About three months have passed since the news of a new, deadly, and highly contagious disease began to infiltrate the media. Friends were gathering at the pub and laughing about the senseless panic buying of toilet paper, while work meetings were beginning with a comical round of elbow bumping in replacement of the handshake. Cut to now, and whole countries are on lockdown. Schools, pubs, restaurants, and non-essential shops are closed, entire companies have shifted to working from home practically overnight, and self-isolation has become the new way of life.
At this point, the pandemic has clawed its way into just about every aspect of life. Aside from the obvious havoc it has wreaked on our healthcare services, it has also devastated the global economy, caused unemployment rates to soar, and either exacerbated preexisting mental health issues related to stress and anxiety or created them right from scratch. While not everyone’s experience of the coronavirus crisis is the same – some have lost loved ones, some have lost jobs, some are completely alone in isolation, others are tirelessly working to provide essential care and services – the psychological impact can be felt by anyone with a pulse. For those who are simply stuck indoors, the effects are lesser, but still far from inconsequential.
“Unfortunately, we have seen an uptick in inquiries and referrals to our mental health treatment center,” says Roger McIntyre, Professor of Psychiatry and Pharmacology at the University of Toronto and Head of the Mood Disorders Psychopharmacology Unit. “As time goes on and people develop even more severe anxiety or depression as it relates to economic uncertainty or as a side effect of isolation, we do expect our numbers to continue to increase. What we are seeing is a combustible mix of loneliness and stress that is amplified by COVID-19.”
The physical health repercussions of the pandemic are explicit and easily digestible. Clearly, there is a lot to lose, but the critical effects on mental health should not be ignored or trivialised as we muddle through these murky waters, and policy needs to take this seriously, lest we (hopefully) quash the virus but see a spike in mental health disorders and even suicide rates. But what can we as individuals do to lessen the psychological effects during this time of fear, isolation and uncertainty? The answer, annoyingly, is that there isn’t an answer, and ultimately we must accept that there will be good and bad days before we are out of the woods. However, there are ways to make the bad days better and the good days more frequent, and it begins with learning to reframe your triggers.
Our brains are hard-wired to look for the negative. They evolved to aid survival, after all. When facing a potential stressor, the body’s natural response is to produce the stress chemical, cortisol, which over time can crescendo into a constant state of heightened awareness, overthinking, worry, and panic, which is a common collective experience during this global crisis. It is, of course, nature’s way of helping us to think fast and escape potentially dangerous situations, but in our current reality when the stressor is more job uncertainty, cabin fever, and an invisible virus, and less being chased by a wild animal, the stress-producing chemical is quite redundant and a veritable hindrance to our daily lives and happiness. Fortunately, there is a way to rewire the brain to perceive things so that they create less stress and promote a greater sense of peace and control.
Reframing your triggers (known as Cognitive Reframing) can actually change your physical responses to stress and is a powerful tool, particularly in these times of increased anxiety. Essentially, it is a way of changing your perception of events so that your brain is no longer triggered into viewing that event as negative, and so your body isn’t prompted to produce cortisol, but rather remains calm and in a healthy state of neutrality. The COVID-19 crisis has placed many potential triggers at the forefront of our daily lives. These, of course, come in varying degrees, and for such catastrophic events like loss of life or job loss leading to severe financial hardship, the devastating psychological and emotional effects are a natural and somewhat necessary response. But more common are the triggers that represent the collective experience, and in these cases, Cognitive Reframing can help to disrupt negative thought patterns that may eventuate in mental health issues.
Some common triggers that most of us can currently relate to and which can certainly benefit from this practice of reframing are:
Staying at Home
Current restrictions specify that unless carrying out essential work or care, we are obligated to stay at home. This means that the majority of us have been propelled into working, exercising, even socialising (virtually) from home in indefinite self-isolation. Naturally, the automatic response is to feel stuck and confined without our usual changes of scene. Reframing the narrative from ‘I’m stuck inside’ to ‘I have the rare opportunity to slow down, to rest, and to focus on myself without the usual distractions’ will help to put a positive spin on a situation that may otherwise evoke a physical stress response every time the thought arises. It is important to note, however, that while learning to view this period of abnormality as an opportunity rather than a stressor will help to reduce negative thought patterns, the notion of opportunity is subjective. For example, for some, the time gained back from commuting to and from work will serve as an opportunity for increased productivity, say, by learning a new skill. But for others, it’s a much-needed chance to rest and recuperate. Many people may feel pressure to have something impressive to show for this time in isolation, but this will only amount to an extra source of stress and anxiety during this time. Whether it’s learning a new language or binge-watching every episode of Game of Thrones, do what feels right.
Parenting in Isolation
With schools having to close, many parents are suddenly faced with living and/or working in what feels like the home of the Brady Bunch. It is natural to feel overwhelmed by the prospect of homeschooling, to panic about how you’ll keep your kids entertained and happy while housebound, and to worry about how you will logistically get any work done with your attention relentlessly in demand from all angles. There are some varying factors at play here, which will, of course, alter the severity of the situation, such as whether the parenting is shared, whether the kids have additional needs, and how flexible employers are willing to be, but where possible, try to reframe this potential trigger from ‘How will I cope with having my kids at home every day’ to ‘I have the rare opportunity to spend more time with my kids, to connect with them through school activities and to be present while they learn and grow’. So many working parents say that they would love to be able to spend more time with their children, feeling as though time passes too quickly and they are missing milestones. Try to view this as a gift of time that is only likely to come around once.
During such an unprecedented and uncertain time it is easy to become consumed by the bombardment of media headlines and fear-mongering information. One of the main causes of panic attacks is excessive worrying for unsubstantiated reasons, and while COVID-19 certainly poses risk to public physical health, it is worthwhile to consider that the wide-reaching ramifications to public mental health may usurp the physical in the long run. Media coverage has a knack for seeping into the collective consciousness and inciting fear, so take precaution and claim control over what you pay attention to as a way of protecting your mental health. Try to reframe the trigger from ‘I must stay up to speed about the pandemic in order for myself and my loved ones to avoid getting sick’ to ‘All anyone can do is take the official government advice on board, adhere to the rules and accept that while contraction is possible, the chances are relatively slim.’ Limit your intake of the news to twice per day as any more is excessive and will increase your chance of a physical stress response. Social media is abundant with triggers, too, so try to limit scrolling and take any unofficial information you stumble upon with a pinch of salt. Knowledge is power, but the media is currently an incubator for anxiety, so be selective. And above all, remember that this too shall pass.