We are adapting to a new normal. We stand apart but not alone as we realise that collaboration, co-operation and community are the only tools we have, to help us to overcome this virus.
Many of us are finding it difficult to live with the uncertainty. Not knowing what is going to happen is what disturbs our peace of mind and keeps us awake at night. Have I got an infection? Will I get it if I go out to the shop? How long will I have to stay cocooned? If I don’t get the disease now will I get it later when people start going out again? When will it be safe to leave my house? Who will look after me if I get ill?
Uncertainty leads to anxiety. Anxiety blocks joy and leads to unnecessary suffering. Buddhists have an eloquent way of explaining how worry contributes to suffering. When something terrible happens, such as COVID-19, it is as if an arrow has pierced us, and this causes pain. We have no control over this event or the pain that it causes. But we can choose our response to what has happened. If we respond with anxiety and fear, we are piercing ourselves with a second arrow, and this doubles our suffering. We have no control over the first event, but we can choose not to cause more harm to ourselves in the way we respond.
Anxiety makes us imagine that things are much worse than they are. We feel sure that our whole family will get ill. We think that we must prepare for the worst and begin stockpiling groceries and fuel. We watch the news and continuously scan social media for information that we believe could save our lives. We imagine that by being prepared, we will be better able to deal with the inevitable disaster.
Anxiety also causes us to blame others for our misfortune. There is always someone to blame, politicians, the Chinese, health care professionals, the man who coughed in the shop three weeks ago and did not cover his mouth.
Blaming is a form of self-soothing that, like over- preparation, helps us to feel safer temporarily but becomes exhausting over time and is not a healthy way to manage uncertainty.
So, how do we live with uncertainty without getting over-anxious and engaging in unhealthy coping strategies?
1. We do the most important things such as arranging to have an adequate supply of food and fuel.
2. We continue to wash our hands, cough into a tissue or our elbow and maintain social distancing.
3. We work from home if possible.
4. We do not let grandchildren visit their grandparents.
5. We only listen to the news once or twice daily and avoid scanning social media. Instead, we choose a reliable site such as www.hse.ie or www.hpsc.ie for accurate and relevant information.
On the days when we do not feel particularly cheerful or positive, it is vital to acknowledge this, and be kind and compassionate to ourselves. It may help to remember that everyone is finding things difficult right now. It is difficult to concentrate on tasks, to feel motivated and to complete projects because of global anxiety and uncertainty. The website self-compassion.org has examples of compassion meditations that can help you practice self-kindness. These breathing and meditation exercises are a powerful way of re-balancing your heart, brain and hormonal systems. Even five minutes of practice can be enough to restore your equilibrium, balance your emotions and lift your mood.
It can also be helpful to form a routine. Routines help people to get through difficult situations, such as recovery from illness and bereavement. If you are not currently working, it can help to make sure you get up and get dressed every day. Healthy eating, fresh air and regular exercise with adequate sleep and rest time are also vital to staying well and free from excessive worry.
Try to include a fun or engaging activity in your day. If you live alone or have low energy levels due to illness, jigsaws, puzzles, knitting, sewing or painting are activities that do not require physical effort and engage your brain, giving it a rest from continuously worrying about the future. The positive effects of such engagement will last long after you have finished the activity.
Take time to listen to your favourite music. Turn up the volume (remember to let the dog out first) or plug in your headphones and listen. Music increases brain hormones that can reduce feelings of stress and depression.
Finally, contact your GP if you feel that you are becoming overwhelmed by anxiety or depressive symptoms. You may not be able to attend the surgery, but they will offer you a telephone or video appointment. Do not ignore the signs of physical or mental illness. Your GP is still available for advice and treatment.