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.)
I’ve been in this type of work (personal and professional development) for 20 years and yet it never ceases to amaze me how frequently I learn a new lesson.
Well, let me rephrase that. I am relearning old lessons.
No doubt the same is true for you. In fact, I often hear from people phrases like “I thought I’d gotten past that limiting belief” or “why does this keep showing up”.
I don’t actually have the space here to parse out all the psychological theories and research that has gone on over the years about “old lessons”. So, I’ll try to summarize some of the thoughts on the subject.
- Lessons are never really learned. They are learned on that day, in that context, for that desired outcome. The underlying idea might be remembered, such as “give what you want to receive” or “time flies when you’re having fun” but each day is a brand new day (oh, there’s another lesson). In that new day, we are – and have the opportunity to be – a new person. We have grown a little bit (hopefully) and have evolved ideas (even a tiny bit). The context has changed somehow.
- While our long-term memory may hold all of our lessons, accessing it is not always easy. The more you use a neural pathway, the easier it is to recall in future. If you learn a lesson, such as “I am capable of doing X”, how often do you actually do “X”? Probably not that often. The more frequently you do “X”, or remind yourself that you have done “X”, the more easily you can recall the learning.
- Sometimes, we set ourselves up for the drama. You know it, I know it – sometimes, we just complicate things for the drama. Perhaps we like the challenge of solving this particular “problem” (even though we already know a likely solution) or we love to dwell in our own suffering, so we allow external and internal noise to have a higher volume that it deserves.
- Speaking of internal noise, humans have a tendency to compare our outsides with other people’s insides. In other words, from our vantage point of “self”, we evaluate and judge ourselves against what we think others are experiencing, good or bad. We see Good Ol’ Jackie getting all the praise for a job well done or Poor Young Bob having a hard time of things. Of course, rapidly evaluating our social and environmental conditions is a natural process of the brain. But the noise it creates internally is a learned behavior. Unfortunately, most people don’t (a) realize that internal noise is a learned behavior and/or (b) recognize that quite often our internal noise is fundamentally false and/or (c) pause long enough to challenge the internal chit chat.
- And external noise is all around us. Gurus, retailers, commentators, branding, marketing imagery, etc fills our every day. Again, we rarely pause long enough to question that noise as it relates to our Self. I know a lot about marketing and influencing and, yes, even how manipulation works. Yet, I am susceptible to the messaging to buy something I don’t need, or believe something that is not true. I have even been known to quickly forward a Facebook post about something only to find out that it was complete BS. Fortunately, I am not as susceptible as I used to be primarily because I do take the time to check in with Self regarding my motivations, needs, desires and wants.
Action – In a nutshell then, next time you hear yourself berate yourself about some old lesson you “should” have known, remember:
a. You are in a continuous state of growth and regrowth; there isn’t a destination
b. Your brain doesn’t always give you accurate information
c. You are harder on yourself than you would be on anyone else, and that is completely unnecessary (and is a learned behavior too)
d. You will be learning lessons all your life, thank goodness!! Be a willing student.
(Something tells me you know all this already LOL)
I’m always a bit intrigued when I meet people who think that, because of the work I do in personal and professional development, my life must be totally sorted.
As much as I’d like to say it is, of course it is not.
I become stuck, feel envious, get bogged down in noise, get angry ‘unnecessarily’, let things overwhelm me, and just about everything else.
I argue with my husband, worry about money from time to time, have little patience with the stepkids sometimes (who are now in their 20s), want to hibernate away from everyone and just cannot be bothered with doing “today’s” work.
And it is a big “however” …
I possess a deep sense of confidence and calm, knowing where these things are coming from and exactly how to get back on track. I do not berate myself (as much) anymore nor do I judge myself as a failure in some way.
Every day, I know some squirrel is probably going to tempt me or throw a curve ball in my direction. And that’s okay. In fact, it is part of the fun.
Action – What magic pill did I swallow? None (though a glass of wine or G&T can certainly be helpful).
It is a matter of the choices I make on a frequent basis. These are the same choices you can make too:
• Practice some degree of mindfulness throughout the day
• Pause in gratitude frequently
• Praise myself for the things that I do that are a stretch
• Notice and acknowledge others for who they are
• Purposefully shut off (or at least tone down) the inner critic
• Stop listening to all the “secrets” – I know me best
• Believe in something bigger than me
• Raise my self-awareness constantly
• Be a lifelong learner.
In other words, many little decisions made throughout the day, every day. No magic pill. No “30 days to a million dollars”. Just daily consistent, persistent attitude and actions.
It’s Blue Monday today. And apparently, you are supposed to be the most depressed you will be all this year.
Well, that’s pretty good news for me because, as I type this on pre-Blue Monday Sunday, I’m in a damn good mood, thank you very much.
But I suppose tomorrow I could wake up totally depressed.
Ya, I doubt it.
You’re likely going to hear the media chat today about the “Blue Monday” formula, which looks like this:
What do all the initials mean? Let’s break it down. W = weather, D = debt, d = monthly salary, T = time since Christmas, Q = time since you gave up on your New Year’s resolutions, M = low motivation levels and Na = a feeling of needing to take action.
On first glance, one could say “ya, that makes sense” as things like debt and weather can weigh on us sometimes. But glances are over in nanoseconds and this formula is fake for all sorts of reasons. In particular, mathematically it is impossible. Things like low motivation levels and feelings are hard to quantify with stable numbers. Even “weather” would be hard to “score”.
And just when you thought that was confusing, another formula came out (by the same guy):
Tt = travel time, D = delays, St = time spent stressed out, C = time spent on cultural activities (??), R = time spent relaxing, ZZ = time sleeping (haha), P = time spent packing for a holiday, and Pr = time spent in preparation.
Can anyone begin to guess what this actually is?
Well, 2005 was the first year “Blue Monday” and any type of formula was mentioned in the media. The associated press release was authored by an academic in the UK.
Ummm, nope, that’s not quite accurate. It was, in fact, written by a public relations firm who passed it around to academics inviting them to put their name on it in exchange for a payment.
And who was that PR firm working for? Sky Travel, a budget travel shop and TV channel in the UK who were promoting their winter travel offers!
How brilliant is this PR stunt?
Since 2005, the third Monday of every January (in the Northern Hemisphere) has been called “Blue Monday” with not a dot of fact, accuracy, or even logic attached to it, all because of a PR firm’s great press release and an academic’s willingness to put his name to the concept. Cliff Arnall, said academic, has since claimed that his intention was to simply inspire people to take action and the University he was a part-time tutor at back then distanced themselves from him.
For most of the 1990s, I was the administrative and facilities head of a mental health unit in the UK. Yes, the dark winter months can certainly make people feel blue. But so can insidious stress, a sudden loss, feelings of loneliness and any number of other external and internal factors. Honestly, there is no basis for Blue Monday in science.
Action – It is, however, a good reminder that we need to take care of our emotional well-being, especially during the darker days of winter. Further still, it can nudge us to check in with others who might be a little more susceptible these days.
Search through the 1400 or so articles on my blog for ways to reduce stress, stay motivated, get out of bed feeling positive, and generally feel far more appreciative and grateful throughout the year.
Blue Monday was a (very successful) tongue-in-cheek PR stunt, not a fact. And, it is a good reminder that we can use any time of the year.
(Oh, and this Blue Monday story is another example of just how gullible we can be.)