These are uncertain and unsettling times. The spread of COVID-19 is an event we had not planned for and we are unsure of the impact it will have. How do we cope with the stress of life feeling more out of control than usual?
It’s normal to be unsettled and concerned about the upending of life as we know it. Says Psychology Professor John Forsyth from the University of Albany: “Humans find comfort and safety in the predictability of the routines of daily living”. The pervasive uncertainty of the current situation can make it difficult to plan a course of action. We may feel sadness, disappointment, fear or anxiety. It is important that we notice negative emotions, thoughts and physical sensations as they come up and consider the strategies that will help process and regulate them.
In times of uncertainty, we can easily over-focus on external forces that are well beyond our control, including government decisions, the economy, and the statistics related to the spread of COVID-19. The media doesn’t help! We might worry, catastrophise and ruminate about a worst-case scenario. This can send us in a downward spiral where thoughts and emotions can become distorted and unhelpful. Dr Sven Hansen, from the Resilience Institute, emphasises the need for us to be disciplined with our thinking and attention. We choose what we think and what we focus on. Rather than imagining the worst-case scenario and worrying about it, ask yourself: Am I getting ahead of myself, assuming something bad will happen when I really don't know the outcome? Am I underestimating my ability to cope?
Limiting our intake of information is essential to enable us to stay calm and focused. When people are fearful, they seek information to reduce uncertainty. We need to be discerning about the news we choose to read as it can be deceptive and sensationalised. The best antidote is to limit time on social media and focus on accessing a few reputable news sources.
The research tells us that optimistic and resilient people choose to focus on what is in their control (Seligman, 2006; Reivich, 2002). No matter what happens, they always believe that they, not their circumstances, are the locus of control. They view uncertainty in life as inevitable and the current situation as temporary.
The wisdom of holocaust survivor, neurologist and psychiatrist, Viktor Frankl always inspires me:
Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.
So, what can we control?
What brings you joy in life? Keep doing those things. Watching a movie, reading a great book, gardening, going for a walk in nature, cooking or spending time with your loved ones, pets and friends. Who brings you joy? Stay connected. Don't forget the people and activities that help you broaden your perspective so you feel more optimistic and hopeful about the situation.
We Cantabrians know what it is like to experience external threats. During this time, we can consider the strategies and perspective we have gained from being forced to navigate adversity. What has worked in the past and what knowledge have we gained about ourselves through our experiences? It is about giving ourselves credit and trusting our individual and collective ability to bounce forward. We are resilient.
In challenging times, we will navigate a variety of emotions, and at our own pace. People will be impacted in different ways and to differing degrees. No two of us are the same. Don’t compare your response to others. Some people are better at dealing with uncertainties and have a tolerance for unpredictability; others are in more vulnerable situations than yours.
Kindness is contagious and this current situation is a wonderful opportunity to contribute to the collective. We need to look after each other, our families and our community. This has been a key focus for staff and students at St Andrew's College.
Uncertainty is part of life. This too will pass, and things will get better. Challenging times force us to slow down and think about what matters most in our lives. Let’s look after each other. We are adaptable, resourceful and resilient.
Kerry Larby, Head of Well-being and Positive Education
Wednesday 18 March 2020