You may be ever so slightly irritated by the title of this post. Yet another cliché added to the “We’re all in this together”, implying that everybody in the world is affected to the same extent by the Coronavirus pandemic. If you’re reading this, chances are that you have access to Wifi and to water to wash your hands. You are probably educated enough to have significant self-awareness and you must have achieved substantial language mastery to shape your experience of the world. You have some resources that make your life somewhat malleable. You most likely don’t go hungry and you may be sitting in the secure comfort of your home that has been redefined temporarily into a multifunctional space containing your office, your bedroom, your gym, your cinema, perhaps a dating hangout or a nightclub if you’ve managed to accept the online contraints. Maybe you’re thinking “I’ve got nothing to complain about” and go on joyless guilt trips trying to avoid the myriad of underlying feelings that emerge. Or perhaps you are trying to make the most of it, getting busy with numerous projects.
All configurations of feelings, thoughts and experiences are valid. There is no right way to be. We all experience all sorts of reactions. The first step we can take in terms of our mental health is to accept the diverse moods and coping strategies that surround us. It’s fair to say that everyone is trying to do their best. Well, apart from the narrow-minded far right politicians that deny the science with admirable consistency.
Anxiety, boredom, excitement, relief, a sense of protection, a sense of threat, desperation, opportunity, foreboding, hope, grief, the belief in the emergence of new paradigms – all of these are reported by my clients in many parts of the world. I cannot stress it enough how important it is to give ourselves the permission to feel all of what we perceive. The inner critic is just waiting to demand how we should and shouldn’t feel… There is no one size fits all! And there are some ways of approaching this unprecedented situation that will put our experiences into perspective and hopefully support us to keep going. Hopefully – yes – you read that right! Let’s not pretend that counselling has some miracle solutions because this would be deeply insulting to people’s struggles. If you lost your job, if someone you know is sick, of course you will feel helpless, sad and scared. My hope is that by understanding ourselves better we can feel a little less alone and more connected while facing the unknown together. The cliché of “We’re all in this together” rings true if we investigate the actual meaning of “we” by asking:
“Who am I and who are you in the “we”-ness?”
Having thought about it, it seems to me that it boils down to cultivating:
- emotional self-regulation;
- awareness of habitual patterns;
- a sense of purpose.
Self-regulation is one of those pop psychology terms that floats around in day to day conversations without deeper consideration. Essentially it means the ability to control one’s moods, motivators and attitudes for the sake of functioning of the whole organism. Self-regulation has a behavioural component defined as “the ability to act in your long-term best interest, consistent with your deepest values” (Stosny, 2011). There’s also the emotional bit. People with good emotional self-regulation “have the ability to keep their emotions in check. They can resist impulsive behaviors that might worsen their situation, and they can cheer themselves up when they’re feeling down. They have a flexible range of emotional and behavioral responses that are well matched to the demands of their environment” (Bell, 2016).
O.K., we now know what we’re talking about, I hope I didn’t lose you. So essentially, a well regulated person is balanced emotionally, they are flexible and can influence their life outcomes by a combination of intentional effort, awareness and adaptive responses that serve longer term goals. People who believe they can (with a high sense of self-efficacy) are more self-regulated because they think that their efforts matter and will enable them to reach their goals. While this trait is to some extent determined genetically, it can be definitely learnt and cultivated. Additionally, there are a few things you can do to boost your emotional self-regulation, such as:
Developing positive relationships – we know that isolation in the long run affects the brain, decreasing the number of synapses. You can always connect meaningfully, this is your call. As Esther Perel, a pretty witty intercultural therapist, says: “The quality of our relationships determines the quality of our lives”. This doesn’t have to be limited by social distancing. Yes, you can forge deep connections online or on the phone to be well regulated. I know it’s not the same and we need to make the most of what we have.
Movement – walks, exercise, yoga, squats, push-ups – you name it. It’s vital to keep moving, get the blood going. Even if it’s a 15 min walk around the block. Go for it! Needless to say that exercise releases endorphins and yadi-yadi-ya… Just move, even if it’s a little bit and you’ll find yourself less likely to feel disturbed.
Breath – basic element of managing anxiety and bringing us back to the experience of the body. Self-regulation is a highly biological business. You don’t always have to work it out with a shrink or a friend. Sometimes it’s enough to breathe for 5 minutes on your own.
Language – your ability to recognise, name and communicate your feelings and experiences lies at the core of self-regulation. I remember reading a book years ago entitled “Why love matters” by Sue Gerhardt. She presented a piece of research (give me some slack here, I really don’t recall the details) where they scanned people’s brains using a fMRI scanner. Once the research subject named an emotion displayed on a face presented to them on a screen, their brain showed a decrease in arousal. I did some research on it and found that cognitive psychologists call this mechanism reappraisal – the ability to down regulate emotion through language. Let me give you an example. You are waiting in the queue for the lift in the Empire State Building. You could describe the skyscraper as “frightening” or as “exciting”. Depending on your language, you will experience the world differently. Reappraisal is also linked to a decrease in the activity in the amygdala – the part of the brain responsible for the processing of emotions, especially threat signals – when exposed to unpleasant images (Buhle et al., 2013). So name what you feel and pay attention to the language you use.
Contemplation – you may or may not be the meditation type. If you are, then just treat your practice as sacred ritual of self-preservation. If you get too restless and hate the whole thing, find some other way to be present: peel onions, draw, do some mindful cleaning (two birds with one stone!), cook with love, maybe paint something… Whatever! Anything that allows you to stop and get out of your head. The mind isn’t always a reliable source of information. We evolved running away from saber-toothed tigers. Unfortunately, we can’t escape the pandemic and by contemplative practices we can be a little less feral about it.
Let’s be realistic. Even though you perform all these wonderful acts of self-regulation, you will feel rubbish at times. Our psychological needs for contact, stimulation, recognition and structure are frustrated. When that happens we resort to the SAME OLD. Have you noticed the inglorious resurgence of your habitual patterns of feeling and thinking as the weeks of quarantine unfold? Same arguments? Same flavours of disappointment? Why-does-it-always-happen-to-me kind of narrative? Yep, that’s what in Transactional Analysis is called script! As children we develop an unconscious life plan that defines us, others and the quality of life available to us. It happens when our early relationship needs are unmet and when we generalise these experiences into conclusions. We then bring these child like conclusions from the past and perceive the present through the lens of our archaic unmet needs. We create some BIG IDEAS to explain what’s going on now in ways that are familiar and habitual. It’s basically like outdated software on a new computer. Imagine installing Windows 1995 on a freshly purchased PC in 2020… Not a good idea as it limits what you can do. Script works the same, it blinds you to the options available.
For instance, the flavour of my personal script is that I will be alone and people won’t respond to my calls for help. This Easter Monday I was trying to get in touch with some work colleagues in the UK, omitting the fact that Easter Monday is a festive day over there. Living in Guatemala where people don’t treat it as a holiday… I came to the conclusion that no one cares, while conveniently “forgetting” that my colleagues in the UK may be actually involved in the festivities. I got my familiar feeling by ignoring a part of reality that would explain why everyone was hard to reach. That’s script in action.
The coronavirus situation acts as a magnifying glass for our issues. They become bigger, more pronounced, more familiar and debilitating. That’s why we observe more suicide, more domestic violence, more depression and anxiety… That’s why we need to take a big step back and have the awareness that the habitual patterns of feelings and thoughts are remnants of the past. It’s not “what you see is what you get”. It’s “what you see is what you want because you kind of expect it…”
Last but not least, you will cope with this whole craziness if you have a sense of purpose. It is hard to figure it out now because we are under-stimulated and may experience some brain fog. It is to be expected, you will get stopped in your tracks many a time. Nonetheless, let’s look at people who have done it before and see what they can teach us about coping with adversity. Without dramatising too much, let’s turn towards Victor Frankl, an Austrian psychiatrist and a Holocaust survivor, the renowned author of the book “A Man’s search for meaning“. If you need some stimulation and feel fatigued from the reading, here’s a video.
Essentially, Victor Frankl emphasises the freedom we have and urges us to own the decisions that shape our lives.
“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way “Victor Frankl, A Man’s Search for Meaning
Given that the pandemic does not completely invalidate all our choices, we still have some wiggle room. Of course everyone lives an individual set of circumstances. Those who lost their loved ones will feel tremendous grief… my heart goes out to you. That’s why I feel it is my moral duty to use this time to better myself in the service of others. Don’t get me wrong, I have good and bad days too. I am not a saint and nor do I claim to be one. Again, my hope is that by engaging and connecting with others, we can pull through and possibly come out at the other end with a few good ideas of making this world a better place.
Buhle, J. T., Silvers, J. A., Wager, T. D., Lopez, R., Onyemekwu, C., Kober, H., et al. (2013). Cognitive reappraisal of emotion: a meta-analysis of human
neuroimaging studies. Cerebral Cortex, 24, 2981-2990.
Stosny, S. (2011). Self-regulation. Psychology Today. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/anger-in-the-age-entitlement/201110/self-regulation
Bell, A. L. (2016). What is self-regulation and why is it so important? Good Therapy Blog. Retrieved from https://www.goodtherapy.org/blog/what-is-self-regulation-why-is-it-so-important-0928165
Frankl, V. E. (1984). Man’s search for meaning: An introduction to logotherapy. New York: Simon & Schuster.