March 14, 2020
The first point to remember is that ‘calm’ is not the natural state for human beings at the best of times. So whenever you feel stressed you can cheer yourself up by remembering natural selection has no love for calm people. Our well-developed fight/flight response only exists because it kept our ancestors away from danger. Cavemen survived because they were afraid of pretty much everything and instantly reacted to perceived threats, including whenever the toilet paper ran low.
So, how can we override our brain’s default anxiety in the face of a real problem like COVID-19?
Firstly, focus on the temporary nature of the pandemic. Our anxious brain is quick to assume bad events are going to be permanent. Sometimes this is accurate. For example, a disability is a permanent bad event. But most stressful events, such as unemployment, a painful separation, changing jobs etc. are only temporary. Studies show that people who focus on the temporary nature of such bad events enjoy more resilience, and better physical and mental health. So don’t let your brain tell you what’s permanent. Think for yourself! Even the dreaded Spanish flu, which decimated populations around the world before modern vaccines and antiviral drugs, only lasted one year. Like SARS and Swine flu, this too shall pass,- leaving some people with a great deal of toilet paper.
Secondly, don’t let your brain tell you the pandemic impacts each and every aspect of your life. In general, we have more resilience when we can see our problems as contained to one specific area of our life, rather than spilling over into unrelated areas. So, yes, I’m crossing my fingers that I don’t get sick (makes hand washing tricky). But if I do get sick it will only impact certain parts of my life. It won’t stop me reading my book, working from home, enjoying a cabernet sauvignon, and feeling superior to people who watch MAFS.
Thirdly, practice gratitude. I, and everyone I know, is currently healthy. I know it and I’m grateful for it. My work and my finances are going to take a hit, and I’ll miss the footy. And something’s happening to my superannuation which I never fully understand anyway. But I also live in a country with a first-class health system. Autumn is simply beautiful. I have a roof over my head (with or without toilet paper). No one is going hungry. I value my family and friends. I am still allowed to set my own goals and learn from my mistakes.
Make gratitude a deliberate practice by counting five blessings every day, and you will find it is good for the soul.
We can also be grateful for the heroes that are emerging. While our political leaders have not exactly covered themselves in glory, scientists from the Peter Doherty Institute in Melbourne were the first to grow the COVID-19 in a cell culture. This is now helping laboratories around the world to combat the virus.
Even better are the ordinary heroes, like the meals on wheels volunteers delivering supplies to elderly people. Allow this to lift your heart, and your mood and your immune system will follow.
Finally, its almost impossible to feel lousy while being kind, or being of service to others. So if you know someone with a pre-existing health issue that increases their risk or their isolation, ask if they need anything. Perform an act of kindness and your own anxiety is soon forgotten.
So what did we learn? To summarise, a pandemic such as COVID-19 sucks. But despite what your anxious brain tells you, remember to remember…
1) This too shall pass.
2) It only impacts some parts of your life.
3) …and meanwhile, gratitude and kindness cost nothing.