The impact of Covid-19 continues to disrupt and interrupt our everyday lives in many ways, and we are all experiencing a level of change that is both unprecedented in speed and in global reach. The impact of this has been felt more acutely and keenly by those working for at the front-line of patient care or deployed to support the Covid-19 response or working hard to maintain a service in extremely challenging circumstances.
In this article, we aim to provide some thoughts and ideas to help you make sense of your experience over recent months. We also offer some strategies to support you as you recover from the crisis and move into the next phase of response.
An accompanying podcast will be available shortly by clicking the following hyperlink: Podcast page, coming soon
Am I the only one feeling like this?
Given the events of recent months and the ongoing level of uncertainty, it would be surprising if we were not experiencing strong emotions at this time – fear, anxiety, anger, grief. We may also be experiencing other strong emotions such as love, gratitude, joy and excitement as we appreciate what we have or engage in the possibilities of what might be. The reality is that we are all in a period of transition.
We know that transition is a cycle which follows a familiar pattern:
- Disruption – something happens to upset the status quo
- Disorder and chaos – a period when we don’t know which way is up, what was previously familiar and known is now unknown and uncertain
- Emerging order – we start to see the light at the end of the tunnel and understand what is required of us and how we can adapt to this new way
- New relationship – we come to terms with the new situation or challenge and have adapted to it.
And then we begin to go around the cycle again as a new disruption occurs. Each stage of transition brings with it strong emotions – and for good reason. We are adapted for survival and to respond to threat which often means we resist change and long for our comfort zone. As William Bridges points out in his book Managing Transitions ““We resist transition not because we can’t accept the change, but because we can’t accept letting go of that piece of ourselves that we have to give up when and because the situation has changed. In other words, change is situational. Transition, on the other hand, is psychological. It is not those events, but rather the inner reorientation and self-redefinition that you have to go through in order to incorporate any of those changes into your life. Without a transition, a change is just a rearrangement of the furniture.”
We also know that parts of us can be experiencing different stages of transition at the same time – in other words, a part of me may be starting to make sense of things (emerging order) while another part of me is still struggling to make sense of what just happened (disruption). No wonder then that I can feel I am on a rollercoaster of emotions from day-to-day.
It is important that we take time to recover from whatever has challenged us over previous weeks and months. It can be easy to believe that we should simply be able to cope and move on stoically to what is next. The danger of that is that I might miss an important stage of my own transition – to learn from my experience, to take from it what is helpful and to let go of what is not.
To help you keep moving through your own cycle of change, you can reflect on the following questions:
- What do I need to let go of to enable me to keep moving through this transition?
- What am I accepting has changed, and what does that make possible for me?
- What have I learnt during this period that I wish to carry with me into the future?
You can’t stop the waves, but you can learn to surf. — John Kabat-Zinn
Our emotional systems are complex, and so a simple definition of emotion is elusive. We do know that emotions are, in part, a physiological response to a trigger which can be either external or internal. This response can either drive our behaviour before we become conscious of it or, if we can become consciously aware first, we can control our reaction to the trigger. The level of uncertainty and pressure that many of us are currently experiencing will understandably be triggering our fight/flight/freeze response at times and we may find ourselves reacting and then regretting our reaction.
When we face so many pressures and uncertainty, we can often describe ourselves as “frazzled”. This term was described by Dan Goleman and is used in neuroscience to define a constant stressed state that overwhelms the nervous system with neurochemicals such as the stress hormone cortisol. Being in this “frazzled” state means the mind is often ruminating with worries about work, and this becomes a reactive loop preparing the nervous system to respond to any slight trigger. While it is natural for us to get lost in such worries, it is not helpful or useful.
Dr Russ Harris, author of The Happiness Trap, offers the following simple steps to help us work with the difficult emotions we might be facing at this time. He invites us to accept that we cannot magically control our feelings or eliminate the natural fear and anxiety we might feel, but we can control our response to them.
F = Focus on what is in your control
A = Acknowledge your thoughts and feelings
C = Come back into your body
E = Engage in what you are doing
Focus: on what is within our control, it helps us soothe our emotional system. We may not be able to control our thoughts and emotions, but we can control our reaction to them.
Acknowledge: acknowledge what we are thinking and feeling, rather than trying to ignore or silence them. Do it with kindness and without judgement. If we start to judge, we will trigger our emotional response again.
Come back into your body: As you acknowledge your thoughts and feelings, come back to your body. Feel your feet on the floor, sit up straight, breathe.
Engage: Refocus on what you are doing. Tune into your senses to help you do this – what can you see, hear, smell. Give your full attention to what you are doing right now.
Over the last decade, much has been written about the scientifically-researched psychological and physiological benefits of developing this regular mindful awareness. This kind of ‘relaxation response,’ which helps to decrease metabolism, slow heart rate and breathing, and lower blood pressure, creates a physical state of rest and acts as an antidote to the fight and flight response. This is turn is key to maintaining our performance when under pressure and to ensuring our long-term wellbeing.
Thoughts are not facts
Our emotions and thoughts are inextricably linked. Neuroscientist Dr Jill Bolte Taylor describes that it takes 90 seconds for the body’s physiological response to pass – at this point our automated response is over. Beyond the 90 seconds, it is our thoughts that take over and, by replaying the memory of the trigger, we re-trigger the physiological response. In other words, it is the memory of the emotion not the emotion itself that lasts longer than 90 seconds. When we are aware and conscious that it takes 90 seconds for an emotion to surge through our blood stream, we can let the emotion run its course and then let our thinking brain step in.
Just as our emotional system can, at times, unconsciously drive our actions – so too can our thinking. We are bombarded with millions of pieces of information every day and, in order to make sense of the world, we have to filter them. The filters we use are created by our previous experiences, our memories, our beliefs, and our values. Anais Nin observed this when she said “We don’t see things as they are; we see them as we are”
When we are in a state of stress or overload, our filters will be impacted by that. Under stress, the release of cortisol limits the brains ability to deal with new or novel information objectively and creatively, and so it will fall back on well-worn pathways to process information. And one of the most important assets we have currently is precisely that ability to respond objectively and creatively to the current situation.
Journaling is one of the most effective ways in which we can become more aware of our thinking patterns and habits, and how they either support us or get in the way. Studies show that journaling can strengthen the immune system and ease the symptoms of depression and anxiety. By writing things down, it gives us some perspective and stops things going round and round in our heads, enabling us to make sense of what feels like a jumble of thoughts and feelings.
You can try and short journaling exercise for yourself:
- Find a quiet time and a comfortable spot, a pen and piece of paper.
- Then start to write and as you do, do not filter what you write in any way. Keep your pen on the paper at all times and just write whatever you are thinking or experiencing and, if you have nothing to write, you write “and I have nothing to write…”. Do this for about 4-5 minutes.
- Then pause and read what you have written. Then, take your pen once again and write about what you notice about your writing – do this for about 1-2 minutes.
- Doing this once a day will help you develop more supportive thinking patterns.
Can I show myself the same kindness I show to others?
A Native American wisdom story tells of an old Cherokee who is teaching his grandson about life. “A fight is going on inside me,” he said to the boy. “It is a terrible fight and it is between two wolves. One is evil—he is anger, envy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego. The other is good—he is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion, and faith. The same fight is going on inside you—and inside every other person, too.” The grandson thought about it for a minute and then asked his grandfather, “Which wolf will win?” The old Cherokee simply replied, “The one you feed.”
When we pause to FACE into our emotions as Dr Harris invites, or journal to notice our thinking patterns, we would do well to notice how we talk to ourselves. We all have the same battle going on inside that the Cherokee grandfather describes and it often appears as the loud and harsh voice of our inner critic.
This way of being with ourselves is not uncommon; in fact, research has shown that we are likely to naturally default to judging ourselves harshly for our performance or behaviour. And yet when we think about how we support others through challenge or difficulty, we usually do it with encouragement, empathy and kindness. It is curious how we find it easier to show kindness to others and yet so hard to treat ourselves in the same way.
It is often thought that our inner critic stops us being complacent and that may well be true. However, changing our self-talk is not about positive thinking and ignoring areas where we can improve or challenge ourselves. Rather, it is about becoming aware of how this corrosive inner dialogue impacts our emotional climate, creative ability and mood at a time when more than ever we need to be resourced — and able to respond with greater clarity to find a solution. Without this realisation, we will be operating from within a stress-induced cocktail that makes balanced, objective decision making more difficult.
Research demonstrates that practicing self-compassion triggers our soothing system, similar to receiving caring signals from others and turning on the physiological systems in the brain that calm us down. We experience feelings of contentment, groundedness and peace. Research also shows us that self-compassion helps us cope with adversity; enables us to be more optimistic and happier; and to experience positive mind states such as gratitude and kindness.
When you do notice your self-talk using an unfriendly and critical tone, ask yourself “What would happen if I spoke to my dearest family or friends in this way?” And then you can adopt a tone and some supportive and encouraging words that you would hear yourself say to support someone else.
It can also help to remind ourselves of our common humanity – this helps us recognise that everyone is imperfect, and no-one is in control of their whole life. It allows us to accept that difficulty is part of the human experience. And we will be much better placed to weather the storm if we can meet our experience with acceptance, kindness and gratitude.
As you face loss, frustration, hurt, and conflict, invite a sense of your own dignity. Sit up, stand up tall. Have respect for yourself, and patience and compassion. With these, you can handle anything. — Jack Kornfield