Julia Samuel, Psychotherapist and author of This will also happen: stories about changes, crises and hopeful beginningsshares her advice to find peace in times of fear …
At a seminar last week, I looked at the person standing by the door wearing gloves and a mask. Her startled eyes darted to the exit and were obviously afraid that the coronavirus was on the way to her. Others chatted happily and shook hands, relaxed because they thought it was oversubscribed. When I spoke to the person at the door, she couldn't understand how relaxed everyone else was – she felt like they weren't paying attention to what was actually happening. She foresaw the worst and couldn't sleep or couldn't concentrate because she was overwhelmed with fear. She had filled her closets with provisions and longed to hide in her house (bunker) until the virus was no longer a threat. There were probably others who felt anxious but coped. It felt like a microcosm of the different responses that each of us has to the increasing uncertainty of global events that are brought to our minds from updated newsfeeds. The corona virus is the turning point in years of Brexit insecurity, ecological fears of climate change that have recently been exacerbated by the relentless storms Atiyah, Brendan, Ciara and Dennis (which were catastrophic for the flooded) and, of course, the bleak economic forecasts.
In the 21stst Century, we expect science or technology to fix things that endanger us. However, there is now a feeling that change is taking place that threatens our health and livelihood, and we have neither the knowledge nor the mechanisms to stop it. Not knowing leads to an increasing level of fear, which can lead to "fear of fear" and the belief that nobody is in control, more than the actual events in people's lives. How serious the psychological impact is for each person depends on the history of the difficulties (the more you have, the less confidence you have that everything is fine), economic security, emotional resilience and health. We also all have a natural coping mechanism when we face such changes that we learn in childhood. It's a habitual reaction – maybe we switch off, get overwhelmed, or if we're one of the lucky few, take it in immediately and take care of it. It is helpful to understand how we react so that we can learn to support each other better.
What can we do to better support ourselves, provided we are not in the higher risk category? First deactivate or reduce these news feeds. Facebook reported the results of an extensive experiment in which information on the home pages of 689,000 users was manipulated and it was found that a process of "emotional contagion" could make people feel more positive or negative. This answer comes from our evolutionary beginnings: there is a part of our brain that is constantly on alert to look for dangers – it serves to protect us – but it means that we have a negative tendency, rather bad ones than looking for good things. If this part of the brain is triggered, for example, by hearing bad news, this can switch on the system of the freezing of the combat flight, which means that we can no longer think clearly.
We need to develop ways to convey this with a "yes brain" so that we don't start our first reaction when we hear bad news. Take time to calm down, breathe, think deeply, discuss it with others, and then respond. Eighty percent of decisions are influenced by emotions and our previous experience. The more we have a grip on what's going on inside us, the better our decisions are informed.
Is that easier said than done? No. Here are a combination of habits and attitudes that help calm your anxiety:
- Many different contradicting and confusing messages can go on in your head. A useful way to find out what you think is by writing a diary. When you write down what you feel, you can begin to clarify this information and find the right support.
- Cardiovascular training is the quick way to relieve your body. Running, walking, or any sport immediately reduces it; After training, our body is told not to be on alert, we are safe and release the feel-good neurotransmitter dopamine.
- Follow the exercise with some relaxation / meditation to relieve your anxiety. The simplest breathing exercise is to inhale five, hold five, exhale five, stop five, and repeat.
- To stop a recurring bad picture, it can be helpful to close your eyes and visualize the picture on a television screen. Breathe in and change the channel. Visualize a positive picture or your safe place. Breathe in again, open your eyes and focus your attention on a task. This can be repeated several times. Regular use increases the speed and effectiveness.
- It helps not to project onto the unknown future, but to focus your attention on today or this week. It helps to be mindful, to focus on the present moment, to be aware of the sensations in your body, the sights and sounds around you and to calmly accept your feelings. Apps like Headspace are useful guides.
Finally, it is crucial that our relationships with family, friends and colleagues and the ability to support us are fundamental to dealing with the inconveniences of these uncertain times. Loving family and friends can help us stay calm when we are shaken.
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