The Corona Crisis puts all of us to the test. We are having to rapidly adjust to new working and living conditions, many of us are facing extra stress and real losses. We are inundated with news (and fake news) – the sense of disorientation, powerlessness and uncertainty is debilitating for many people.
It may help to think that this is not the first (health) crisis that we humans have had to face, and it won’t be the last. Over the last 200.000 years, we have developed into a highly resilient species, with inherent capacities to confront dangers, venture out into the unknown, reinvent ourselves.
Fear – an ancient protective mechanism
Even though as humans we have evolved on many levels, some ancient parts of our brain have us react the same way our ancestors did thousands of years ago. Our ancient bias scans for danger, and, habitually, we react to stressful situations in a fight-flight-or-freeze response. We fight with words and deeds, detach or avoid confrontations, go into denial or tense up in fear.
Fear, being an ancient basic emotion, just like anger, sadness, happiness, disgust and surprise, is an integral part of our human experience. A healthy level of fear at this time ensures that we take preventative measures and avoid unnecessary risks. Fear becomes prudent action. When fear takes over, though, you might find yourself becoming obsessive, anxious, less able to problem-solve. Fear becomes paralysis.
In the following you will find some practical recommendations on how to navigate your emotions and stay calm during this time of crisis. Please note that these tips are aimed at people who are not in treatment for anxiety or mental health issues or have had mental health treatment in the past. In those cases, please consult with your doctor who will discuss suitable options with you.
Becoming aware of what you are thinking and feeling is the first step. As long as our emotions and thoughts are unknown to us, we are at the mercy of our unconscious habits and automatic mechanisms. Next time you find your mind racing with worry or unhelpful thoughts, or you notice a pain in your shoulders or knot in your stomach, try the mindfulness tool S.T.O.P.:
S – Stop what you are doing.
T – Take a breath. Breathe normally, following your breath in and out of your nose. You can mentally say to yourself “in” as you breathe in and “out” as you breathe out.
O – Observe your thoughts, feelings, and body sensations. Do not judge or interpret. Don’t follow the thoughts, simply observe, just like in a film. Bring your attention to different parts of your body and listen. Where do you feel the breath? Are there areas that feel heavier, lighter, contracted or soft? Without interpreting, be with what you are noticing, for a few moments. Observing without evaluating invites acceptance which in turn helps integrate your experience.
P – Proceed with something that will support you in the moment. Whether that is getting some fresh air, talking to a friend or massaging your shoulders. If you find it helpful, record what you have observed in a note book.
Watch out for avoidance behaviour
“What you resist, persists” said the famous Swiss psychologist Carl Gustav Jung. The more we are trying to get away from something, the more it will pursue us. All of us have particular behaviours that indicate we are not accepting the situation as it is – these “avoidance behaviours” aim to cover up uncomfortable thoughts and feelings. Some people over- or under-eat, drink more alcohol, surf the internet, chat all day, work or exercise all day or indulge in watching Netflix series.
- Get to know your personal avoidance behaviours – you may have more than one. Observe yourself throughout the day – what seems to be your mechanism to escape uncomfortable feelings? Ask your friends or loved ones to share what they are seeing – just observing, no judging or interpreting.
- Qualify for yourself what is reasonable and healthy for you and set clear boundaries for yourself. E.g. “I will watch 3 ½ hours of xyz series over the weekend.” Or” I’ll have a bottle of wine over the whole weekend.” Enrol a friend or family member to point out when you seem to be breaking your own boundaries. One of my personal coping strategies is making (and drinking) coffee. It’s a ritual and I love the smell and taste. But I know too much is not healthy so I limit my intake.
- Build your tolerance of “being uncomfortable” – when you notice an unpleasant thought, feeling or body sensation, stay with it for a little while longer before you shift your body, reframe your thoughts or do whatever else to make it go away. Breathe consciously, then find a comfortable body position and simply be with yourself for a few minutes.
- Writing your observations in a journal on a daily basis is an effective method to accompany your own experience. If you like, share them with a trusted person.
Manage Connection and Boundaries
Humans are social beings, this becomes especially apparent in times of crisis. However, it is not the quantity of contact that counts but the quality. You will likely benefit more from having one meaningful heartfelt conversation a week than being on social media every day.
- Reach out to friends, family, work colleagues to avoid social isolation. Video calls are great to stay in touch. Help people who are not used to virtual interactions get started.
- As difficult as it may sound, if a social contact is constantly inundating you with bad news and negative thinking, speak up by saying, for example, “right now I need to stay in a positive place, so let’s please focus on how we can support each other.”
- There are a great many offers for support, including one-to-one counselling, coaching and virtual sessions on a diverse range of topics such as personal and professional development and online communities of like-minded people.
- Boundaries! If you are sharing your living space with other people, you might have to (re)negotiate your routines, share childcare responsibilities, household tasks and time for yourself. Communication is more important than ever – try out Non-Violent Communication, a needs-based, non-judgemental way to communicate and navigate conflict.
- Stay informed, but limit the amount of “corona news” to ca. 30 minutes a day, for example during the evening news. Avoid at all cost starting your day looking at the news. Ensure that your information source is reliable and not “fake news”. If you get anxious about the news, stop for a few days or actively look for positive information.
Focus on what you CAN control
While the outside world is chaotic, bewildering and tumultuous, we can shift our attention to our sphere of influence – our daily routines, our inside world.
Use this time to crystallise what is truly important to you and how you would like to live your life after this time has passed. Times of disruption give us a great opportunity to pause and evaluate how we lead our lives, who we want to share it with, how we treat the planet we live on, what we truly need.
- Maintain or start a reflective or mindful practice, such as meditation, yoga, tai chi or qi gong. These methods are all breath-centered and have proven effective in emotional regulation, stress reduction and increasing clarity and focus.
- Alternatively, dedicate a few minutes each morning to contemplate: write freely in a notebook (not editing your thoughts), walk slowly and deliberately in nature or simply sit with both feet on the ground and a straight spine, eyes closed.
- Look after yourself physically. Your choice of physical exercise, daily exposure to sun light and nature (if possible), sound diet and sufficient sleep will help you stay centered and calm.
- Finally, adapt your daily routine to the new circumstances. Humans need some sense of stability and structure, so make your living space a sanctuary of calm, keep it tidy and organised. This allows your mind to perceive some sense of control, at least inside your home.
Try it out – simple one-minute breath techniques
Yoga has some simple and easy breath techniques (“Pranayama”) that work with your autonomic nervous system. The following two exercises are quick and easy:
- Energising: sit in an upright position, close the left nostril with the middle/index finger of your left hand. Keep the remaining fingers pointing upwards in a relaxed way. Close your eyes or softly gaze towards the wall or floor. Breathe long and deep through the RIGHT Inhale right, exhale right, 1 min or more.
- Relaxing: sit in an upright position, close the right nostril with the middle/index finger of your right hand. Keep the remaining fingers pointing upwards in a relaxed way. Close your eyes or softly gaze towards the wall or floor. Breathe long and deep through the LEFT Inhale left, exhale left, 1 min or more. Lenghtening your exhale relaxes even more.
Every crisis holds within it the opportunity to rise above it, we say in Kundalini Yoga. While undoubtedly challenging, this cocooning time can help us slow down, become still even, and create a new world from a more conscious and humane place. The choices we are making now, as individuals and a collective, will bear upon decades to come. Let’s stay awake and not waste this time.
© Alexandra Montgomery, March 2020