We find ourselves in uncertain times. Regardless of who you are, or where you are, you may now be affected by the global pandemic COVID-19; the Coronoavirus. This can impact you in a physical, emotional, social and financial way – no wonder you might be feeling anxious right now.
As I have noticed the mental health impact from this, in myself, my loved ones and my clients, I have been trying to make sense of this. We haven’t experienced anything like this before and so there is no ‘rule book’ for how to respond or behave, but we can draw on what we know from psychological theory and research to help us make sense of the seemingly senseless.
Uncertainty and stepping into the unknown
The word I have used the most as we are navigating these stormy seas hasn’t been the ‘C word‘, it has been the ‘U word’ – uncertainty. Every single person I have spoken to has been feeling a sense of being out of control from not knowing what’s happening, experiencing uncertainty. We are essentially stepping Into the Unknown, like the brilliant song from the Frozen 2 soundtrack. These are unprecedented times, we cannot possibly know what to expect from something which is new and unfamiliar. No wonder that it’s unsettling for you, as the brain craves familiarity and patterns. There are way to create that for you in the midst of all of this, read on for some tangible tips. But first, let’s think of how compassion can be helpful right now.
Stronger together – survival of the nurtured
All around the world, we are already seeing humankind be kind right now. As mammals, us humans are built for nurture and caring for each other, being stronger together than we are apart and on our own. We are seeing communities being built online, overbridging any the necessary spacial distance enforced upon us with the emotional connection from choosing to be helpful, not harmful to each other. People are rallying together, supporting one another. It isn’t about ‘survival of the fittest’, as I overheard a young man say in the supermarket, it is about survival of the nurtured. Not about who wins the supermarket race of buying the most toilet paper and pasta. Now, humans also have a natural capacity for aggression and territorialism; a competitive motivation to stay alive and protect one’s own territory and resources. That is when we need compassion the most.
May I be helpful, not harmful
Compassion is about having a sensitivity to the suffering of others and yourself, and being committed to doing something about the pain you find. One way to think about it is this: “given everything I know about myself, doesn’t it make sense that I feel this way?” If the answer is yes, you have taken a step towards understanding yourself in a compassionate way. Finding this sort of clarity and wisdom is important in order to make sense of your reactions right now. Next you need to also care about what you find, making a commitment to be kind and helpful, not harmful, to yourself.
Now try to do the same thing again, but consider others. “Given everything I know about this person, doesn’t it make sense that they feel or act this way? Yes, so how can I be helpful, not harmful to them?”
This isn’t about you, it’s about them
The acts of social distancing, or as I like to think of it, prosocial distancing, is mainly not about you. It is about protecting those who rely on your help and support, those who need your compassionate acts right now. You may be in the group of those who are vulnerable and at-risk, if so, your challenge may lie in being able to accept and receive that compassionate care coming from others. But odds are that you belong to the group of people who will develop only mild symptoms if you contract the virus, and will be okay. You are therefore using social distancing as a way to protect those who cannot protect themselves. And this is not a time for thinking about ‘us’ and ‘them’, of people belonging to your group or not. Now there is only ‘we’, united together by this global threat we are facing.
Remember this if you are standing there looking at shelves which have been recently restocked, you can choose to act in a compassionate way even when in the face of fear and uncertainty:
1. Notice the fear of running out of resources, and tell yourself how understandable it is.
It’s not your fault that your brain operates on a ‘better safe than sorry basis’.
2. Observe the urge to take more than what you need, as a way to feel in control and feel safe.
3. Reassure yourself that essentially, in this moment, you are basically safe and okay.
4. Ask yourself “how can I be helpful, not harmful, to myself and to others?”
5. Choose the most compassionate act, balancing in your needs with those of others. It may be to buy something for yourself, it may be to pick it up to pass on to someone in greater need, or it may be to let it remain on the shelf.
We are all under pressure right now, some of us more so than others. Parents are weighed down by the need to look after the emotional and practical needs of their children, whilst also feeling scared themselves – how can we make a living if childcare and schools are closed and we are still expected to work? Carers are concerned about how to keep vulnerable or elderly people safe. Partners are worried about how to manage to stay sane if caught in self-isolation or lockdown. Children are scared by misinformation and rumours spreading about this invisible threat, watching the grownups for signs of what to do and how to feel. Business owners fear for their livelihood, panicking about how to sustain their business in a downturn of the economy and not being able to sell products or services like before.
I hear you. It is just really, really hard right now, coping with the weight of that pressure. I would like to use my system of to provide you with something tangible to hold on to in this storm, to keep your head above the water.
If you are anything like me, (and odds are that you are, as we are both human), you are having racing thoughts about what will happen, experiencing a rollercoaster of emotions about the situation. No wonder you are feeling overwhelmed, it can be all-consuming to process all the information we are being showered with.
So try this: take a moment to pause
The act of pausing, of slowing down your breath and your movements, can help you gain some perspective. The problem is still there, but you can create a bit of space between yourself and the problem.
This will help you to respond in a considered way, rather than react in a panicked way.
Take a slow, deep breath in, letting the air inflate your stomach like a balloon. Then slowly release the air out again, letting the belly sink. Find a rhythm of breathing which is a little bit deeper and a little bit slower than usual, to create that pause. If you find this tricky, read on for details on my free guided meditation practice group.
Pausing can help ground you, and tune into what is happening in the outer world around you, right here, right now. It can also help you tune into what is happening in your inner world, your thoughts, feelings, urges and memories. Being aware of what you are thinking and feeling as you are thinking and feeling it means you can better choose how to be helpful and not harmful towards yourself.
Once you have slowed down enough to be able to think straight, you can reflect on what really matters to you. That’s where purpose comes in.
We can find meaning in the most challenging situations, much like Viktor Frankl in his quest for meaning in life in the concentration camps. Albert Einstein said “In the middle of difficulty lies opportunity”. Tuning into what you find meaningful and important can help you create opportunity in these difficult times. An opportunity to reconnect with loved ones, having perhaps more time to reflect and be together. An opportunity to consider how you want to work going forward, perhaps changing your career or finding a new passion. An opportunity to strip things back to the core, when all of what you have taken for granted has been removed.
So try this: ask yourself what really matters to you
Slowing down to reflect on values, meaning and purpose can help you choose wisely over the next few weeks and months. It can help you put your phone away to be more connected with family, or choose to use your phone to call someone who you are now not able to be close with. It helps you choose with intention, doing what matters. That also leaves room for a little bit more play.
It is hard to play when we don’t feel safe, when we are threatened. Soothing yourself through telling yourself that right now, you are basically okay and safe, can help you relax and settle into this new way of living for a little while. You can use meditations to pause and soothe that threat, to make space for what is important to you, and then have a little bit of fun in the face of uncertainty. If you are keeping some distance from others and live alone, engage with others in a way which brings a bit of humour and laughter to the situation.
So try this: take the pressure off with some fun, games and pleasure
That includes watching videos of people attempting to exercise from home by sliding on oil on the floor, or cats singing about washing hands. The Internet is your friend when it comes to memes and funny videos. Laughing can help you release, and so does playing with others. If you have kids at home now, engage in their games and run around the house or the garden, if you are blessed enough to have an outdoor space. As paradoxical as it might sound, having a little self-love can also release the tension right now. If you would rather be intimate with your partner, if you have one, by all means. That may also increase pressure in some ways, so being with yourself can help you just manage your own anxiety and stress through introducing a little pleasure. Pleasing yourself releases endorphines to lift your mood, and the closeness and connection hormone of oxytocin is released when climaxing. If you are doing this together with someone you love, odds are that you feel closer together.
Don’t knock it until you try it, is all I’m saying. Feeling calm, close and connected is more important than ever now.
Do what you can, imperfectly so
As a specialist on perfectionism, anxiety and stress, I can’t emphasise this enough: do what you can for now.
The last thing you need is more pressure, through beating yourself up for the mistakes you will inevitably make over the coming weeks and months. Aim for good enough, not perfect. This is the time where you lower your standards to an achievable level, or madness lies ahead. The dishes can wait, the house can be messier than usual, and no, the kids do NOT need to be homeschooled following a six-hour colour-coordinated schedule of activities. If doing that gives you a semblance of control, fair enough, but don’t expect your kids to comply with a perfect schedule. Any homeschooling parent can tell you that the rhythm of their days looks quite different from the school day. You don’t have to do that, focus on keeping them safe and connected to you, and let them learn from play. If you are fretting over work, do what you can and remind yourself that it WILL be hard to concentrate and be productive. Your performance is bound to suffer, and that’s okay. We are aiming for connection, not perfection.
As a final conclusion, consider these three statements:
You are enough
You have enough
You do enough
These times call for connection and compassion, both towards yourself and towards others.
Over the next few months, do what you can to release the pressure on yourself and others, aiming to be kind, connected and compassionate.
If you want help to practice this with others, book onto my free Connection & Compassion group here.
If you struggle to let go of the pressure of perfection, being a high striving overachiever, join my Facebook group Pause * Purpose * Play here.