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Five tricks your mind might play on you during the COVID-19 crisis

The COVID-19 pandemic has spread panic faster than the virus itself. Clinical psychologist Dr Christopher Graham, a Senior Lecturer in Queen’s School of Psychology, talks about our natural human responses in this crisis, and suggests positive ways to channel anxiety.

Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, society is riding out a mixed bag of emotions. With the news narrative reminding us daily that things will inevitably get worse, chaos and uncertainty breed panic and anxiety.

“There is a range of emotional responses to COVID-19,” says Dr Christopher Graham, a Senior Lecturer in Queen’s School of Psychology. “And, generally, these are entirely normal.”

However, there are coping mechanisms to help you navigate the anxiety-based maelstrom of feelings the pandemic is causing.

“In the mix of all the emotions, we have opportunities to do things that improve our mental health,” says Dr Graham.

Here, he lists some common emotional responses and tips to cope with the inner turbulence they cause.

1. Anxiety

“Your mind naturally gets busy when there is uncertainty,” says Dr Graham. “It’s normal to feel anxious and scared,” says Dr Graham. “Our minds try to remove the discomfort of that uncertainty by searching to find the ‘answer’. You might feel the urge to check the news to get that answer and remove the uncertainty.”

With social media offering 24/7 updates, it’s the perfect storm for becoming overwhelmed, says Dr Graham.  “There is a constant stream of information. This can make you feel even more anxious or lead you to worry more. The good thing about social media is that we have the choice to not go there, we can step back from it.”

Break the cycle:

“It’s important to notice and recognise your own behaviours: have you been on the news channel for four hours in a row? Ask yourself: is this making my life at the minute worse or making my life better? It might be helpful to step back from worry,” suggests Dr Graham.

Instead of focussing on the rolling news, for example, you can direct your mind elsewhere. 

“If you are feeling anxious and a bit jittery, you can simply notice that, and decide to do something else: something more fruitful that holds your attention (calling a friend, tidying etc.). You could also try being in the present moment using simple centring exercises - a variation on mindfulness. Bring your attention into the here and now,” he says.

2. Anger

“People are going to feel angry and frustrated because we are not able to do the things that we planned, in the way that we planned,” says Dr Graham. Adding to anger and frustration is the feeling of being cooped up in your house all day.

“It is really important to get out and get daylight,” says Dr Graham. “Daylight helps set our body clock and regulates our sleep. If we sleep better, then we generally tend to feel a bit more capable during the day. Without it, there is a temptation to make a cave for yourself, get up late and that is not helpful.”

Break the cycle:

When you feel angry about the things you can’t control, see it as a natural human emotional response and then, perhaps, look at what is inside your control.

“Take a step back from your thoughts and ask yourself instead, ‘What can I do right now that might be helpful for me and the people I care about?’ These might be small things like calling your mum on Skype or cleaning the kitchen or asking your partner how they are,” says Dr Graham. “Look at ways that you can build your life in the here and now.”

The official Government lockdown advice permits getting outside for one form of exercise a day – and it’s important to make use of this time, says Dr Graham.

“A change of scenery varies your day and when you vary your day, we feel a bit more in the moment and a bit less stuck in your thoughts. Changing environments in this way can be helpful.”

3. Excitement

“Emotions are really complex. If you really look at anxiety, what you often see peeking out from under the cloud is a bit of excitement, too,” says Dr Graham.

While sudden change can be overwhelming, it can also be exciting. With the rug of normal living pulled out from under you, it can be tempting to start unhealthy habits because the normal rules don’t apply.

“Having a drink or having a smoke might become more attractive at the minute as a way to not have to deal with difficult feelings, but, generally, they don’t take us in a direction that will make life more how we want it to be. The key – as ever - is noticing that,” he adds.

Break the cycle:

“Now there is an opportunity to do things you wouldn’t normally have time to do. Instead of using the extra time and space you have for worry, use it to reflect,” suggests Dr Graham. “There might be an opportunity to meaningfully reflect on what is important to you and what your values are; how you want to be in your life moving forward, so, for example: ‘I’d like to be really present with my children, instead of thinking about work’, or, ‘I’d like to be more supportive to my mum’.

Think about the things that we can do right now that help take us in that direction. If I want to be more supportive to my mum, I can text her right now or give her a call, for example. It’s a small step in the right direction. There are things you can do in the here and now that make life a bit better, instead of making life a bit worse.”

4. Self-condemnation: guilt and shame

No one has experienced a global event like the COVID-19 panic before, so it’s inevitable that mistakes will be made. “It is unknown,” says Dr Graham. “We don’t know how to deal with some of the things we are trying to deal with.”

Whether it’s working from home or staying away from people who are closest to us, we are all experiencing this for the first time.

“We are all going to make mistakes,” says Dr Graham. ‘When that happens, we might notice our natural response is self-condemnation – to get really down on ourselves.”

Break the cycle:

Now is an opportunity to practice being kind to yourself, says Dr Graham. “When we make a mistake, we can become really unkind to ourselves. We talk to ourselves harshly, and in a way that we would never talk to a friend or someone that we love. Instead of getting down on yourself, you can choose respond to yourself with kindness. Practice speaking to yourself as you would to someone you love when they come to you with a problem. Remind yourself that everybody makes mistakes, learn something and move forward.”

5. Self-preservation

It’s natural to go into panic mode as self-preservation kicks in, says Dr Graham. “If you’ve been watching the news all day and seeing images of empty shelves, it’s natural then to go into Tesco with a strong urge to panic buy. That’s a very human and very natural thing. If you think about it also, it’s about you getting rid of anxiety by doing something.”

Break the cycle:

“In this instance, the kinder thing is to look beyond ourselves and our families to try and buy what we need. If you broaden your focus, then you might see that the reason you would do that is because it is for the good of the wider community of people you care about,” says Dr Graham. “Embrace the excitement that comes with a community pulling together. We are social creatures and there is a natural pull to look after our children and our parents first of all, but there is also a natural pull to look after our communities.”

He adds, “These days communities are bigger than just our on street or our own town. You have got the internet, so you have got the world as your community.”

School of Psychology