The COVID-19 pandemic is challenging all aspects of our daily lives and so change is required; and yet change is one thing that most of us find difficult to accept. Humans are creatures of habit and now, as all of our daily routines are disrupted, emotions such as worry, fear, sadness, and loneliness seep into this experience as we try to keep ourselves safe from an imminent threat. Below, are some of the common reactions that you might be having in the midst of this pandemic, and some suggestions about how to manage them.
It's important to recognize that individuals can experience a wide range of reactions–so there's no right or wrong in terms of the particular feelings you may have. What is important is being able to bring a sense of perspective so that negative emotions don’t escalate beyond an ability to manage them. For many of us, keeping this sense of perspective will be a challenge and so those individuals also have to practice self-compassion–the opposite of being critical of oneself.
Some of the common reactions you may experiencing right now could be:
• Anxiety, worry, panic
• Feelings of loss or grief
• Hyper vigilance to your health
• Social withdrawal
• Skepticism or bravado/excitement
Here are some strategies to help you manage.
1. Acknowledgement and evaluation. It's important to acknowledge whatever emotion you are feeling and evaluate its usefulness: “It's understandable that I am worried or sad or don’t want to get out of bed given this pandemic, and is this emotion/behaviour helping me?”
For example, a little worry can be very useful because it might help you to follow the important guidelines to wash your hands and not touch your face, and to keep two metres away from others when you must go out in public. However, a lot of worry that leads to panic attacks or hyper vigilance is not helpful and needs to be countered.
Think about what you might say to a friend that would assist them to find the strength to counter these unhelpful thoughts and gain some perspective.
2. Find activities to complete that you have control over, and can give you a sense of mastery or effectiveness. Intentionally engaging in activities such as household chores, listening to music, or watching a TV show, can counter the negative emotion propelling you on a downward spiral. “I am going to help myself stop worrying by watching my favourite TV show.”
3. Develop a “worry/sadness” box. This is another useful strategy to help you develop control over negative thinking. You can have an actual box or imaginary one. The idea is to write down the thought(s) circulating in your brain that you can’t get rid of, and imagine putting them in a box as a way of creating some distance. You can go back to the thought at any time, or you can simply use the space created by writing down the thought and moving onto other activities.
4. Adopt a mindset of gratitude. Research has indicated that identifying three things each day that you are grateful for can have a positive impact on mood.
5. Practice mindfulness. There are guided meditations on YouTube that will help you focus and break the worry or sadness spiral. Walking meditations can also be useful; to do this on your next walk, consciously pay attention to what you are seeing and have an inner dialogue about it. "I see a black car; the sidewalk has a big crack; the grass is getting greener." This will keep your thoughts focused in the here and now, and not on worry or sadness.
6. Control how much media you consume. Particularly if this is a trigger for starting the worry or sadness cycle.
7. Watch how you speak. Our language impacts how we feel, so pay attention to your inner dialogue and see if you can replace descriptors like “awful", "terrible", or "scary”, with “interesting" or "not helpful”. Self-compassionate language falls in this category: “I know that I am worrying a lot and I am trying to take small steps to counter it.”
8. Keep connected. We are social beings and the accurate phrase for how we should handle this virus is: “physical distancing with social connection.” Our social contacts can provide support, encouragement and distraction, so please remember to reach out.
Remember, change is hard. Set small goals for yourself as you try to manage your emotions during this difficult time, and be kind to yourself.
Louise Hartley is the Director of the York University Psychology Clinic.