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A Maltese Psychologist’s Advice On How To Approach Coronavirus With Compassion

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February and March 2020 have probably turned out to be very different to what many of us expected or planned for. This coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has triggered waves of justifiable emotion across countries. In response to this, I notice it has also exposed a nastier side to human behaviour. This is important for us to reflect on.

Through this blog I hope to share my thoughts to help us understand that our reactions are instinctual and rooted deeply in evolution. At the same time, we have the capability and a responsibility to be mindful of our behaviour so that we can respond helpfully and with compassion rather than to react automatically and potentially harmfully towards ourselves and others.

Our Fear Response Makes Sense

Coronavirus is a real global threat for which we are receiving dire warnings from the media and each other. It has triggered a range of fears and particularly the fundamental human fear of dying. We all know that one day we and our loved ones will die; it is one of the greatest certainties of life. However, being directly exposed to our mortality, be it because of terror attacks, earthquakes, and now coronavirus, is bound to get us shaking and feeling shocked.

Let’s face it, finding ourselves faced with coronavirus has been a curveball, especially when many of us are caught up in a fast-paced life, with our head down, trying desperately to juggle everything on our to-do list. It has disrupted our usual routine; it was not part of our plan, and we were not prepared for this. As human beings we like things to be predictable and clear as this helps us cope better. Therefore, the unknown and unpredictability with coronavirus can leave us feeling out of control, panicked and helpless.

We are hard wired to respond to a threat by protecting ourselves and getting ourselves to safety. This ensures our survival. Several threat-based emotions can be triggered during threatening times including anger, disgust, sadness, and anxiety.

Anxiety can have an important role in:

1. Warning us that we are in danger, that something is wrong, and that we need to do something about it

2. Activating the fight, flight, and freeze reaction to help us get to safety and ultimately survive

3. Biasing our attention to look out for more signs of danger so that we can avoid them

So in response to the coronavirus threat, anxiety is naturally helping us to be more careful about where we touch, proactively wash our hands, be alert of the environment and people around us, listen for and keep up to date with news about the progression of coronavirus, follow safety guidelines, and to problem solve how to shift to working from home. Anxiety is stimulating us into action and this can help us regain a sense of control and belief that we can cope with the situation.

Why Is It Difficult To Regain A Sense Of Safety With The Coronavirus?

One word: Uncertainty.

– Are we going to get it?

– Will my loved ones get it?

– How fast and wide will it continue to spread?

– Will they find a cure for it?

– Do I have to cancel my holiday and work plans? My wedding?

– When will I see my family again if they are quarantined abroad?

– How long will this disruption last?

Let’s observe what may be happening now as you read these questions. Fire alarms are probably going off in our amygdala ringing louder and louder, triggering more anxiety and reinforcing the message that something is wrong. We may find ourselves panicking; as our emotional mind takes over, our rational mind starts to lose its footing.

Again this is normal. It is just how our tricky human minds work. They are fantastic at coming up with the worst case scenarios. Anxiety is doing its job- it is trying to prepare us and protect us. However, if left unregulated anxiety can hijack our behaviour and things can get ugly.

The greater the threat we imagine, the more we internally generate a sense of desperation. Of course, this may be enhanced and reinforced by the external messages from media, family and friends that we are in danger. So what might happen? Our animalistic urge to survive emerges stronger and faster and we become more self-focused.

What Can Happen When Anxiety Hijacks Us?

We become excessively hypervigilant and repeatedly listen to and read more and more news about the topic though our anxiety may impede our ability to think clearly and filter the quality of the information and news we are exposed to. This has an unintended consequence of escalating our anxiety and maintaining our belief that we are not safe.

It becomes overly competitive. It becomes about ‘me vs you’ and ‘survival of the most stocked up with toilet paper and pasta’. As human beings we are ‘social beings’ where we follow what others do. The chain reaction of panic buying supplies is noticeable in supermarkets. We try to take back control by feeling safe in our environment with our material belonging, even if it is of detriment to others who may end up with nothing.

Our perception becomes biased. We see other people as a threat and interpret their actions as threatening. I have witnessed and heard many stories around this:

• Chinese people and Chinese food being equated with coronavirus and therefore being avoided due to people’s perception that they are a contamination risk.

• People shouting at someone who sneezes on the London tube, assuming they are Italian (and therefore contagious) and calling them a ‘dirty foreigner’.

• People giving each other suspicious and angry looks if they show signs of sickness, and I admit to being guilty of this one. This morning someone coughed as they walked towards me in the street, I did the quickest 180 degree swivel to avoid his air bubble! I was so annoyed and thinking ‘why on earth didn’t they cover their mouth?!’ My survival instinct was on full alert.

• People jumping to conclusions and accusing each other in a judgemental and cruel way of not abiding to hygiene guidelines even when they have no evidence to corroborate this.

• People stealing masks, disinfectants and toilet paper from hospitals; taking resources away from healthcare providers who need it for treating those who are unwell and vulnerable.

These reactions create a greater divide between us and perpetuate the feeling that ‘others are bad’ and that we are not safe.

Emotions Are Not The Problem

It is important to highlight that anxiety and other threat-based emotions are not the problem. Emotions are not our enemy and we need them! There is an actual threat around and they can help us take constructive action to keep ourselves and each other safe.

If we do not experience some anxiety for instance, we would not be bothered about washing our hands whilst singing the happy birthday song twice. It is also not our fault that we have an evolutionary instinct to survive. However, there is a line between surviving by putting regulations and limits in place to contain the pandemic, and being racist, prejudiced, and cruel.

Approaching Coronavirus With Compassion

Self-awareness is a core skill that can empower us to take charge of our emotions and to notice if they are starting to take control of us. Instead of approaching this threatening time by seeing others as the contagious enemy and threatening them back, it can be more helpful to approach this threatening time with compassion.

The definition of compassion is a sensitivity to the suffering in ourselves and others, and a commitment to alleviate it. Compassion is about being helpful not harmful to ourselves and others.

What Can Compassionate Responses Look Like?

• Instead of stealing and stocking up on resources, what about sharing resources with those who are running out or who are unable to get to the shop themselves?

• Altruism and helping others can have a positive impact on our well-being and satisfaction in life. What about offering to drop off food for our neighbour who is quarantined?

 Aligning together, creating a sense of togetherness, not labelling or stigmatising each other, can help us more effectively contain the coronavirus. We are all in this together.

• Staying informed without overdoing it. Anxiety thrives on trying to find certainty and you may notice that you are drawn into finding more information to stay safe. It can help to pause and rest when we recognise that news is taking too much of our mental capacity. Also being wiser about the sources of information we use to minimise spreading rumours and anxiety in ourselves and others.

• Remember the fundamentals of communication such as respect and active listening. Our anger and fear can become blinding as we convince ourselves that our view is right (and others are wrong) and this hinders our ability to listen. Finding a balance between mindfully listening to experts in the field, as well as sharing our thoughts and opinions, can help us be better equipped and informed on how to cope.

• Compassion is also about saying no if this means alleviating further suffering. It is OK to respectfully say ‘no’ to being part of another coronavirus discussion, or to say ‘no’ if we think it is too soon to meet a friend or colleague because we have a vulnerable family member at home or want to safeguard ourselves.

• It is OK to feel vulnerable and scared. We may need to give ourselves and others permission and space to express these feelings, even we do not like them. Trying to supress, deny, ignore, and invalidate our feelings does not mean they will go away; rather they may accumulate and feel more overwhelming over time.

• When we notice our worrying thoughts, we can thank our brain for doing its job and trying to keep us safe. We can then turn our attention towards nurturing ourselves by showing ourselves kindness and engaging in self-care. We can also focus on engaging in activities that give our life meaning and connecting with people we value. This can help us get out of our heads and into our present moment.

• A special friend helped me understand that finding moments of humour and happiness even during times of adversity can be healing. Notice and punctuate these moments! This was beautifully demonstrated in Italy as the community united together in song and laughter from their balconies. A real illustration of how we can come together to get through it.

And Finally, We May Be Pleasantly Surprised

As the coronavirus has brought us to a halt, this may be an opportunity to look up from our day to day routine, slow down and re-evaluate what is important to us in our life.

We may have a chance to appreciate what we have taken for granted such as our health, connecting with each other face to face, the ease of popping round the shop, having access to so many material resources (which we are spoiled with in third world countries).

Our problem solving skills are being really tested and as a result we may discover that we are able to adapt and to cope in our life more than we thought.

We do not always realise how courageous we are until we find ourselves in the hardest of circumstances and have no other choice but to be courageous.

I wanted to end by sharing a beautiful quote brought to my attention by my favourite inspirational speaker and psychologist Tara Brach:

Angelica Attard is a clinical psychologist who works in London. This article was originally published on Angelica Attard’s blog and is being reproduced here with her permission 

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