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Coping with uncertainty during coronavirus

Some advice from Good’s emotions expert, Alice Boyes, PhD and author of The Anxiety Toolkit and The Healthy Mind Toolkit about coping with uncertainty.

We’re all currently facing the uncertain threat that is coronavirus – we don’t know how long it will last and exactly what the damage will be. Uncertainty tends to be particularly emotionally taxing. Here are some tips for protecting your emotional health.

1. Understand the evolved basis of why it’s hard to concentrate.

You might have been hearing advice that you should keep up your typical work schedule and/or be using your time at home to do all the projects you’ve wished you had time for. If you’re criticising yourself because you’re not successfully doing this, here’s what’s important to know.

Uncertainty makes us feel hyper alert and on-edge, but this is a feature not a bug. Humans have evolved to pay attention to danger because doing so helped our survival. If you’re struggling to concentrate on anything else, that’s how we are wired. We’re not wired to be able to easily distract ourselves from a danger and get absorbed in unrelated topics because that might’ve hurt our survival.

The solution to every crisis isn’t to become hyperproductive. If keeping up a schedule and doing projects helps you, good for you. Structure can be helpful, but it shouldn’t be relentless. If you’re only operating at 50 per cent, don’t be too hard on yourself.

2. Answer your “what if” questions.

When people have “what if…” worries, they tend not to fully play out those scenarios. Identify a specific “what if” worry, such as, getting coronavirus and ending up in hospital, a specific loved one getting it, being in lockdown down for months, losing your job or your business going under. Then, articulate what you’d do in the scenario. Allow yourself to vividly imagine what you would actually do. What would you do practically? What would you do emotionally? What social support would you use?

Doing this thought exercise can help you recognise that even in the most difficult situations, you would still have ideas about how you could cope. If you have many “what if” worries, consider tackling one per day using this exercise.

3. Notice if you’re having anxiety about your anxiety.

If you recognise that humans are wired to find it hard to concentrate on other topics and relax when facing an imminent threat, it can help you not fear your feelings so much. There are two aspects of anxiety – whatever you’re anxious about, and anxiety about anxiety, for instance, you fear you’re losing your mind, you can’t concentrate to function, or that you will become overwhelmed with feelings of anxiety.

Anxiety doesn’t typically cause people to lose their ability to function in basic ways. And, if you did start to struggle, you’d reach out for professional support. If you’re anxious about your anxiety, try the prior suggestion to think through that “what if” scenario. For example, think through “what would I do if I started to struggle to take care of myself and my kids due to anxiety?” It’s not likely to happen, but if it did, you’d deal with it.

4. Consider worry scheduling.

Worry scheduling is when you designate a set time per day for worrying, say between 6.10pm and 6.30pm. When worries pop into your mind outside this time, try putting them aside till your designated worry time. Some people note any worries they have on a piece of paper, and then go through what’s on that piece of paper during their scheduled worry time.

5. Closely observe what soothes you.

In my family, we’ve been throwing a beach ball inside, cutting pictures out of magazines and using them as inspiration for drawings. We’re doing restorative yoga, and we’ve set up our tent in the backyard where we’re practicing our camping skills.

Your strategies for getting through this highly uncertain time don’t need to be fancy. Experiment, explore (at home!), and expand your collection of strategies. People often aren’t motivated for learning skills to regulate their emotions and cope with stress until the proverbial poo hits the fan. It has now, and if you upskill now, you’ll have those strategies forever and can use them in milder situations in the future.

The Anxiety Toolkit and The Healthy Mind Toolkit by Alice Boyes are available in paperback and all major e-book formats.

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