Everywhere you go, people are talking about the coronavirus/Covid19 pandemic. It’s on every news site, email update and Instagram post. Just as some of the reports are accurate and some are inaccurate, some of the content is helpful and some is unhelpful. This is particularly true if you’re prone to worry but, even for those who aren’t usually anxious, the constant information overload is a lot to take in and process.
On social media I’ve seen a lot of people posting warnings about how much we consume in terms of news articles and updates, especially if we have a tendency towards anxiety. This is sound advice and undoubtedly something to be mindful of, however, I thought it might be useful to explore what may be going on both individually and collectively as we muddle through this baffling and upsetting time.
Although some of those I care about do have conditions that may make them more vulnerable to infection, the majority of people I talk to aren’t that worried about dying from the virus or even contracting it. A lot of people, when they feel safe enough to be honest, are more upset about the “small” things that might be affected, such as a planned weekend away, having their kitchen remodelled or a sports event they were excited about attending. With all of these things now up in the air, we can be left with a sense of disappointment and then a dollop of guilt that these aren’t big enough concerns to be upset about.
A lady called Kristen Howerton has been encouraging people not to play ‘hardship olympics’ where we compare, minimise and engage in one-upmanship with each other. In an unprecedented situation like this, we need to remember that it’s going to be hard for everyone. This isn’t just because what seems like a small thing to you can be a big deal to someone else, although it’s always helpful to bear this in mind. It’s also because our brains work differently when we’re anxious. I’m not a neuroscientist but my understanding is this: when we sense that we are at risk in some way, the blood flow increases to an area of the brain called the amygdala, which is the ‘fight, flight or freeze’ part of our brain that comes online in a crisis. This means there is less blood flow to the part of the brain, where we do our rational thinking. As a result, we’re not able to assess risk accurately and our felt response of distress will be the same whether it’s our health, our bank balance or our tickets to the Six Nations game that are at stake.
Another connected consequence of anxiety is that it affects something called our “window of tolerance”. This is a term that those of us in mental health use to describe our capacity to cope emotionally. Just as you can cope less well with noise when you have a headache, it’s no great secret that when we’re anxious or down about something, we have less capacity to tolerate small annoyances, upsets and problems. You might find yourself snapping at others, or more distressed by small things such as breaking your favourite mug or not finding a parking space.
This reduced capacity can also show itself in more subtle ways. Allow me to give you an example: a family member asked me to keep tomorrow free for a surprise they were planning. Normally I love things like this and enjoy the suspense of waiting to find out what we will be doing. However, with all the insecurity around the coronavirus, I found that I was actually feeling anxious about not knowing what tomorrow holds. Would the surprise involve big groups of other people, public transport or any of the things we’re supposed to be avoiding? In the end I had to explain to this person that, as much as I usually love surprises, my “window of tolerance” for not-knowing was very small right now and I’d actually rather have a heads up.
As I try to make sense of all of this, the one thing I keep coming back to is that the coronavirus has made our inherent human vulnerability an unavoidable fact. We like to believe that we are in charge of our own lives, that we choose where we spend our weekends, when we get our kitchens redone etc. The pandemic has reminded us that we are not always masters of our own destiny. I suspect this might be playing a part in the panic-buying which has swept through supermarkets, as we try to regain some sense of control in an uncontrollable situation. Unfortunately this just makes us feel even more unsafe as we witness empty shelves and, despite knowing that we'll only need a certain amount of loo roll, start to wonder if other people know something we don't.
So what can we do? Yes, it may be wise to limit the amount of news you watch or read and, yes, we can buy our groceries sensibly with more vulnerable people in mind. But most importantly of all, we can be kind to both ourselves and others as we try to navigate this over these next few weeks. Be gentle with yourself when you feel anxious or distressed and extend the same understanding to those around you. We’re all in this together.