The Novel Coronavirus has created a new reality in our world and we are feeling the consequences.
Anyone with difficult relationships at home may find that being in the same house together is creating a fraught atmosphere. Not having our external comforts to offload/release/escape can bring out the worst in us. We might find ourselves feeling irritated with our partner’s habits of expressing their stress. Relationships can become strained as we get irritated with each other’s particular coping mechanisms. More later on how to manage this.
In order to protect our emotional health we need to ask ourselves: “What do I need to know in order to stay safe?”. You most likely already know the answer to this question. Our government has a parental function here. We have been told the official guidelines clearly and repeatedly. We are the metaphorical ‘children of the nation’, the ‘parents’ have provided the boundaries so that we don’t have to guess and stress about what appropriate boundaries are necessary to keep us as safe as possible. In this instance all we can do is follow the guidelines.
By deferring to these guidelines we release ourselves from the responsibility for these decisions. Where the government has taken a parental role in terms of the nations physical safety, we need to take responsibility to create our own emotional safety by building on, and minding, our emotional resources. We can insulate ourselves from the upset of overexposure to information once we remind ourselves that experts are analysing the data already, and that it’s their job to draw useful conclusions and recommend action. This creates a position from which we can limit our exposure to media updates, depending on our own tolerance, and sensitivity.
For example: some of us are deeply emotionally affected by specific stories of loss of life, even though the person in question is a stranger to us. This level of empathy may create upset which is neither helpful to ourselves nor the people effected by the tragedy. Statistics draw us in, and headlines can become ‘click bait’ that preys on fear. Fear appeals to our survival instincts, we are evolutionarily primed to watch out for dangers. We have all come from a long line of people and species who survived long enough to procreate. In this way fear appeals to our most primal responses.
Fight, flight, freeze
One of the current difficulties is that, in terms of the fight / flight / freeze response, our ability to express our flight response has become severely limited. If you are someone who normally escapes to the shops / pub / social gatherings / walk on the beach / 5k run, you will be keenly aware how much these have been curtailed. If you tend to go into fight responses you might find that you are feeling rage towards those who are disregarding the guidelines, or anger towards the medical guidelines or government restrictions, believing them to be too strict, or too lenient. Those who tend toward the freeze position will be particularly struggling with sharing space with family members. They may be feeling fearful or hopeless.
We may feel isolated and alone, while at the same time millions of people around the world are feeling exactly the same.
In this age of technology we have options to stay safely connected with others. It has its limits of course, hugs and physical comfort are so important. However, in the current circumstance, we can only work with what is available to us.
Anxiety and control are often two sides of the same coin. When we are anxious we like to feel in control. We think that feeling in control will make us feel safe. The problem here is that there are so many things in life that we can’t control. We may feel particularly frustrated with our current lack of control over our freedom and/or over the behaviour of others. The challenge is to discern what we have control over. For example, we are in control of washing our hands, we are in control of choosing to follow guidelines provided by the medical experts. We are in control of seeking the appropriate help if we suspect that we, or a loved one has the virus. Focusing on what we can control rather that what we can’t control can help to ease our anxiety.
Although many of us are aware of stress and anxiety in relation to this current crisis, it’s also worth seeing our emotional responses through a lens of grief. We are grieving the loss of basic freedoms regarding movement and social interaction, that we have, until now, taken for granted. This is difficult for all of us, but for those who hold personal autonomy as a primary value, this will be particularly challenging.
We know that, even if we all follow guidelines, people we love may die. This is tragic, and at the same time there is no benefit to anticipating the worst. Anticipation of the worst will only weaken our emotional resources if the worst actually happens. Accepting loss is not easy, and sometimes all we can do is create an intention to accept or let go, and to be compassionate to ourselves when we notice our emotional struggles.
Although some of you will have more time on your hands than ever, I know that many of you will be busier, particularly if you are a healthcare worker or a parent of young children. There is a lot of talk about using this time to learn a new skill. If you are feeling anxious it could be very worthwhile putting aside a few minutes each day to learn to practice mindfulness, There are many free online resources including several audio files on relaxation and mindfulness from Beaumont hospital beaumont.ie/marc.
Mindfulness helps us observe our thoughts and feelings with compassion, rather than over-identifying with, and being controlled by them. Another principle of mindfulness, see self-compassion.org, is ‘common humanity vs isolation’. Understanding how stress is triggered can help us view feelings and behaviour with more compassion. When we communicate our difficulties, or requests, about the behaviour of our family members, from a place of compassion, and a place of responsibility for our own reactions, we are more likely to be heard, and less likely to exacerbate a strained atmosphere at home.
If you need further support, many therapists, including myself, are available for online consultations. Womens aid, Mens aid, Childline, Safe Ireland, and Seniorline, are other helpful resources.
There will be further loss, both in terms of lives and in terms of the economy. But we will prevail. As humans we have survived worse over the millennia. Even in recent centuries we survived the plague, the Spanish flu, and countless devastating wars.
Unfortunately there will be more fallen comrades. Yet the world will keep turning. It is important to remember that we are all in this together. The greatest scientific minds on the planet are working towards vaccines. Never has our global community been more united to defeat a common enemy.
Liz Wright MIAHIP