By SANDY CLARKE
As we adapt to new ways of going about our lives in the aftermath of the COVID-19 coronavirus outbreak, much of the health advice we receive is centred on maintaining good hygiene to keep us physically safe and well.
We should regularly wash our hands, keep our physical distance from others, and stay indoors as much as possible, going out only when absolutely necessary. All of this is good advice that helps ‘flatten the curve’ or slow the spread of the virus so that health services have the resources to treat those in need of medical attention.
Another part of our lives that’s affected in any crisis is our mental health and emotional well-being. Feelings of stress, worry and anxiety rise to the surface as we get to grips with making sense of unfamiliar circumstances. During this process, it’s helpful to have coping skills that we can use to support ourselves and our loved ones, and this starts with developing an understanding of our emotions and how to manage them effectively.
Our emotions exist to prompt thought and action. Fear and anxiety will prompt preparedness and vigilance – and this can be beneficial to us. But they can also cause or panic and impulsivity – and these tend to be less helpful in general. As such, it’s useful to differentiate between helpful and unhelpful reactions brought about by our emotions before we decide how to act.
It’s unpleasant to be preoccupied with fear and anxiety for extended periods, as much about the outbreak situation remains beyond our control. But we can take steps such as redirecting our attention toward other matters and shift our focus to more productive means. Immersing ourselves in activities that occupy our time, energy and focus is one way to do this.
This is not to say we should be in denial of the outbreak, but rather, to gently rebalance how much of our time and thoughts we give to the current crises. This can limit our tendency to ruminate (replay the dangers of the situation), which makes us less likely to be preoccupied with a situation that is largely beyond our control.
What happens when we try to dismiss or suppress our emotions?
Some of us may choose to suppress our emotions – we bottle them up inside or even go so far as to deny ourselves the opportunity to express what we are truly feeling. We don’t acknowledge what we feel, nor choose to listen to what our fear and anxieties are trying to tell us.
Research on emotion regulation – the act of altering situations, thoughts and responses to emotional experiences – shows that suppressing our emotions may be useful in the short-term (say, when you need to hold back on showing emotions because those emotions are socially inappropriate at the time). But suppressing one’s feelings is unhelpful for our psychological and general well-being in the long-term.
Habitual or prolonged suppression can lead to depression, aggressive responses, aggravated anxiety, a range of psychosomatic (mind-body) illnesses, cancer diagnoses and even premature death. Acknowledging and even confronting our emotions during this time can be unpleasant of course, but the alternative is worse. When we suppress our emotions, we magnify the impact and damage it does to us to our overall health.
For those who are used to socialising and having lots of interactions, how can they manage periods of restricted movement?
Many of our extraverted friends might find it especially challenging during the movement control/restriction order. We know that extraverted individuals seek out meaningful social interactions because it gives them a buzz of positive emotions.
In the absence of actual face-to-face interactions, a temporary substitute might involve making use of meeting apps/software that facilitate and serve as a virtual platform for such interactions. Apps such as Houseparty (a group video chatting app), for example, have seen increased downloads and use during this crisis.
Many will already be using Zoom and Skype to organise and host catch-ups in addition to their work meetings. We can even go back to the good old phone call. Hearing from and listening to another share their experiences can be a way to bridge the physical distance that separates us during this time.
A simple call to a friend saying that you’re just checking-in, asking the other person how their day has been communicates empathy and concern. Finally, be sure to set aside time for such communications and interactions – extraverted people might want to do this more regularly, of course.
Even though there might be a desire to share our feelings with others, some might be resistant or unsure about how to open up. Can you share some benefits of opening up to trusted friends and family members, and how we might go about asking for support?
We might fear opening up or admit to feeling difficult and challenging emotions during this time for a number of reasons: fear of being seen to be overwhelmed or vulnerable, for instance. However, as we’ve discussed, suppressing our emotions can be unhealthy.
What might be beneficial, then, is to be honest and authentic toward trusted confidantes – friends or family members, who can authentically empathise with what you are going through. Seek out relationships characterised by mutual respect and acknowledgement. And remember that it takes courage to be vulnerable.
Sometimes, the closest people we have in our lives are not our family members – there is nothing wrong with this. It does not make you a ‘bad’ member of the family. You might find it challenging to relate to those you share the same household with during this time, and that is fine.
Regardless of who you reach out to, sincerity and authenticity are important in any meaningful interaction. Set aside time to talk, relate, and share with those you trust. Listen in roughly equal amounts to how much you speak. Having another person acknowledge your emotions can be reassuring and, especially in our current circumstances, it is a healthy form of coping.
For those working from home, it can be difficult to create time boundaries between our work and personal life. Why is it important that we keep the two separate, and what are some steps to ensure we keep a work-life balance at home?
The boundaries between work and ‘non-work’ have certainly become blurrier since many of us have been asked to work from home. As such, it is important that we take steps to create boundaries between these two spheres of our lives.
Setting aside and dedicating a space for work, and another for leisure or personal activities might be a good first step. However, if you don’t have the benefit of such space, then it helps to draw the boundaries using time. Scheduling and outlining the day’s agenda in blocks of time can be helpful here.
You can also consider a practice called ‘timeboxing’ – allocate a block of time for a specific task, limit all distractions, and do that task. Stop when the amount of time allocated is up; Harvard Business Review calls this the most beneficial productivity tip for managing our limited time and attention. But don’t forget to play, to indulge in activities and hobbies that you enjoy for your own sake.
Take the time to recharge and refresh at the day’s end. And be self-compassionate – kind toward yourself and recognise that you have accomplished so much despite the current circumstances. Don’t you think you deserve that chocolate bar or video game time now?
Some people might have heard of keeping a daily ‘gratitude list’. Can you explain what that is, and how it can help our psychological well-being?
A daily gratitude list (sometimes known as the ‘three blessings’ journal) is the habit of listing three good things that happened to you on the day – things that you are thankful for. There is some research backing for the benefits of this habit.
First, it balances out our natural ‘negativity bias’ – the tendency to fixate and focus on all that’s gone wrong in our day. We can see this in the ease in which we list and label unpleasant emotions – anger, fear, and sadness come to mind – but we are sometimes at a loss to describe the many other positive emotions which are important toward a sustained, authentic well-being.
We often list happiness or joy, but acknowledging that we can also feel gratitude, love, inspiration, amusement and being proud of ourselves (perhaps for making through the day) can be beneficial for our well-being. The gratitude list also relates to the practice of ‘benefit-finding’. As the name suggests, we do our best to look for the benefits in our day.
Studies have shown that benefit-finding can even be beneficial for patients diagnosed with terminal illnesses, leading to a healthier sense of well-being and acceptance in the face of demanding circumstances.
You’ve long been an advocate for keeping a daily journal. How have you found it to be helpful during this crisis? If anyone is thinking of starting a daily journal, can you share what might be included and some of the benefits?
Journaling, or your emotional narrative, is another approach toward identifying difficult, challenging emotions. I’ve certainly found it useful for times like these – and also helpful as a complement or alternative to the gratitude list activity mentioned earlier.
Studies show that overall, writing out your experiences and emotions can help give form and shape to your feelings. We are better able to identify and specify what emotions we are experiencing – it’s never usually just one emotion, so journaling helps us untangle the messy state of our feelings so that we are more self-aware of what we are experiencing.
You can start journaling by writing short paragraphs of your day, with a focus on the events that elicited emotions in you. Focus on both the pleasant and unpleasant events and the emotions you felt. Savour and relive the positive emotional experiences; reflect and reappraise (i.e. re-evaluate) the negative emotional experiences.
Don’t worry too much about grammar or formatting – it is your narrative; you do not need to share this with anyone. And it helps to write habitually, at least once a week, so that the details and events you wish to reflect on are still fresh in your memory.
Do you have any other advice or practical tips we can use and share to help maintain our emotional well-being and support our friends and family?
Rest more, manage your media intake, and pay attention to the good news. Be protective of your free time and weekends. Learn to say no and recognise it is OK to not feel 100% during a crisis. Your free time is not the time for productivity – especially if you are already working from home.
This is pandemic, not a holiday – we need to recognise that there are heightened levels of stress and worry that people are experiencing. I am not encouraging us to be alarmists, but simply highlighting that we are experiencing emotional distress from this outbreak. Our psychological reserves are being depleted by the fear and worry occupying our minds.
Our priorities now are on the survival and safety of our loved ones and ourselves – and we should not be ashamed of admitting or committing to those concerns. But through it all, it helps to know that we, as a species, stubbornly resilient as we have been, will get through this. We’re all in this crisis together, and we’ll overcome it together.
Sandy is a freelance writer based in Malaysia, and previously enjoyed 10 years as a journalist and broadcaster in the UK. He has been fortunate to gain valuable insights into what makes us tick, which has deepened his interests in leadership, emotions, mindfulness, and human behaviour.