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Love (and survival) in the time of COVID-19

The combined health and economic crises that coronavirus bring in 2020 is a challenge for our brains and emotional well-being. DR FIONA WARNER-GALE, from Thinking Through/Associate Development Solutions, looks at how we can work with our brain to not only survive and heal but grow and draw strength from this challenging experience.

I know, like you all, that my mind being in overdrive is a shared thing.

This morning I’ve woken early, as I have every day for the last two weeks. When I look out of the window it feels like there’s nothing wrong with the world. Inside I’m hurting.

Although I’m not big on partying, I’m still a social animal. The human brain is wired to connect. When we don’t, we feel social pain. We feel this pain in the same way that we feel physical pain — the same areas of our brain light up as when we are physically hurt. The difference is that we remember the social pain for longer — it helps us predict our environment, our interactions with others and helps us to plan our survival.

We are currently responding to a very threatening situation, unprecedented, unimaginable, and one we can’t predict. Our threat response is in overdrive. Our brain is forced to respond constantly to a situation of which we can’t make sense. Imagine all of that stress in our brains and bodies. Anyone who suffers from anxiety will know the impact that being in a heightened threat response state can have — it’s draining and all-consuming.

Our brain is a social organ. There are things that we can do to make it feel secure and to reduce the burden of stress hormones on us.

We need to feel part of a group — to reach out, connect, in any way we can. Don’t just write it on a card and push it through someone’s door- do it. Phone, text, email, video call, SKYPE, conversations across the road!

Look after your body budget — eat well, rest well, think about your environment — get outside, dance in the garden, go to open spaces, breathe in the air. Get some sleep. Exercise. Connect/think about the people in your life right now.

Be aware of what you are thinking and feeling. It’s a good indicator of what your brain is predicting. Where are you at? Listen to yourself. Help others to be aware of their feelings and predictions too. Speak out about it. Don’t keep it bottled up, it will eat you away.

Don’t get SCAREd, there is a way to give yourself a hug … I find using the SCARE model really helps me see a way through.

S = Significance. We need to feel part of something, to know that we have a place in the world. Let’s make sure we have a sense of belonging. Let’s make sure we help others to do this too.

C = Certainty. We are in the middle of so much uncertainty. Having a routine and plans for the day will help. Our brains thrive off what is dependable, consistent and known. Keep promises, don’t make ones that you can’t keep. Each day take time to think about what can be predictable, it will help to settle your brain a little, it will help it to feel less need to constantly search for threats.

A = Autonomy. We all have need for autonomy. Be the driver of your own choices during your day. Do something for yourself, do something that you know is fun. Remember if you have children at home, they will need to do this too. Sometimes they don’t always make good choices, so they may need a little help. The more we plan things, the less chance we have of experiencing a threat response and going into meltdown.

R = Relatedness. If people are struggling to connect, be that social glue. Reach out. Be inclusive. Build strong connections. Look around you, notice who’s coming unstuck. It’s time to use “we” instead of “I”. Be willing to share your personal feelings to help establish commonality. Our children will be feeling this lack of glue too. Lots of them have lost their school time, their social connection. We need to help them to re-connect. Make time for one another. To feel related.

E = Equity. We all like to feel that we are treated equally and fairly.  We’ve seen some very odd behaviours among humankind of late. Most is generated from a need to survive, to feel significance and certainty. The great loo roll hunt is probably driven by this, as is the panic shopping. Treat everyone equally and fairly. Be nurturing, empathetic and show care for others. If we do, it will come right back at us. Remember our children need this too. Now more than ever, we need to make sure they are not made to feel different, isolated, judged. Think about the person who has special needs, the only child, the person on their own. Treat them fairly.

Most of all, find things to help your brain and soothe it. Being in the moment, taking time for yourself and others, spotting and acknowledging yours and others’ feelings, connecting … and just breathing. Things like suppressing your feelings, ignoring feelings and pretending things aren’t happening – all this does is push things to the back of our minds, only to jump out and bite us again – sending our busy brains into overdrive.

Remember that emotions are contagious. We are biased toward the negative. That’s our threat response, our survival instinct. That’s why it’s so hard to take positive action, and why we don’t always stick to our plans for positivity. Make a plan to do something rewarding and positive, every day. Look around you, have gratitude for something that went well, or that makes us happy, or that we are proud of. Write it down, draw it, sing it. Communicate it to others. We can be the architects of our own experience, we can help others too.

I hope this helps you a little? Writing this has helped me to think it through, to say it, to know that I need to do this. I’ve become a bit of a brain geek! But when we realise that our brains actually have a huge influence on us, and that we can help them to predict in the right direction, to re-wire our fears. To take control, then we are half-way there. We are in this together. We can do this.

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