I recently wrote about toxic positivity, because when you’re struggling in life, positive mind, positive vibes is just not appropriate. Yes, it’s the ideal mindset – but it’s also idyllic and, let’s face it – a global pandemic is fundamentally not idyllic.
I know a lot about attaining and maintaining a positive mindset, I write about it regularly, I’ve researched it, and I practice it. Yet still I’m finding myself having regular wobbles, the same as everybody else.
But one thing that always helps me to cope is understanding why I’m finding something so difficult; that insight allows me to be more objective and accepting of my feelings, and then process them and move forward.
So I did some research, and now I’m going to share it with you!
When We’re Struggling in Life, This is Usually Why
So, why exactly are people finding the pandemic so challenging mentally and emotionally? We know it’s causing us all kinds of anxiety, but why precisely is that?
It’s due to one very specific issue:
The Psychology of Uncertainty
The most powerful instinct inside each of us is the one which tells us to survive at all costs. We know it’s there, but probably don’t give it much thought on a day to day basis. But it deserves a little more of our attention because it’s at the heart of literally everything we do.
Our brains are hardwired to seek out danger and avoid it. We do this on an unconscious level we’re not even aware of, in the amygdala which is the emotional centre of the brain.
In order to do this effectively, we’ve evolved to place value on certainty – and to fear uncertainty.
In fact, in a traffic jam, we’ll react better to a longer wait if we know when it will end, than a shorter one not knowing how long we’ll be waiting for.
Uncertainty equals threat, and we must disarm all and every threat to preserve our very lives! We look for patterns in the world around us, and if we don’t know what’s coming next, we turn to logic and hypothesise.
At times of moderate stress, we engage our frontal cortex for balance, using rationale and basing judgements on experience and most likely scenarios. It’s why eyewitness testimony is so unreliable – if we fail to remember something accurately, our brains do such a good job of filling in the gaps that we don’t even notice, convincing ourselves that our best guess is a real memory.
How Uncertainty Can Drive Panic
Catastrophising media and inconsistent messaging from world leaders causes havoc for our frontal cortex which is trying its best to make sense of things.
When we’re already in the grip of intense stress and then on top of that doubt creeps in and uncertainty ramps up, something else happens: we panic, imagining worst case scenarios in order to keep ourselves safe. Hypothesising how the pandemic will play out and making outlandish(?) assumptions gives rise to stress and anxiety at consistent and unbearable levels:
We’re on high alert for an unpredictable danger, and it’s exhausting.
The amygdala tells the frontal cortex that we don’t have time to weigh up possibilities and options – we need to act now before the lion eats us. Except, of course, there is no lion.
And we can’t outrun a virus or hide from it; the best way to keep ourselves safe is far less dramatic. But since we’ve not evolved a new more appropriate mechanism for dealing with perceived danger, this is what we’re working with and it manifests as disproportionate and unhelpful anxiety.
In fact, it’s what’s causing our collective poor mental health – we are simply not designed to maintain this level of stress for extended periods of time.
Plus, there’s actually another interesting issue at play when it come to overwhelm from too much news too: Dunbar’s number. This refers to the maximum number of connections and meaningful relationships we’re able to maintain. It’s a thing – we’re not meant to know about what’s going on in the entire world, it’s too much.
We have a limited capacity of ’emotional bandwidth’, and trying to spread ourselves too thinly causes burnout.
The Lockdown Paradox of Anxiety
Going back to uncertainty and how we cope with it, fascinatingly, there’s another group, more susceptible to anxiety in their day to day life, who are experiencing the phenomena of so-called ‘lockdown paradox’.
This is essentially where some people have been living for a long time with the anticipation of an unknown threat, one they can’t articulate but manifests as anxiety – and which has now happened. This unprecedented global disaster ‘justifies’ their historic anxiety, as though it’s the terrible event they’ve been waiting for. The feeling of uncertainty is removed, allowing them to more easily tune into their frontal cortex, and thus enabling them to be more reasoned in their response to the pandemic.
But if you’re in the first group and not the second, how can you improve your strategy for coping with COVID?
How to Increase Tolerance of Uncertainty
Thankfully, it’s possible to implement strategies to better cope during COVID and lockdown, so we can avoid spiralling.
Tips For Coping With Uncertainty
Recognise your feelings, and embrace them. Acknowledging how you feel is the first step to overcoming challenging emotions.
2. Give Yourself a Break
Give yourself permission to feel whatever it is you feel, without self-criticism or feelings of guilt. Be as kind to yourself as you would a friend.
3. Be Accepting
Stop resisting and instead accept that not everything is within you control – it’s liberating!
4. Let Go
Let go of the need to control, especially when it’s simply not possible. Sometimes we have no choice but to ride the waves of life.
Make peace with your decision to let go of the reigns – and breathe.
Giving your attention to the things you do have control over is empowering and also provides a distraction from the stresses associated with living through a pandemic which while valid, are also extremely fatiguing and do not actively serve us.
6. Make Time For Self-Care
Look after yourself:
- Eat well,
- Get some exercise,
- Spend time in nature,
- Check in with loved ones,
- Get plenty of sleep,
- Take a bath,
- Practice mindfulness.
7. Enjoy Life
Take pleasure in the small things. A cup of tea, a hot shower, dancing with your children. Whatever it may be, make the most of life as it is, because it’s all we have right now. And in truth, it’s these simple, beautiful moments that make the best, most precious memories!
8. Switch Off
If the news is fuelling your anxiety – shut it off for a while.
It’s not healthy to be exposed to the constant stream of negativity that is the media – and this is something we have total control over – switch it off.
9. Practice Gratitude and Be Hopeful
Start or end your day with a list of three things you’re grateful for; I promise it’s life-changing.
And trust that better days are ahead – remember, without darkness, we can’t appreciate light.