Quickly search Google and you will find a plethora of academic and pundit posts on why people are panic buying and/or extremely anxious about Covid-19. I’m being asked lots of questions from clients and buddies so I thought I’d make a quick post.
First, let me say I am not a doctor and do not know all the details of the virus itself. So, I’m not going there except to say “get your information from the local and national health authorities, not social media”. One would think that is a known fact. However, most of us want fast and easy info, so we watch the Twitter or Facebook feeds roll past. What would be more helpful to your state of mind is to click a little further and look at the data.
The psychology of panic can be summed up in one word. No, not “fear” although that is one of the results of the word.
The word is “control”. Or, perhaps in this case, “lack of control”. Or more accurately, “perceived lack of control”.
Of course, you cannot control the virus. No matter what you do, you might still get it. And that is one of the things the back of your brain recognizes you have no control over. Nor do you have control over the health of your family, the duration of your job, the ups and downs of the economy, what might happen to food and water supplies etc etc etc. So you can’t control any of it.
Most of us want to feel in control, and the moment we don’t feel in control, our stress levels go up. And just to add insult to injury, “stress occurs when perceived demand exceeds perceived ability to cope”. Note the repeated word.
So, you can’t control this thing that could possibly kill you or someone you love. That is nothing new. You can’t control some of the basics of your surroundings. That is nothing new. You can’t control what’s happening in the rest of your neighborhood, community or country. Again, that is nothing new. Until now, you have just told yourself (falsely but hopefully) that you have more control than you actually do.
So, among other things, Covid-19 is reminding you that you have no control of anything outside the fuzz on your skin. In part, this explains why every roll of toilet paper is flying off shelves – we can control that purchase. We can get “that” hand sanitizer. We can buy a bunch of cans of beans before everyone else does. We can pad the nest. We can control that.
“Oh but wait, now the store shelves are running out and I don’t know if the delivery truck drivers will all get sick, or the factory workers will all get sick or the factories will run out of their supplies and … and … and …. I must have control so I will drive 40 miles to a small town to buy toilet paper. I can control that. I am controlling that. I am succeeding at that.” Until everyone else gets the same idea.
And so on.
You also know, and perhaps just need to be reminded today, that you are able to control the story line in your head – in other words, your perception of the situation.
You can succeed and calm yourself down through your thoughts and personal actions, such as deep breathing, meditation, watching funny films, reading a great book, having a relaxing chat with your partner or friend about “other things”, spending extra time with a favorite hobby or even just hanging out with the pets. All of these things are in your control.
You have faced very (very) stressful situations before and come out the other side – maybe a bit bumped and bruised, but you are here.
You can succeed at self-awareness. You can succeed at controlling self.
Years ago, while standing in Heathrow airport waiting for my return flight to Canada after years away in the UK, I spotted a book on the shelf of a store. Long story short, I was anxious about my return to Canada after being away for so long and wasn’t sure what was going to happen next. The city I was travelling to was one I’d never stepped into before, knew no one and, ya, I was pretty stressed. My perceptions (story lines) were all over the place … full of angst and fear. So, I read the whole book in my seven hour flight and one single sentence from it has stuck with me all these years:
I don’t know, let’s find out.
The book was “Embracing Uncertainty” by Dr. Susan Jeffers.
That one phrase took my brain from fear and anxiety to curiosity (which is a state the brain loves to be in). We are naturally curious beings and, when piqued, curiosity can shift us away from fear (especially the unnecessary kind that is driven by an “I’m out of control” story line).
I remained vigilant to my new surroundings from a ‘present moment’ time frame and I became focused on making mindful decisions. I wasn’t foolhardy about the situation I was in yet I wasn’t foolish with my attitudes and actions. And I did this from the part of my brain that doesn’t panic – the same powerful part young children have an abundance of every time you put a box down in front of them.
That one phrase – I don’t know, let’s find out – reminded me that I have faced uncertainty hundreds if not thousands of times and have survived by engaging the power of my thoughts.
Of course coronavirus is not the same as moving country, but when it comes to your brain’s stress response to the story line you are playing in your head, yes it is. You can control your thoughts about coronavirus just like you can about most things.
I’m not saying that anyone should disregard advice from medical professionals and just walk around saying “oh ya, I don’t care, let’s shake hands.” I’m talking about being mindful of your mind. I’m talking about taking control back to the place it belongs – inside your head.
Stop giving your power away and start using it to be curious, careful, engaged and present in this moment.
What’s going to happen with this Covid-19 situation? I don’t know, let’s find out.
(Try this out for yourself. Sit quietly for a moment or two. Then allow yourself to feel some of the anxiety you’ve been feeling. If not about the virus, your anxiety could be due to something else, so go ahead and get in touch with that feeling. Think of that situation and ask yourself “what is going to happen?” Pause and reply “I don’t know, let’s find out.” Then check in with yourself – do you feel any shift at all toward curiosity or calm? You might not the first or second time, so do it again. It is such a simple phrase yet it can be so powerful.)