‘You can’t stop the waves, but you can learn to surf’ (Jon Kabut-Zinn)

‘The way you tell the story to yourself matters’ (Amy Cuddy)

Since the first news of the pandemic we have been aware of a global thrum of anxiety which has impacted on us individually to varying degrees.

The threat of illness and death has been headline news and we have all been involved in avoiding and managing the risks in order to keep ourselves, our loved ones, the community, the country, and the world, safe.

Of course, being vigilant to threat is programmed into every human being and operates from the moment we are born.

Babies cry when they sense a separation from their primary caregiver as their very survival is dependent on good parental care.

A couple’s angry protest can be a symptom of the distress of an emotional rupture. A disturbing feeling of disconnection and insecurity can lead to a confusing mistrust in a much-loved partner. The safety of the relationship can feel in danger and a primal fear of abandonment is evoked. It takes a nano-second for a fight or flight or freeze response to be activated and the couple can be suddenly caught up in a retaliatory attack/defence conflict.

With anxiety running as an undercurrent in all our lives, the human brain is now even more hyper-alert to threat, and it can be a challenge to remain grounded. The brain is constantly busy making second-by-second risk assessments of the situations in which we find ourselves and it keeps us safe. 

However, depending on our personal history, at times our brains can be over-sensitive, disposed to over-react and over-estimate the level of threat. The chatter of the self-talk in our heads gets out of control and becomes a buzzing noisiness. Our minds can ratchet up the busy-ness to such an extent we can be overwhelmed by panic. It means our systems have become overloaded by a mal-adaptive, over-active, stress response which will not switch off.  In an attempt to maintain control we dare not relax or let down our guard. We end up exhausted, frazzled and wired to the point of emotional paralysis and burn out. Like a computer with too many programmes open, we slow down and cannot function effectively. We have an irritable short fuse, get quickly overloaded, and descend into a meltdown. We lose perspective and a capacity for creativity, grit and resilience.

There can even be a collapse of the nervous system that causes a depressive episode. Despair, hopelessness and a feeling of a lack of agency can take over, creating a feeling of numb shut-down. We can get caught in a spiral of self-neglect or self-abuse – sometimes to the point of self-harm. 

In calmer times we were able find a balance and achieve the sense of safety and ease that comes from the reassurance that we have made a fairly intelligent general calculation of the level of risk. We can be optimistic that we will not be caught unawares and face a catastrophe. We get in a car or a plane. We are open in our relationships. We embark on an adventure. We make an unexpected career change. All involve unknowns but we have an awareness of, and confidence in, our skills, capability, strengths and resilience if we should face adversity.

But the past year has been an unusual time. The arrival of Covid has brought challenges for which we were unprepared. We cling to ‘Follow the data’ and ‘Follow the science’ and cope as best we can with the uncertainties. But there feel few safe havens when we live within the miasma of anxiety that surrounds the whole world. 

While some extraordinarily brave first responders turned towards the emergency, the rest (on instruction from governments) resorted to ‘cave syndrome’.

Of course, nothing ever does stay the same. Life entails a constant adjustment and adaption to change and, although we may deny its reality, we are always in a state of transition from one state to another. Sometimes it is wonderful and fulfilling. Other times it means accommodating Life’s curved balls that come from left field and knock us off our feet. We all know the ‘sliding door’ moments that send our lives careering off in a different direction. 

In a moment of crisis we may feel that we will not be able to carry on but then find tools that help us manage and continue. The pandemic has proved hard because many of the lifelines that we previously relied on have been ripped away.

We do not often consciously acknowledge or celebrate our strengths, our ability to thrive within a state of flux and change. But it is particularly important at the moment that we make them explicit so coping never feels random or accidental. They are a tried and trusted resource and we a need this toolbox of effective strategies to be at hand.

  • A helpful exercise to cope with the worst-case scenarios that can run on a loop in your head is to write an inventory of how you coped with difficult events in the past. Rather than get stuck in the worry and panic of a fantasy future that has not yet happened, create your personal ‘toolbox’ by listing 10 examples of the times you faced adversity and came through. What strategies did you employ? Could they behelpful today? Can you think of ways to improve on them?

Our imaginations have the potential to be creative and limitless but we need to give ourselves the flexibility of mind to explore all possibilities. Imagination can also be a curse if we are stuck in a negative spiral of predicting disaster.

  • Challenge a negativity cul-de-sac by planning a road map with steps and stages that lead out of the confusion. Draw a mind map exploring all kinds of alternative positive possibilities – including the bizarre and ridiculous – with the purpose of breaking out of a straightjacket of fear, of widening your perspective, and of tackling the feeling of being blocked or stuck. Imagine the problem as a tangled ball of thread and begin to pull out individual strands.

Fear is a useful sign that we should act to keep ourselves safe, but when fear gets out of control we can get flooded and develop inflexible behaviours and a rigid mindset that keep us trapped in a vortex of despair. 

  • Try positive self-talk and banish self-criticism. Attitude is a choice and kindness to oneself is a choice. Take up a defiant stance (legs apart, hands on hips) and repeat a contradictoryself-complimentary mantra. Use your name and talk to yourself in the third-person. Recognise feelings of overwhelm, name the emotion, write it down and respond with saying ‘SO WHAT’ out loud. [It was Andy Warhol who said, “’So What’ is one of my favourite things to say”]. Then try saying ‘THIS TOO WILL PASS’. Think of a possible alternative outcome and wonder out loud, ‘WHAT IF…’

You might keep spotting a yellow car when you’re always thinking of yellow cars, and it is easy to spot reasons to be fearful when you are anxious. But when you look down the road take notice of the silver cars, try to spot the red and blue cars and you will notice that your focus on the yellow car fades.

The opposite of fear is not certainty – it is the reality and presence of the complexity and richness of the NOW. 

  • To break a loop of rumination, concentrate on your breath. With the index finger of one hand trace the outline of the other hand breathing in as you ascend each finger and breathing out as you come down the other side.Come back into the moment by concentrating on your five senses. Stop, take a breath, close your eyes. What can you hear? What can you feel where your feet, your body, touches the floor or a surface? Look up and stare at the sky, or a tree, or a flower. Eat something that will awaken your tastebuds: a lemon, a strong mint… Smell something pungent that you love: perfume, coffee, ginger…It can help us back into the present moment.

We don’t ‘get over’ or move on’ from a distressing experience, we learn to make space for it. We learn how to accommodate and live with its presence. However daunting it may seem, the only way ever is through.‘To let it hurt. Let it bleed, Let it heal’. But for that we need the reassurance of a support system that will keep us buoyant while we navigate choppy waters. Reach out – not for alcohol or drugs – but perhaps for a friend, a family member, a group, faith, a creative activity, a particular piece of music. For the totemic ‘dolphin’ who will swim alongside.

  • It’s not an attempt to make lemonade out of lemons but notice the silver-linings. Keep a gratitude journal however trivial and mundane the items may seem. Let the list grow. It’s not about convincing yourself that a devasting event could ever be a good thing, but holding the idea that life is complicated and rich and the ideas symbolise the glimmers of hope that anchor us and help us to keep going.

Our brains can register when there is a conflict between our desired states and the actual state in which we are living and the ambivalence an confusion can add to our sense of unease. Kross describes the importance of rituals which are infused with meaning – ‘a sequence of behaviours performed in the same order’. He goes on to say that rituals are ‘chatter reducing’ when they disconnect us from the negative associations of anxiety and replace that with a link to a positive meaning. A ritual directs attention away from a floating worry, directs our focus on an activity that connects to a significant meaning.

  • Create a personal daily ritual. Light a candle next to a photograph of someone you love. Place a significant object that is imbued with meaning in a prominent place and pause to revive an associated memory. Embrace a religious ritual that connects you with family, friends, community.

Kathy Rees

With grateful thanks to:

  1. ‘CHATTER: The voice in our head and how to harness it’ (Ethan Kross) [Vermilion 2021]
  2. ‘Unwinding Anxiety – Train your brain to heal your mind (Dr Jud Brewer)

3. How Trauma affects your Body Alex Howard – click to watch video here.

4. How to discover the ‘why’ in difficult times (Simon Sinek)