Julia Samuel, psychotherapist and author of This Too Shall Pass: Stories of Change, Crisis and Hopeful Beginnings, shares her advice for finding calm in anxious times...
At a seminar last week I looked at the person standing by the door, wearing gloves and a mask, her startled eyes darting for the exit, clearly terrified the coronavirus was on its way to her. Others were cheerily chatting and shaking hands, completely at their ease, believing it was overhyped. When I spoke to the person by the door she couldn’t understand how everybody else was relaxed - she felt they weren’t paying attention to what was actually happening. She foresaw the worst and was not sleeping or able to concentrate, being overwhelmed by anxiety. She had filled her cupboards with provisions and longed to hide in her home (bunker) until the virus was no longer a threat. There were probably others who felt anxious but were coping. It felt like a microcosm of the different response each of us have to the increasing uncertainty of global events being transmitted into our minds from updated newsfeeds. The coronavirus is the tipping point of years of uncertainty from Brexit, ecological fears from climate change intensified recently by unrelenting storms Atiyah, Brendan, Ciara and Dennis (which have been catastrophic for those flooded) and of course the gloomy economic forecasts.
In the 21st century we expect science or technology to fix the things that endanger us. Yet now there is a sense that a change is taking place which threatens our health and our livelihoods, and we neither have the knowledge or mechanisms to halt it. The not knowing induces increasing levels of fear which can spike into ‘fear of fear’ and the belief that nobody is in control, more than the actual events happening in peoples’ lives. How severe the psychological impact for each person will depend on their history of difficulties (the more you have had the less trust you have that all will be well), economic security, emotional resilience and health. We also all have a natural coping mechanism when change like this threatens us, which we learn in childhood. It is a habitual response – perhaps we switch off, become overwhelmed or, if we’re among the fortunate few, immediately absorb and deal with it. It is helpful to understand what our response is so that we can learn to support ourselves better.
What are those things we can do to support ourselves better, assuming we are not in the higher risk category? Firstly, turn off or reduce those newsfeeds. Facebook reported the results of a vast experiment in which it manipulated information posted on 689,000 users' home pages and found it could make people feel more positive or negative through a process of "emotional contagion". This response comes from our evolutionary beginnings: there is a part of our brain that is constantly on alert to look for danger – it is there to protect us – but it means we have a negative bias to look for bad things rather than good. If that part of the brain is triggered by, for example, hearing bad news, it can turn on the fight-flight-freeze system, which stops us being able to think clearly.
We need to develop ways of mediating that with a ‘yes brain’ so that if we hear bad news we don’t go with our first reaction. Take time to calm down, breathe, think more deeply, discuss it with others and then respond. Eighty per cent of decision-making is influenced by emotion and our previous experience. The more we have a handle on what is going on inside us, the better informed our decisions are.
Is that easier said than done? No. Here are a combination of habits and attitudes that help calm your anxiety:
- There may be many different conflicting and confusing messages going on in your mind. A useful way to find out what you are thinking is to write a journal. Writing down what you are feeling, enables you to begin to clarify that information and enable you to find the right support.
- Cardiovascular exercise is the fast-track route to de-stress your body. Running, walking or any sport instantly decreases it; having exercised, our body is told not to be on alert, we are safe, and releases the feel-good neurotransmitter dopamine.
- Follow exercise with some relaxation/meditation to help manage your anxiety. The simplest breathing exercise is to breathe in for the count of five, hold for the count of five, breathe out for the count of five, hold for the count of five, and repeat.
- To stop a recurrent bad image, it can help to close your eyes and visualize that image on a television screen. Take a breath and switch the channel. Visualize a positive image, or your safe place. Take another breath, open your eyes and move your attention to doing a task. This can be repeated a number of times. Using it regularly increases its speed and efficacy.
- It helps not to project onto the unknown future but keep your attention focussed on today or this week. It helps to be mindful, focusing on the present moment, being aware of the sensations in your body, of the sights and sounds around you, while calmly accepting your feelings. Apps like Headspace are useful guides.
Finally, and crucially, our relationships with family, friends and colleagues, and allowing them to support us, is fundamental to how we manage the discomfort of these uncertain times. The love of family and friends can help hold us steady when we’re shaken.
BUY NOW This Too Shall Pass: Stories of Change, Crisis and Hopeful Beginnings
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