Keeping a sense of perspective in times of uncertainty
I am writing this, not because I want to add to the plethora of information or advice that is swimming around us, but because I wanted to understand why I am feeling disconnected and slightly adrift at the moment. By writing this article I am gaining a deeper understanding of my feelings which is allowing me to recover my positivity. I offer it here in the hope that it might help someone else. Please take from it what you can and ignore the stuff that doesn’t work for you. If it helps one other person then I have achieved more than when I set out on this task.
For those who know me you know that despite experiencing semi-regular periods of depression my outlook on life is one of relentless positivity. My typical response when some asks “How are you?” is “I’m wonderful”. I say this for two main reasons; it often brings a smile to the person asking the question and its true!
That having been said I am finding it harder and harder to maintain that stance in the current environment of almost constant negativity surrounding Covid19.
I am not talking about the numbers of people dying and the tragedy of families not being able to say goodbye, nor the fight to make sure our frontline workers in the NHS and Care Homes are properly protected. These are real and serious and need to be at the forefront of our minds.
I am talking about the almost constantly dire predictions about our future. Headlines such as:
“Worst economic crisis since 1930s depression”
“Is COVID-19 Leading to a Mental Illness Pandemic?”
It is like drinking from a firehose of negativity and it is emotionally and mentally draining.
Yes, times are uncertain, uncertainty drives fear and fear drives negativity. But if we are to get through this pandemic emotionally intact, we need to maintain perspective. We need to remember that we WILL get through this.
So HOW do we maintain perspective at times like this?
To do this we need to understand a little about science psychology.
We all see the world differently. How we perceive the world around us is determined by psychological and emotional filters that have developed throughout our life. These filters (known as biases in psychology) develop as a result of our genetics, our upbringing, our gender, education, religion, sexuality and many, many other aspects of our lives. The purpose of these filters is to help us process the masses of information our brains receive every day. They help us process the information very quickly and we react accordingly.
The field of psychology has identified almost 200 biases that rule our cognitive abilities on a regular basis. Heightened threats, such as the coronavirus, mean three of them become most active.
Currently negative bias is at play, which provides focus on gloom-ridden news and events. With a plethora of opportunities to get hooked online or through TV, our brains are flooded, and we actively seek more and more.
Availability bias becomes heightened, where we struggle to let go of what we’ve just observed. Right now, the implications of the coronavirus on our professional and private lives are highly disturbing, and our attention begets even more attention.
Finally, our confirmation bias kicks, in and we actively seek more and more negative news to confirm all of the beliefs that support our negativity and availability biases.
All of this is instinctive. It is just our brains doing what our brains do……..
However, now that we know what is happening, we can hopefully bring the more rational parts of our brain into play.
Here are a few ideas:
· Make the flow of negativity less overwhelming by checking the news 0nce a day, rather than at every opportunity. I no longer watch Breakfast News – we listen to music instead, a much more pleasant way to start the day.
· Consider limiting time on social media and blocking or muting some of the more alarmist commentators.
· Continue to take deep breaths, seek out good news stories, and share these with colleagues or friends.
· Take regular breaks to manage emotions, and, where safe, get fresh air and physical exercise.
· If possible, adapt your work environment, such as separating spaces at home for work and down-time.
Secondly, let’s look at the impact fear & uncertainty has on our bodies.
As author David Rock states in “Your Brain at Work”:
“The brain craves certainty. A sense of uncertainty about the future and feeling out of control both generate strong limbic system responses.”
The limbic system plays a pivotal role in controlling how we react to uncertainty and fear by flooding our systems with hormones such as noradrenaline and cortisol which engage our fight or flight response. Also known as acute stress response, ‘fight or flight’ is a survival mechanism that allows individuals to react promptly to a life-threatening situation.
When the danger passes the fight or flight hormones decrease and we get an increase in the ‘feel good hormones” such as oxytocin (maybe this is why many people find roller coasters exhilarating!)
When we are in fight or flight mode the rational part of our brains is overwhelmed and actions and reaction become ‘instinctive’. This is great in the short term when we are facing immediate danger (or perceived danger). Now imagine the effect of being in a constant state of uncertainty, and fear. Is it any surprise then that people appear to act irrationally?
Evidence also shows that long term exposure to fight or flight hormones and chemicals can damage our mental and physical wellbeing. Including increased anxiety disorders, depression and high blood pressure to name few.
Knowing this, we can see that it is important to try and return to a state of balance so that our brains start to work for us rather than against us.
Here are a few ideas:
· Deep breathing. Taking slow deep breaths triggers a physical response that helps calm the rush of chemicals. Some people chose to meditate, and whilst this can be very effective, now might be a difficult time to learn that as a new skill. Just focus on your breathing for now.
· Physical exercise. Physical exercise increases the production of endorphins and other ‘feel good’ hormones.
· Find somebody positive to chat to. Some of my most invigorating conversations are with my mate Iain. We are planning how we can work together and putting together a series of webinars focussed on effective remote working and helping remote teams maintain positive mental health. These conversations are always positive, and invigorating and I always feel positive afterwards.
· If you manage people, be empathic - listen carefully to fears and concerns, address them in whatever productive way you can, and make sure that people are heard and supported.
Finally, remember the power of positivity & personal resilience. Yes, it can be hard sometimes. Yes, it can disappear entirely for a short time…..but now that I have a better idea of why that happens I will be more able to bring my rational thinking back into play and get back to being wonderful.
Fall seven times, stand up eight. – Japanese proverb.
Author: Glen Ridgway - Ridgway Workplace Mental Health