“People need hard times and oppression to develop psychic muscles.”
– Emily Dickinson
Like radiating ripples from a meteorite hitting the ocean, terror sweeps across the world in a heartbeat. Hundreds of millions are stricken with maddening panic. An unknown virus takes hold and causes people to behave like lemmings and destroy themselves.
This was the horrifying theme of the 1973 sci-fi thriller Panic o’Clock, by Christopher Hodder-Williams.1 A virus caused the world to panic, and this panic literally killed people. Imagine it!
Obviously, we need to take the current spread of coronavirus deadly seriously. But also we need calm heads and measured actions, now more than ever.
If you are a practitioner, perhaps you are currently seeing clients remotely. Maybe you are still managing to serve your community as best you can – and make an income! But of course, you need to look after your own emotional life as well, not least of all because you can help others to do the same.
To be effective you need to stay strong, for you and for your loved ones.
This piece isn’t about all the sensible precautions we should take to remain infection-free or prevent passing the virus on to others. Prudent hygiene and social distancing should be, by now, a given – at least for a while.
But what of the emotional strain of being cooped up and, maybe, fearful or isolated?
I want to give you a few pointers that I hope will be useful to keep your emotional life as balanced as possible in these alarming times.
So here goes.
Tip one: Get a routine and stick to it
If your day-to-day way of life has suddenly shifted, you may have found yourself a little adrift. I know one therapist who, when she became unable to practise from her clinic, self-admittedly lost any sense of routine for a while.
She started getting up at the crack of noon. Some days she didn’t get up at all. At other times she would simply watch TV and drink throughout the day. She told me even her personal hygiene began to suffer, as “I’m on my own anyway, so why bother!”
But a sense of routine yokes us to sanity or, if that’s too strong a word, at least to some kind of emotional balance.
Yes, we can grow bored of routine, just as a young street car racer may get bored of the brakes in their turbo-charged jalopy. But we desperately need them both.
Research has found that maintaining a regular sleep and waking routine can help our mental health.2 Good sleep is vital for immune health, too.3 But on the flip side, a disruption to routine can cause emotional harm.
Get up at the same time each day. Have a list of stuff you need to do: water the plants, exercise, focus on your business (even if it’s to plan ahead for the day the virus is spent), call relatives, keep a journal.
Now is not a time to be rudderless.
Having a routine maintains that all-important sense of control, one of your vital emotional needs. Plus, getting your need for a sense of control met appropriately negates the emotional impulse to buy up your nation’s annual supply of toilet paper in one fell swoop.
And talking of your primal emotional needs…
Tip two: Keep connected and involved
No, I don’t mean by checking on random social media missives from people you don’t know about how we’re all doomed!
Rather, you can stay connected by using remote face-to-face contact. Connect safely with elderly or vulnerable people in your community or family, give them attention remotely, and focus on helping them any way you can.
We all have a need to connect with the community and feel a part of something. Conversely, loneliness and feelings of isolation are not at all good for mental health.4
Ironically, one ripple effect of this pandemic may be that people become more connected in real ways, actually talking to and seeing one another, albeit from a distance.
And when we’re not focused on others, we need to help our bodies to help our minds.
Tip three: Keep active and connected to nature (if you can)
Inactivity raises blood sugar levels, to the extent that a mere two weeks of inactivity can hasten the onset of diabetes in seniors.5 And on an emotional level, constant physical inactivity makes us feel sluggish, lethargic, and depressed.
Work some exercise into your routine (see tip one). Sure, you may not be able to hang out at the gym for a while, but do what you can at home. Stay fit with a YouTube fitness class, or dig out that old yoga DVD.
Get outside in the light as much as you can, while of course managing all the precautions you need to right now. We need nature as well as activity to help us feel, calm, clear, and hopeful.6 So, if you can, get out to a local park and simply enjoy gazing up at the trees. Move your body as much as you can, and you will feel better mentally.
And remember that hidden, sometimes deeply, within every challenge is an opportunity.
Tip four: Use the extra time as a bonus
We can all waste time fiddling with our phones and faffing on Facebook (and I count myself among the masses who do this) but maybe, just maybe, if you are cooped up from corona, this is the time to start writing that book, practising that instrument, doing that online course, or reading the complete works of Charles Dickens (depending on how long all this will last!).
We might emerge from this more rounded and intelligent than we went into it. Worrying is easy when all we do is worry. But now might be a time to really engage in some deep learning and perfecting of skills.
Mind you, not worrying is easier said than done, and that may take some practice too.
Tip five: Keep (or get) mindful and calm
We only have the present moment. In a sense, everything else – the past, the future – exists only in our minds, because it is not actually happening now. For all intents and purposes, the future is simply imagery (and we can all scare ourselves with fantasy), and the past is also processed through our imaginative faculties. The only true reality is right here, right now. So immerse yourself in it.
Practise being mindful three times a day. Focus on your breath, right here and now. Breathe in deeply, then extend the outbreath and simply watch your breath calm your body. Notice the colours and shapes around you. List in your mind three objects you can see, three things you can hear, and three things you can feel (such as the sensation of the air on your skin or the movement of your diaphragm as you breathe deeply). Watch any thoughts float in and out of your consciousness, like clouds across a blue sky.
Studies find that regular relaxation strengthens immunity7 and improves mood.8 Set aside time in your routine to use self-hypnosis or listen to a relaxing audio track to help lower your general stress levels and help you maintain a sense of calm most of the time. Even relaxing three times a week in this way will help you be more relaxed than you would otherwise have been in between times.
Tip six: Keep the faith
If you are currently self-isolating, remember that doing stuff, keeping a routine, exercising and getting out in nature safely, and keeping contact is vital. But you may still have lots of time to mull, worry, and potentially catastrophize.
Regular mindful relaxation will help lessen worry, as it’s hard to misuse the imagination negatively when you are calm in mind and body – but you still might find yourself fretting.
Over-rumination is depressing.9 The more time you spend in your head fretting, the worse you’ll feel, which is why mindful hypnosis and focused activity and exercise, or indeed anything that focuses the attention outward, can be so useful. But research has also found that among people who spent a lot of time ruminating, dwelling, and introspecting, those who maintained hope while doing so were protected from the depressive effects of rumination.10
So if you find yourself going into your imagination and creating scary or hopeless scenarios, remember that this is imagination, and you can choose what you imagine. So create scenarios of things getting better, of you managing, coping, and, one day soon, thriving. If you are going to spend time in imaginative movies inside your head, you may as well start directing them.
And above all, remember that this too shall pass.
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- Hodder-Williams, C. (1974). Panic o’Clock. London: New English Library.
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