Hello, dearest readers. I’ve been at a loss to know what to say to you this week; my usual humour seems to have deserted me and I’m struggling to find the right words. I’m sure that most of you feel the same way as me – overwhelmed and displaced – and so I don’t want to add to your anxieties or write something that doesn’t do justice to the enormity of the situation.
Which is why I’ve called in the expert to say something useful rather than blather away aimlessly at you. I asked psychotherapist Marianne Johnson about how we could stay calm and less anxious in these rapidly changing times – her answer below will be a useful read for so many people. Please do share it, pass on the link, post on Facebook. I’ll be back – no doubt to blather away aimlessly at you – in the next few days.
Coronavirus and Coping with Anxiety.
We are all reeling from the coronavirus outbreak. Each day the world looks a little less recognisable and a little less safe as the numbers of people infected tick up and the isolation measures take hold. In my job as a psychotherapist I am increasingly finding that the focus of my work is now around the anxiety that clients are bringing and how that is impacting their lives.
Fear and panic can build up easily with our non-stop media consumption so it’s vital that we take some control of our own mental health and put things in place to protect and care for ourselves.
I’m finding that anxiety about coronovirus takes on different shapes for different people. Some experience profound existential fear about what might escalate globally in the long term, others are deeply concerned about how people can protect their livelihood and loved ones. And I am also hearing plenty of hope. Many people are expressing a desire for a profound shift in ideology as communities come together and the focus moves from a consumerist stance to a more nurturing one. I hear people longing for better, deeper connections to the people close to them, and also to a deeper sense of themselves.
So what practical measures can we put in place to help ourselves? Firstly, it’s helpful to acknowledge that some worry is inevitable. These are uncertain times. We have to give ourselves a chance to think feel and talk to others about our concerns.
Our brains are wired to avoid uncertainty and this is where anxiety can become problematic. If left unchecked, understandable worries and stress can become converted to overwhelming and unmanageable feeling of panic and dread. It can he helpful to imagine what is happening inside the brain to create this response.
Fear is a primitive and essential emotion. It keeps us safe from harm as we manage immediate threats and react accordingly. Our early ancestors needed this mechanism to escape the dangers in their environment. As our brains became more complex we became able to think ahead and creatively predict what might happen in the future, based on past experience.
Faced with a lack of certainty this more advanced function of our brain presents different versions of what could unfold, which we then process and rationalise. This can run into overdrive when we consume a vast range of speculation in the media. With so much opinion at our disposal we are able to stew in a pot of collective panic and then become compelled to search out more and more information pushing that button of dread.
Here are some suggestions
1) Be aware of how your thoughts are affecting how you feel. You have a choice about which thoughts to hold onto, and which to let go of. We can find ourselves unhappily attached to the negative thinking, feeling as as if the more we think, the more it will help us escape the uncertainty. Keep bringing yourself back to what we do know and try not to catastrophize and ruminate about what might happen.
2) Focus on bringing yourself back to the present, which for some might be meditation and others finding a project that they can immerse themselves in. Purpose is better than distraction. If you can find something really absorbing it will be more helpful to ground you.
2) If you are worried about how much time you are spending on news channels, choose one daily news outlet that you trust and have a dedicated slot that you use to check for updates. Some people may choose to avoid all media for a period of time.
3) Think about human contact and the different ways you can connect to others. It is going to be really important to carve out ways to get support. This might require taking a risk and saying to people ‘i’m here’ but it will be worth it. You can return the favour.
4) Practice a really simple but effective breathing exercise (they really do work). The nervous system can be calmed by just a minute of mindful breathing. I like the 4-7-8 method. You exhale through your mouth completely, then breath in quietly through your nose to a count of 4. Hold your breath for a count of seven. Exhale competes through your mouth (making a whooshing sound if you like) for a count of 8. Repeat this at least 4 times but as many as you like. This also really helps insomnia.
5) Be gentle with yourself and make time for things which soothe you. It can take a really concerted effort to do this. It’s so much easier to dive into our laptops or phones. Put on some music, watch a film, plant some seeds, bake a cake, do something creative, do whatever it is that can take you into a happier frame of mind.
Marianne Johnson AdvDip MA UKCP