Emotional processing in times of Coronavirus
In light of the current situation I feel it is necessary to take a moment to reflect on the different ways this coronavirus pandemic is affecting us.
Many of us are feeling helpless and vulnerable at the moment. Some because of the risk this virus poses to our health or to our loved ones. Others because of the uncertain effect this situation may have on our income and livelihood. There is also the fact that nobody knows how long this situation will last, nor what other changes we may have to face in he coming days or weeks.
Stress and anxiety is at an all time high as we struggle with being unable to control what is happening to us.
As a meditation and relaxation practitioner I can be tempted to tell people to use meditation and breathing to help relieve anxiety and “let go”. This would of course help anyone struggling with anxiety, especially those who already practice meditation regularly.
However I feel this would not address the needs of others, as asking you to “let go” in a situation where there are tangible issues and risks can also be dismissive of some very legitimate worries.
In times like this, we see people reacting in strange ways. Some are hoarding products; others are denying there is any risk. In more intimate settings, people may be highly anxious, lashing out or bottling up their emotions. This is why I have put together this information on dealing with difficult emotions. You can read this and choose the parts that apply to you. To go a bit deeper, take a piece of paper and use it to record your reactions and reflections when reading this article.
I hope this helps.
Dealing with difficult emotions in maladaptive ways
Sometimes we may feel that we have difficulty dealing with certain emotions. We may be avoiding them or feeling stuck. Usually we have learned these strategies growing up in families where certain emotions were accepted and encouraged, while others were dismissed or considered bad.
Truth is there are no good or bad emotions. They are natural parts of our experience as human beings. Each of them has a function. They inform us of what we need to do in order to restore balance in and around us. For example, healthy anger can be an impulse to defend or protect what is important. Healthy sadness helps us reach out to people in times of need. Joy is an impulse to share and build a helping community, etc.
The problem is when we deal with our emotions in a maladaptive way, causing us to be stuck or to act impulsively. Here is a list of ways in which we may be doing this. See if you can see how you relate to the emotion that is causing you problems, whether it is anxiety, anger or something else. It could be one or a combination of these:
- Repression: Denial or avoidance of the emotion. Do you distract yourself from it, and avoid thinking about it? Do you not feel it at all until it is too late or it manifests through health issues (headache, upset stomach, panic attacks)?
- Rumination: Do you go over and over it in your mind in an attempt to “think it out”?
- Overwhelm: Do you let it invade you and push you to impulsive acts or emotional overwhelm (excessive tears, lashing out, freezing etc.)
- Projection: Do you place the emotion outside of yourself in an attempt to distance it?
- Attachment: Do you feel comfortable with it because you are used to it? Do you gain something personally or socially from that emotion? Think about what you would do without it.
Being aware of how we deal with our emotions can be hard, but once we know, we can start shifting things around. It is a process, so it is useful to remember to be patient with ourselves.
Anxiety and Uncertainty
There are few things more scary for us humans than uncertainty. Moreover, stress and anxiety ramp up when we are dealing with things that are outside of our control, like in this case, the spread of a virus.
Facing our own vulnerability is tough. It takes courage to accept this state of “not knowing”, of powerlessness.
To deal with our anxieties is an uncomfortable process. We first need to acknowledge them, ‘see’ them for what they are. Take a moment to think and feel, to accept the reasons why you might be anxious. Is it for your health or someone else’s? Your income? Access to products or services? How does the prospect of confinement and isolation make you feel?
If you wish, take a piece of paper and write down what comes to mind, in detail. “I am anxious because…”
Identify how your body is reacting to this. What are the symptoms, if any? Do you suffer from headaches, an upset stomach? Where are you storing all this tension? If you are having recurring thoughts, spell them out or write them down even. Don’t be afraid to do this. If you start feeling overwhelmed, just stop, take a few deep breaths, go do something else and wait to calm down before coming back to this.
Work with underlying emotions
Sometimes, we are feeling stuck in our anxiety, it can mean that there are other emotions underlying it. If these are not addressed, we find ourselves ruminating anxious thoughts.
Anger, sadness, grief, hurt, fear or disappointment could be hiding behind our anxiety. Stay open to the possibility that you are feeling these things. These are usual feeling when confronted to the unknown as it reminds us of our lack of control, our powerlessness in front of certain life events. Understanding what is happening within yourself will develop your emotional intelligence and give you the ability to improve your situation.
For example, when something concerning happens, much like what is going on now with the Coronavirus, and we are uncertain about the future, the underlying feeling beneath anxiety can be fear. Accepting that we are scared can make us confront our own vulnerability. Feeling powerless can instil anger in us, and so on. Our emotional reactions can be complex and take time to decipher. Taking this time to examine our own reactions is important.
As you do this, you might start feeling overwhelmed. This is normal, but remember, we are not our emotions, and we don’t have to be scared of them. We are bigger than they are; emotions are only one part of our experience as human beings.
Once you have recognised one or more emotions underlying your anxiety, you can follow the next steps. This is one of the ways to process and manage emotions working with our bodies:
- See it: Acknowledge the emotions. Do it verbally if possible. Complete the sentence “I am angry/scared/sad because…” Be compassionate with yourself, every emotion has a reason to be. Try not to judge the way you feel.
- Sense it: If possible, have a sense of how that emotion affects your body. What physical reactions are you having? Does is feel like a tension or ailment somewhere? How is your breath?
- Stay with it/hold yourself: Being vulnerable and staying with our emotions is difficult and takes courage. We are bigger than our emotions and even if they overwhelm us at one moment, they end up passing. Stay with your emotions without judgment. Try to accept that you feel this way. It is a normal reaction, given the situation. We are all human; everyone is reacting in his/her own way.
- Breathe: For as long as it takes. Acceptance of an emotion can bring release. Let yourself cry, scream or do what you need to. Breathe into the emotion, by breathing into the place in your body that holds the tension. Little by little, you will start to relax. Be patient and gentle with yourself, as you would with a loved one. It might take more than one try. It might take some exploring into the roots of your emotion or it might take more practice in self-compassion.
- Open your perspective: As we ease into our emotion, we start noticing what other things are going on in us and around. Our attention became narrow when focusing on that uncomfortable feeling. Now it widens. Reconnect with the You that is feeling that and other things. You can perceive a number of things at the same time; let the thoughts and emotions flow.
Once you have done this, remember that emotions might come back. As the situation is always evolving, we are even more prone to revert to anxiety, anger, or any other emotion. Repeat this every time you need. And remember to be kind to yourself in the process. We are all unsettled, afraid and out of our comfort zone. What is important is to be able to recognise this, and let the emotions flow with compassion, so as to avoid getting stuck in them. We can then take action if possible, to cope with the situation at hand.
Strategies to cope
After this, we can employ different techniques to take action (but not take action BEFORE this work as it could only be to avoid emotions). Different actions can be:
- Reframing: What is the worst case scenario? What is the best case scenario? What is most likely to happen? Consider that you are scared/angry/sad because you care about others’ wellbeing. Others care about you as well. How can you canalise that energy towards action? Can you take action to help your loved ones or your community be safe?
- Make a plan, take action: What is it that affects you the most in this situation? Think about protecting your community. About possible changes at work and how they are going to be put into place. Plan your finances in detail. Organise your house (without hoarding). Think about where and how to reach for help if necessary. Make lists about all of these things, have your plan ready to go.
- Self-care: Set times where you won’t access social media or news. It is important to limit our access to potential sources of anxiety. Plan out your physical activities for the week, as well as time devoted to hobbies. Take a pause to breathe whenever necessary. Pour yourself a bath, or do something relaxing. Eat well and sleep enough. Look for sources of positive information about people helping each other for example.
The Coronavirus is a real outbreak and a serious risk for many of us. However, focusing on our fears will only cloud our thinking and push us to do unwise things that will not help the situation. This is for example what panic buyers or the ones that are still going out and about are doing. Some of them cannot tolerate feeling all the uncomfortable emotions that emerge in a moment of uncertainty and will engage in risky or unhelpful behaviour in an attempt to distance their fears.
Let’s be brave by staying aware of our reactions. This will provide us with more choices in our behaviours, and will enable us to keep ourselves and our loved ones safe more effectively, without harming others in the process.
If you feel you need professional support during these trying times, feel free to contact me for more information on how online or face to face counselling can help you.
To look for a counsellor in your area you can use Counselling Directory.
Oxfordshire Mind has put together a set of resources in order to help people through this crisis. Find out more here.