One of the hardest things about drastically changing behaviour is that our mind quickly wonders whether we’re up to it. We habitually assess the risks of actions we take. Which is why, when facing a drastic change of behaviour, we might feel unable to keep it up for very long. What will happen then? With this thought, we’re stepping out of the moment and leaping into the future where we’re confronted by something impossible to bear. We might feel this way, even if the current situation immediately in front of us is actually manageable.
Many people, struggling to cope with restrictions in the face of coronavirus, might be experiencing this reaction. Working from home indefinitely, with children out of school, we might encounter fears about how long this situation can be maintained. Right now, there is uncertainty everywhere. There are many questions without answers. How will I work from home? How will my business survive? How will I cope? It is easier to manage known uncertainty – for example we know there will be weather next week though we might not know what it will be. But coronavirus plunges us into deep uncertainty, where there is no pre-determined answer.
People have compared this pandemic to the Ebola outbreak of 2014 or Spanish flu, which began in 1918. These diseases had their own symptoms, at-risk groups, contagion periods and historical contexts. But coronavirus brings a new level of uncertainty. It brings unanswered questions and consequently brings a perceived risk that spirals into something we fear is unmanageable. This is what lies behind the panic we are seeing on the high street. Every time I see a news report about empty shelves, I panic a little bit too. Perhaps most of us do. Panic can be described as the blind, competitive pursuit of self-interest that turns disasters into tragedies.
Sometimes a common threat can lead to shared togetherness and increased co-operation and support. However, this can be fragile. As soon as we see others acting out-of-control, it can lead to an instinct of “everyone for themselves”. Images of empty shelves fuel this rising sense of panic. Some sectors were hit by coronavirus earlier than others, among them airlines. Ironic then that many airlines and online shops used panic as a tactic for years – “one more left at this price” feeds this same irrational behaviour.
Panic is actively harmful and creates selfishness and competitiveness which turns sensible into dysfunctional. Telling people not to panic adds fuel to the fire, because it implies there is something to panic about. It suggests we cannot rely on our fellow brothers and sisters.
Many of us are probably experiencing some degree of future-orientated panic about how to work and occupy the kids at the same time. We might be experiencing doubts about whether things will ever recover and whether we will get back to where we were? We all will have questions such as how can I pay rent if I have no income? How will I get into uni if I cannot take exams? What will happen then? The truth is, we don’t know that level of detail about the future, which for many of us might lead to fears of unmanageable situations.
It’s important to keep things in context, to sense what is going on inside us and around us in any given moment. It’s also important to know that we have the response capabilities necessary to cope. Awareness of these things is fundamental to knowing that, together, we can get through this. These are the things that help to keep our feet on the ground. As soon as we start projecting ourselves into some future living nightmare, we have to keep ourselves in the moment. In such times, we must ask ourselves what can I do now? What is the next hour about?
‘Keeping it in the day’ means simply focusing on today, not straying into the future or simply focusing on the moment in front of you. From the 12 Step change process, a psychological tool that can help control addictions, comes this helpful thought: Just for today, I will try to live through this day only, and not tackle all my life problems or world problems. I can do something for 12 hours, something that would appal me if I felt I had to keep it up for a lifetime. In working out how to get to grips with this national crisis, with no end in sight, finding a few thoughts about today – and just today – is no bad place to start.
Our mindfulness virtual training course also has some great tips about focusing on the moment.