Managing Scary Thoughts In Scary Times

Our Director of Psychosocial Services GRAHAM FAWCETT shares a reflection on human responses to the Coronavirus outbreak.

The wonderful thing about human beings is how exquisitely attuned we are to threat. If something scary happens we react before we have a chance to think and that way hugely increase the likelihood of survival or of avoiding harm. Those threat reaction systems function quickly – they turn on fast and are designed to switch off quickly, returning us to a state of comparative calm where we can have a think about what just happened.

Before and during a long-lasting threat these systems can start to work against us. Every news item about Covid-19 brings worsening news and, inevitably, our stress levels begin to rise. There may be no imminent threat but the possibility of something bad happening to us personally or to a loved one is also unpredictable and uncertain and, at this stage, hard to control. Our mind starts to do what it is best at – thinking through scenarios of ‘what if’ or ‘if only’ or a more general ‘why…?’. This is helpful if there is something we can do to respond, unhelpful if each time we think these thoughts we come up blank. The result can be escalating feelings of unease and anxiety accompanied by a sense of helplessness.

For some we do what we can even though it makes little sense – panic buying toilet paper provides reassurance and a sense of control, hand sanitiser is sought for its fancy container and convenience even though soap is more effective, masks are put on even though they are uncomfortable, do more to stop others getting our bugs than protecting us and rapidly become unhygienic themselves.

So, what to do? There’s the obvious – get your flu shot, it won’t stop Covid-19 but damps down the possibility of being weak if it does strike, take the medications you are supposed to for the same reasons. Stay fit and join the rest of the world in thinking up 20 second songs you can wash your hands to.

Beyond that boost your immune system by being kind to yourself. Is what you are reading informing you with new information you can act on or simply upsetting you? Can you read or look at something else? Do you pay attention to the statistics indicating a few people will have problems or look at the large number indicating most will be fine and, by most, that probably includes you? Is what you are watching online or on TV enhancing your stress levels if they are already up or can you be a bit more gentle on yourself? Are you talking to others and finding reassurance and a sense of camaraderie? If a higher power is important to you are you making that connection?

Looking out for others will also help. It helps because you get your mind off the unending analysis of threat, get a boost to your own immune system and have different problems to think about that you may also be able to solve alongside others.

Top tips if you are feeling very anxious about what might happen:

• Don’t feed the beast –watch the news or read online only what will help you practically.

• Be kind to your mind – take care what you watch, listen to and communicate.

• Be kind to your body – nourish it and keep it as strong as you can.

 Be kind to others – this helps your immune system and helps others to help you.

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