By Gerry Murray. 15-03-2020
(Scroll down for a laugh)
“Anxiety's like a rocking chair. It gives you something to do, but it doesn't get you very far.” ~ Jodi Picoult
We’re living in unprecedented times as the coronavirus spreads exponentially in many countries. So, this week I thought I’d share a few tips and resources that might help us all deal with the situation.
The first thing to realise is that our brains may struggle to deal with the uncertainty around the virus and this may provoke us to overreact to what is happening. Neuroscientists and psychologists would tend to agree that our anxiety or stress is largely caused by our interpretation of an event rather than the event itself.
In a situation like this resilience becomes a key skill. So, here are a few ways you can strengthen your resilience:
Jon Kabat-Zinn, who pioneered mindfulness in the West, defines the practice as a form of "paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgementally.”
Daniel Siegel, a leading researcher in the area, describes it as “our ability to pause before we react. It gives us the space of mind in which we can consider various options and then choose the most appropriate ones.”
Perhaps, more relevant to the coronavirus, research done (perhaps ironically) in China by Dr Yi-Yuan Tang and published in 2007, found that a group of volunteers that used mindfulness for 20 minutes per day for five days developed better immune functioning.
If you’ve not tried out mindfulness before, I recorded some short intro sessions a few years ago and you can access them here. Alternatively, you could get one of the many apps out there, such as Headspace. Just be aware that their website cookies will then know where you live!
Apps and recordings will give you a formal experience of mindfulness. However, an informal approach is even more useful. Just pause and focus on your breath for a few minutes. Allow thoughts to come and go. Scan your body from head to toe. Be aware at a meta-level of the sensations in your body or the fact that you have many thoughts, without engaging in the thoughts themselves.
These are techniques that you may already be familiar with or even are using. Each of these can reduce your brain’s perceived uncertainty.
You can think of 4 types of reappraisal:
Reinterpreting an event: Sometimes when confronted with what is generally perceived as a problem you could ask yourself "What’s good about this problem?” Plot the perceived situation on a scale of the worst-case to best-case scenarios. This will increase the number of ways that you can describe the situation in degrees of intensity. Having several labels will limit the impact of just having one humongous label such as “It’s a disaster!”
Normalising an event: This is simply recognising for example that it’s normal to feel a bit anxious when confronted by something as unknown as the coronavirus. Having an explanation for an experience can reduce uncertainty and increase the perception of control. Labelling your emotions will also help. I wrote several posts about emotions last year and you can always re-read them to refresh your memory.
Reordering information: This may be a bit more challenging but it involves reordering the importance you attach to certain things. In fact, it tends to require a re-appraisal of your values and where each value sits in a hierarchy of relative importance. For example, your values around health may have now become more important than your values around career.
Repositioning: This involves taking different perceptual positions on an event. Typical positions are my perspective (1st position), the perspective of the person I’m interacting with (2nd position), the perspective of a detached ‘fly-on-the-wall’ direct observer (3rd position), the perspective of someone looking at the system as a whole (4th position). In the work that Edward de Bono did in creating his famous Six Thinking Hats methodology, he likened it to walking around a house. At each side of the house, you perceive the house differently. Perhaps, it’s useful to take a walk around the coronavirus house.
Finally, I would also encourage you to stay positive and seek out humour, another form of reappraisal. The brain likes a dose of serotonin! Speaking of which, see below!
So, in summary, combining an ability to be aware of and respond to your experience at any given moment in time with the ability to create multiple perspectives, helps build resilience.
If you’re feeling over-anxious and finding it difficult to relax, this short relaxation recording might help
Stay safe this week!
1. Seeing his master on the other side of a raging torrent, a student waved his arms and shouted out, "Master, master, how do I get to the other side?"
The master smiled and said, "You are on the other side.”
2. A Zen student went to a temple and asked how long it would take him to gain enlightenment if he joined the temple.
"Ten years," said the Zen master.
"Well, how about if I really work hard and double my effort?"
3. One Zen student said, "My teacher is the best. He can go days without eating."
The second said, "My teacher has so much self-control, he can go days without sleep."
The third said, "My teacher is so wise that he eats when he's hungry and sleeps when he's tired.”
4. For his 70th birthday, one of his students gave the zen master a big box with a ribbon around it. When the master opened the box, he found that there was nothing inside. "Aha," he exclaimed, "just what I wanted!”
5. An aspiring monk asked to enter a temple and attach himself to a guru.
"Very well," said the guru, "but all students here observe the vow of silence. You will be allowed to speak only once in every twelve years.
After the first twelve years, the student said, "The bed is too hard."
After another twelve years, he said, "The food is not good."
Twelve more years later, after thirty-six years of hard work and meditation, he said, "I quit."
"Good," snapped his guru, "all you have been doing is complain.”
6. The master holds the disciple's head underwater for a long time. The bubbles become fewer, but at the last moment the master pulls out the disciple and revives him: "When you crave truth like you crave air, then you will be ready.”
7. Four monks were meditating in a temple when, all of a sudden, the prayer flag on the roof started flapping.
The youngest monk came out of his meditation and said, "Flag is flapping."
The second, more experienced monk said, "Wind is flapping."
The third monk, who had been there for more than twenty years, said, "Mind is flapping."
The fourth monk, who was the eldest, said, "Mouths are flapping!”
8. A novice was loading the larder with flour and oil and, spotting one of the monks under a banyan tree, asked him for help. "Sorry," said the monk, "I'm busy". "But your eyes are shut!" replied the student. "Yes, I'm busy doing nothing. It's much harder than what you're doing. It's what the food is for, it's what the kitchen is for, it's what the temple is for. Don't interrupt me again with your lardering." Hours later, with his task complete, the novice spotted the monk slouching on a bench and said, "Can we talk now?" "No," came the reply, "I haven't finished yet."
9. A Zen master was visiting London. He went up to a hot dog vendor and said, "Make me one with everything."
The vendor fixed up a hot dog with fried onions, gherkins, and mustard and handed it to the Zen master, who paid with a £20 note. The vendor put the note in his register and snapped it shut.
"Excuse me, but where's my change?" asked the Zen master.
"O my brother," said the vendor, "change comes from within.”
10. Two old friends met for dinner.
"How's that husband of yours? Is he still unemployed?"
"No, no, not anymore."
"Oh well some good news at least. What does he do now?"
"Now he meditates."
"Meditates! What's that?"
"I'm not sure, but it's better than sitting around doing nothing."