Mental Resilience During a Pandemic
Airline Captain, Transformational Life Coach, Human Factors Consultant and all round inspirational woman Karen Speight writes for The Sister Sister Network on mental resilience during a pandemic.
Many people feel lost at the moment - overwhelmed by the hopeless enormity of it all.
Are you going round the same old thought patterns without moving forwards?
Do you wonder how some people flourish effortlessly in dire circumstances (don’t you love to hate them?) while others crumble like a packet of digestives when they break a nail?
Good news! Mental resilience is not something you are born with, you can practise and get better. You too can worship at the altar of Taking Things in your Stride and bask in the sunlight of Growing From Adversity.
I’ll stop the vomit-inducing buzzword bingo and get down to how you can make this your new hobby. You too can be someone that people love to hate.
One afternoon, engaged in some light reading about the effects of being held hostage (a relaxing break from a book about the psychology of genocide) it occurred to me that we have all been held captive by COVID-19.
Here’s the worrying list of effects: impaired concentration, confusion, intrusive thoughts, hyper-vigilance, denial, numbing, survivor guilt, helplessness and depression. Add social withdrawal (okay, imposed rather than sought) and irritability and there’s a clear parallel between being caught up in the average armed bank raid and the pandemic.
I’ve certainly had several moments of total disbelief. Apparently, some hostages in the Moscow theatre siege initially believed that the appearance of heavily-armed Chechnyan rebels was part of the military musical performance. Imagine the scene:
“Do as we say or die!”
“I say old chap! Lovely, immersive performance, but you’re blocking my view of the stage. Would you mind awfully moving over a tad?”
The psychological damage to the Chechnyan rebels as a result of no-one taking them seriously is surely worth studying.
The only symptom missing from the hostage parallel is “Stockholm Syndrome”. It’s a big stretch to identify with the motives of a virus although I’m sure someone has tried.
What is resilience?
Are you Actively Growing through Encountering Difficulties (A.G.E.D.) and Waxing in Intelligence from Strenuous Episodes (W.I.S.E.)?
We evolved with a fight, flight, freeze (FFF) mechanism buried deep within our brains which helped us survive those saber-toothed tiger ambushes of old. Nowadays, you’re quietly minding your own business, when you suddenly remember that it was your mother-in-law’s birthday yesterday. Huge rafts of adrenalin jolt you from your reverie and your heart rate triples as a nasty cast of characters including fear and anger (no-one reminded you!!) swarm about menacingly.
Despite the startling lack of predators these days (your mother-in-law is not that bad), FFF will frequently hijack your rational brain with surprise armed raids. Whilst it’s waving it’s gun about there can be no rational thinking, survival is your only concern.
Resilient people have a FFF mechanism, but they have learnt better hostage negotiation skills. You can calm the ambush by taking a mindful moment - a few deep breaths with focus on body sensations or listening intently to the sounds around you.
The science repeatedly shows that the brain doesn’t know the difference between pretending and actually doing. That’s why top sportspeople spend so much time pretending they are winning.
Ever heard “cells that fire together wire together”? You can power off the blocks with your own resilience training by repeatedly imagining yourself coping well.
Neuroscientist Richard Davidson compared brain scans of Buddhist monks with novice and non-meditators and found that years of loving kindness meditation changes the way the brain works. You too can literally rewire your brain to think and feel how you want to think and feel, by thinking and feeling in the way you want to think and feel. Or to put that another way - practise makes you good at what you practise.
Thoughts and emotions
Which brings me on to another important matter. Why are you in a bad mood? Let’s see how you might be taking yourself hostage.
Many people think that the pandemic has caused them to feel anxious, insecure etc. However there’s an important step missing: your beliefs about the situation. If you think the pandemic is a well-deserved Act of God as we stray from the (somewhat dimly-illuminated) path of enlightenment you will probably feel very differently than if you believe that bad things shouldn’t happen (except to your mother-in-law).
It was useful in our evolutionary past to interpret things negatively - a funny look might mean that you were about to be cast out of the tribe and die. In cave-person times it was better to bow, scrape and appease the elders of the tribe, than ignore this potential threat.
The legacy from ancient history is that particular situations tend to trigger a negative interpretation. Ambiguity is one - my particular favourite being letters from the tax office. Tiredness is another - as our long suffering families know better than we do. Or something you value is at stake - if your children are in danger it’s probably better to overestimate the risks, although I appreciate that the value of some peoples’ children is wearing thin during repeated lockdowns.
Name your emotions
Many of us numb out the signals from our bodies with an embarrassing lack of control around chocolate cake, prosecco, tv boxsets, exercise - anything can become addictive if we use it to avoid uncomfortable feelings. Problem is - these feelings are trying to communicate and if we numb them out they just come back stronger.
Discerning our emotions is a game changer. Some experts distinguish between 34000 emotional states, but there are only 3000 English words for emotions. That’s approximately 8.824% of them - which tells you all you need to know about English speakers’ reticence to own up to any fluffy woo-woo stuff like emotions. As with the need for that weighty tome, “the Eskimo Dictionary of Snow Types”, as we become better at distinguishing our emotions we need to up our linguistic skills.
For now, the seven main emotions of happy, sad, anger, fear, disgust, surprise and contempt will do. Trying naming your emotions throughout your day, especially unpleasant ones. Labelling them gives distance from them and perspective on their comings and goings. Self-compassion includes an ability to embrace our emotions as a normal human experience rather than ostracising them by freebasing gin.
How healthy is your mindset
It’s impossible not to be wearing some sort of metaphorical spectacles to view the world, but you have a choice as to whether they are comedy overlarge green ones, or a monocle screwed into one eye.
You can think of five modes of seeing the world. Is whatever is happening a crisis worthy of any soap opera? It’s fashionable to see difficulties as challenges but that’s only scraping one level up. What’s occurring is actually a situation i.e. entirely neutral until you invest it with meaning.
We can do better than this though. Can you elevate your thinking to see opportunity within events? The final, Dalai-Lama-enlightenment stage would be to see any situation as a gift. You may not see the hidden positives at the time, but trusting that there will be some is a step few can make at the time of difficult situations.
Unpick your thinking
How many of your negative thoughts fall into the following categories?
1. All-or-nothing thinking. Things are brilliant or utterly rubbish. How realistic is this? Can you grade what’s happening on a scale of 1-10 instead?
2. Mind-reading. Let’s go back to that funny look during the tribal meeting earlier. Many times I’ve thought I was on the brink of being cast out from society, only to discover that actually I have cappuccino sprinkles plastered onto the bridge of my nose.
3. Fortune telling. Doing badly in your recent exam/check /appraisal definitely means you are going to lose your job. Discuss.
4. Catastrophising. The collared dove with a limp on my patio will probably get frostbite, gangrene and sepsis and die a painful agonising death.
Catch yourself in the act, lovingly understand that you are just being human and take a mindful moment. Then challenge yourself to be more rational. Find a way of reminding yourself to check frequently on what your inner demons are up to with their latest ransom demands. Use a coach to support you with tackling your particular challenges. You won’t become a zen master overnight but the more you practise the easier it becomes.