viruses like Coronavirus.
To counter this and reduce our flight, fright and freeze response in a healthy way we need to acknowledge our emotional responses and then focus on what we can do to feel more in control, create more certainty about what we are going to do and reach out beyond ourselves to our families, friends and communities. This in turn will make us feel more in the driving seat, not in a superhero fantasy way but perhaps learning from what got people through the first and second world wars, the mass migrations around the world and other difficult times. Human beings are incredibly resilient.
Anxiety is catching and it is hard when others are in the grips of it to not be pulled into the maelstrom of their worst fears. Also, for all of us when we get stressed and anxious, we will unconsciously pull on other times that were difficult and hard. Recently, Healthyminds@work (the company I created with other colleagues) provided individual supervision sessions for a school that was facing highly uncertain times. I was struck how many of the individuals, when talking about how they were feeling, also brought up other previous losses or traumas in their life whether to do with loved ones dying, being ill or other difficult times. When we feel anxious, we need to acknowledge that we are not just responding to the situation in hand, we are also unconsciously processing earlier times of trouble and that is why it can feel even more overwhelming.
In these times of uncertainty with the risk of infection, anxiety is going to be increased for most. We need to be able to discuss and talk about our feelings and responses to be able to work out what is based on fact and what is based on less rational but highly understandable fears. This can help us separate our past from the here and now to help inform how best to act and to hold care and compassion for ourselves and others. In this way we can focus on what we can do to influence the situation, appreciate how difficult human beings find situations of mass infection and hold on to our capacity to cope.