Stage 1: Skepticism
At first, I was skeptical.
“This is an overseas thing. It won’t get like that here. This won’t affect us”, I said. “How bad is this thing really going to get? Isn’t it just like getting a cold? Why are people freaking out? It’s just not going to get that bad,” I uttered dismissively.
I scoffed at people being sucked into social and mainstream media, which are so prone to sensationalising issues and I refused to let this increase my stress response to this emerging situation. People really need to calm down.
Stage 2: Attention
A week later my “what if’s?” started kicking in. Ok, this thing has my attention, posts on social media and radio commentators are making sure of that. Apocalyptical reporting is starting to make even the most rational part of my mind take notice of the headlines, of government issued statements and the food on supermarket shelves (or the diminishing lack thereof).
I saw a guy weeks ago with a trolley full of grocery staples, enough to feed a small army, or maybe he’s just purchasing for a restaurant my ‘minimise the threat’ mind said. But then I found myself what if-ing again, being catapulted into ‘worst case scenario’ thinking of a food shortage situation and so I started stocking up, buying doubles of things I usually only buy in singles. The more my brain said “what if,” the more it prompted worry, impulse buying and checking social media and mainstream media news on the impending threat(s). Receiving all this ‘threat laden’ information was activating the part of my brain well trained to neutralise threats and getting me to be alert and ready to go into fight or flight mode. However, my frontal cortex, the part of my brain responsible for making reasoned decisions and rational thought was in minimising mode and trying hard to not let my amygdala make too many irrational, impulsive decisions based on an increase in the volume of my anxiety.
Stage 3: Panic
“Crap, there’s no toilet paper. I knew I should have doubled on my doubling last week!!”
“This is insane!” People are freaking out for nothing. OK, not nothing, it’s something, but freaking out as evidenced by panic-hoarding is just too much, I say to myself and hear others saying to themselves and random strangers in the supermarket.
Ok what if I contract it, COVID-19 (cue scary background music). This thing is highly contagious and to some individuals in certain risk groups possibly lethal. I’m playing out scenarios in my mind of how this thing could impact my life, my health and the health of those I love and whilst I’m alert and cautious (normal) I’m not panicking (not helpful), but many people are. Not the usual cluster of panic symptoms I see in my client in my psychology clinic: shortness of breath, tightness of chest, heart palpitations, feeling light-headed and pins and needles in one’s face or hands and an overwhelming feeling of doom. This version of panic is mostly of the cognitive kind – the overwhelming feeling of doom kind.
The thing about panic and stress in general, is that it suppresses our immune system functioning. When I say DON’T LET YOURSELF PANIC, really try your best to keep calm and calm down others around you. Panic is a choice. We don’t choose the circumstance, but we do choose how we respond to it and let’s face it, we can choose to respond in helpful or unhelpful ways. An unhelpful way is to worry excessively, leading to panic. Consume unlimited gigabytes of threat-laden information from baseless sensational headlines to a plethora of scientific expertise on the virus as it manifests in communities all over the world and you’re on your way to an increase in your stress response. Add in at least six more conversations with relatives, colleagues and strangers and be drawn into their panicked headspace. High states of stress also can be shown as irritability or displays of anger (as seen by people fighting over toilet paper) but underlying this is fear.
Stage 4: Reality
What do you control? You have influence over so many aspects of your day, so focus on that. This will bring you the feeling of certainty in this time where some things are uncertain, and this will help you to feel less stressed. I try to flick over into this headspace ASAP to minimise emotional misreasoning and bring neutrality or balance to my feeling state. When we choose to move out of panic mode by shifting into mindful knowledge gathering, mindful organising and planning we are actively turning down our heightened state of worry.
Strategies to keep calm:
- Be knowledgeable but cut down on the noise. Information helps people to feel certain and certainty can bring about confidence, but we need to make wise choices about what type of information we consume about COVID-19. This can mean social distance yourself from certain types of social and mainstream media. Perhaps just tune into one Federal government health related website for updates or one reliable news program. Be mindful of mainstream media who love to use the sound bite of a politician or the health expert and the overuse of the word “lock-down,” that will probably make it into the Macquarie dictionary of most used words list of 2020. They’ve been using this term for weeks and without defining the parameters of this word, our Amygdala (fight/flight/freeze part of
the brain) catastrophises this to mean, we won’t be allowed to leave our homes at all, not even to buy food. This is what most people are panicking about, I’d say more than getting the virus itself. The constant flow of updates on the Covid-19 situation locally in one way might heighten our stress response but, in another way, knowledge is power and can help us to keep making incremental adjustments.
I love to laugh. It’s great for stress reduction and trying to keep light a heavy topic or experience. However, if you’re trying to minimise how much the topic of Covid-19 is playing in your headspace then be mindful of the inadvertent impact of funny memes.
Whilst I’ve had plenty of laughs over hilarious takes on the current situation, they are still subconsciously prodding my amygdala that the threat is front, and centre and the amygdala pays attention 24/7. I don’t know about you, but I’ve had several dreams about the virus.
Turn the volume down on the noise in your head and community chatter about the virus. Use a strategy aptly named ‘containment’. Contain worries to 10 minutes/day. Lift the lid at a designated time and close the lid when you’ve finished, E.g. 4 to 4.10pm. You can allocate a time in the day to worry, organise and plan to your heart’s content for 10 minutes only. This can be used for any type of worry. Then when thoughts about the pandemic jump into your mind or when people start talking about it, give yourself permission to exit the conversation and credit yourself with STOPPING that thought in its tracks. E.g. “Oh, there’s a thought about the virus. It’s not time yet OR I’ve given this virus 10 minutes of my time today already, that’s quite enough!” and redirect your thoughts to another topic, anything at all.
For example, think about a row of blue elephants wearing yellow hats and red gumboots dancing under green and black poker-dotted umbrellas on pink fluffy marshmallow clouds. Or more pragmatically you could think about what you’re making for dinner or what game to play with your kids, or check in on your neighbours to see if they need anything or ponder on that one take-away message from the book you’ve just read and how you’re going to implement in your life in some way. There are seriously way more interesting things to redirect your mind to than this microscopic little bug that is basking in the limelight right now.
- Be balanced in your thinking and actions. When we allow ourselves to be flooded by information about the pandemic it can result for some in worried thoughts about our health, the impact on our lifestyle resulting from changes to employment circumstances and more broadly we can feel down, flat, tired, pessimistic and low. Take a step back and observe what you are thinking. What are you telling yourself about living through COVID-19?
How you are narrating the story in your head will directly influence your feelings at any given moment. If you can tell yourself the story where you survive this time, where social distancing from large events, your workplace, busy shopping centres is helping you to connect with your kids and partner, ridding your garden bed of those weeds, mow your lawn and finish those jobs around the house you’ve put off for months or years. Maybe you get time to finally read that book or try out that new recipe or pamper yourself with some alone time.
It’s not what you GO through, it’s what you GROW through. Imagine what you will tell your grandkids or great grandkids about the time you went through a pandemic and despite being rightly concerned that you stayed cool, calm and collected. That you remember it bringing out the good in most people, but that some people did overreact. It was during the great pandemic of 2020 that people learned 20 seconds was the optimal length of time for making sure our hands were clean and that despite the presence of a pandemic, for most of us, we had to make some changes to our daily goings-on, but life went on, we coped, we survived.
Choose your mood. If you want to feel happy then do something that brings happiness. If you want to feel joy, help others with intentioned acts of kindness.
- Focus on doing things that make you feel healthy.
Guard your sleep.
Drink plenty of water.
Eat Vitamin packed fresh food
Walk around the block or follow on an online exercise program.
Stay in contact with loved ones by phone/ facetime/ SMS
Engage in activities you love doing (at home)
Be hopeful and pray for good health and well-being for yourself and others
Stage 5: Return to Normal
It was only 4 weeks ago when you didn’t know how many rolls of toilet paper you had left under the sink and when you had never valued or purchased hand sanitiser because hand soap and water is your thing. For the time being, things have changed. I like most minimised the gravity of the situation until my amygdala was prodded by the onslaught of sensationalist messaging and I started to pay attention. I’ve done my best not to panic. I know that overreacting to any situation is not useful to my health and wellbeing, but neither is underreacting and denying that this isn’t going to impact my day for the short while. I like most have had to consciously adopt strategies to keep calm and be in charge of my mood. I may not control the broad pandemic situation, but there are actions I can take to minimise my chances of contracting it and actions I can take to activate resilience to increase my sense of wellbeing during the short period of time that many parts of the functioning society we are familiar with is temporarily paused.
Like every pandemic before it, things return to normal for most people. To thrive through the pandemic other than employing rigorous hand and mouth hygiene practices and social distancing, YOU, yes you need to believe in your ability to cope with this situation. Enhance your self-efficacy. Believing we can cope with any adversity is paramount to bouncing back.
Last but not least, be the best parts of yourself. Draw on your character strengths of flexibility, patience, adaptable and resilient because the situation calls for it and in actualising these assets that you already possess will reduce your stress and improve your wellbeing. Don’t forget to also draw on the character strengths of kindness, helpful and understanding as others around you need to draw from your optimism and in some cases your physical assistance.
About the author
Monique Toohey is the Managing Director and Principal Psychologist of Nasihah Consulting Group. She is one of the Founders of the Centre for Muslim Wellbeing. She has worked within Melbourne’s Muslim communities since she was 19 years old and how supported over 40 Muslim organisations with projects and wellbeing for young people, women and families. Monique has a number of publications, including the book Without You: Rising above the impact of an abusive relationship and recently supported the development of advice handouts for schools, teachers, students and parents on the topic of racist bullying for the Department of Education and Training. In 2017 she delivered the Tasmanian Annual Peace Trust Lecture and in February she was a speaker at Tedx Docklands, her title was Culture eats individuality for breakfast.