We are living in strange times. It is OK to feel anxious. We all feel like we are fumbling in the dark and everyone is worried, but we may not all be reacting in quite the same way.
Stress is the mismatch between our perception of a problem and perception of our resources to cope with it. Many of us do stressful jobs, but cope well. There can be big problems, but if we feel we have the resources – like the time, skills, energy, money or knowledge – to manage the problem, we don’t feel distressed by it. We might even enjoy the challenge.
The coronavirus situation is a big problem, and many of us feel we have few resources to cope, particularly because so much is unknown and feels out of our control. So our stress and distress levels are high.
Don’t worry if other people are reacting differently from you.
We won't all perceive the problems in the same way or see our own coping skills in the same way. So, our responses will be different.
Talk to people you trust, but give yourself permission to deal with this the best way that you need to.
Limit social media and news to what you feel comfortable with. None If that feels best for you. There is so much information out there and it can be totally overwhelming.
Try setting a short time period, say 20 minutes after breakfast, when you will read the news and look at updates, and try not to check at other times. Don’t keep looking for the answer that will solve everything or get caught in the trap that says if you just keep checking often enough, someone will tell you how to make this all go away.
If you, like me, are finding the amount of news and comment stressful, you could try nominating someone who you trust who is not finding the information so anxiety provoking, and ask them to update you with key information.
When we are feeling stressed or anxious, it can be incredibly physical. Especially when the anxiety surrounds something with physical symptoms that everyone is talking about too, like a cough or chest pain, it makes us really notice our physical symptoms and that can create more worry.
It might help to understand those physical symptoms and how anxiety works.
Anxiety, stress, worry, whatever you call it, is basically a mechanism for alerting us that there is a problem.
Our brains have parts in them, what I like to refer to as our ‘lizard brain’ that work in almost exactly the same way that they do in any animal with a backbone – like lizards. They are all about survival. They control all the body functions that we don’t need to think about, like our heartbeat and our breathing. And they are also on the lookout for danger. If something appears that feels like it might be a threat, or a problem, to us, the lizard brain part sends signals to the body to get ready to do something to cope. If that threat is a bus hurtling towards us, it will make us jump out of the way before we have time to ‘think’ about what the problem is.
It does that using chemical signals that send messages to our body to get ready. This is sometimes known as the fight/flight/freeze response. This means that we are ready to either fight back and attack, run away or just do a rabbit in a headlights and stay as still as possible and hope the threat goes away.
The same basic mechanisms control all three of these responses. We might tend towards one kind of response than the other, which is why some people tend to respond to problems by coming out swinging, and others of us feel frozen. Or, in many cases, you might feel combinations of all three, in waves or at different times.
These are all normal, natural responses, but if it isn’t a bus to jump out of the way of or a wild animal to fight that started our lizard brain off, then the responses can feel unpleasant. They aren’t always helpful.
Here’s what this can feel like:
With something that can feel like such a big threat, particularly because it is there all the time, every time we pick up our phone, every time we see our children at home when they shouldn’t be, every time we think about our job, our loved ones, our communities etc etc etc, that lizard brain can go into overdrive.
And it is like our lizard goes into high alert and starts behaving like a meerkat. Constantly looking out for signs of trouble, and it will find them at the moment! That can make it hard to sleep, hard to shake off the nagging doubts and thoughts.
The other thing that some of us will be experiencing, is that if your lizard gets activated enough times, it can feel overwhelmed. And sometimes it then decides that the safest thing is to go into shutdown. Almost like it tries to make us hibernate. It says “This is all too much, just get in your cave and hibernate until the world feels safer or kinder”. Often this doesn’t help. It builds a wall to block the cave to try and protect us, but it makes us feel alone and isolated. It convinces us the world is scary. If the world really is scary, like at the moment, it makes it very hard to hold onto anything good.
So what can we do?
We can cut ourselves some slack and be kind to ourselves and each other. This is a strange, new situation and we are all adjusting. It’s OK to feel worried, or in fact angry, fed up, bored or anything else right now.
We can deal with the physical symptoms of the effects of our lizard brain being activated.
Exercise is the best way we know of to regulate all the chemicals our brains and bodies might have sloshing around. We have to stick to the government guidelines, but there are ways to get exercise. If you can, get out in the fresh air as much as possible, sticking to social distancing, but walk or run or cycle. There are loads of ideas circulating on the web for how to keep active if you are in quarantine and there are loads of home exercise options out there. Try finding something you enjoy, or just stick on some music and dance around your kitchen for half an hour.
Music also helps us to produce endorphins, which are chemicals which can give us a bit of a kick, and it works best if you join in. So dancing, singing or just tapping along to the beat can help.
Try to keep some sort of regular routine, whatever parts of normality you can hold onto, to keep reminding that lizard that life is carrying on.
Talk to people you trust.
We are sociable animals and we thrive on attention and contact. Even if your lizard brain is telling you to get in your cave (or under your duvet) and stay there, try not to listen to it all the time. Come out, send messages, talk on the phone or video call.
Hang onto the moments that remind your lizard that it won’t be like this forever. I have an exercise called a jar of joy, which you can find on the website, as a way of keeping a record of good moments each day. Keep telling your lizard about the good stuff, the normal stuff, the fun.
We live at the best time in history for this kind of crisis to occur. Technology has never been better for keeping in touch and for finding ways to entertain ourselves even if stuck in doors. We have also never had so much incredible science on our side to help fight back, and even if it feels hard to hold onto at the moment, there are amazing people out there working on this right now and new treatments and possibilities will come along.
If you, or someone you know is starting to retreat into their cave, reach out. Try telling someone you trust. Send each other messages, pick up the phone. If you haven’t heard from someone for a while, check in with them.
I have been amazed by how many stories of people connecting there have been. I met one of my neighbours for the first time since I moved in 3 years ago. He stood at his door, I stood at the end of the path, and we had a chat. That didn’t happen before, but now we are making an effort to connect to the other people in our communities and those kind of moments are worth holding onto.
Let’s try not to let our lizard brains stop us from sleeping, stop us from getting through this or make us retreat into our caves so much that we lose each other.
Hang on in there. This will end and we can get through this together.
With best wishes,
Dr Helen Care, Clinical Psychologist
A Confident Start