In the first days of the drastic restrictions on social interaction, she felt stressed, frustrated, anguished. The life of Elke Geraerts, a Flemish neuropsychologist—much like the life of many others—saw a major turnaround as a result of corona prevention regulations. “My consultancy lost all of its assignments for the upcoming months. Overnight, I had to switch to managing my team virtually. Added to that was the unhappiness of my kids who, for safety reasons, were no longer able to see their granny and grandpa.”
But Geraerts, a psychology graduate and the author of a book entitled The Mental Capital, managed to get her bearings in no time. At Better Minds at Work, her consultancy office for mental efficiency, she developed and made available this week a free-of-charge online programme providing support to people in these “psychologically challenging times”. Wednesday saw the first of such live ‘webinars’, entitled Mental Capital in the Time of Coronavirus.
The pandemic is the root of anxiety in the life of almost every individual. From major concerns for the loved ones whose health is more fragile to the little annoying things like empty store shelves with no bread or toilet paper on them. “People are scared, depressed, unable to have a proper sleep”, notes Geraerts. How, then, can one remain—or become—resilient?
Here are six tips, derived on the basis of the above and supplemented with information from several other books.
1. Focus on whatever you can influence most
In these times of unrest, plenty of coaches and psychologists refer to the ‘Circle of Influence’, a term coined by Stephen Covey in his 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. The American Covey outlines two such circles. The largest one is the Circle of Concern—that is, all the stuff you preoccupy yourself with in your life. Inside that larger circle, there is a smaller one, the Circle of Influence. This one comprises things you, as an individual, can do something about. Case in point in the coronavirus circumstances: a decision to ban travellers from certain countries lies outside your circle of influence (unless you are the Prime Minister) whereas learning to sneeze into the inside of your elbow is a commitment well within that circle.
Covey recommends to spend as much time and energy as you can inside your Circle of Influence. People who give a lot of thought to an event they are really concerned about yet cannot really influence—and the outbreak of a global viral pandemic is a showcase example of such an event—may themselves start to feel pretty helpless pretty quickly. Covey puts it as follows: „They are blaming and accusing others and become increasingly victimised themselves. In addition to that, they begin to neglect those areas they could actually do something about. All of the above causes their Circle of Influence to shrink.”
2. Put your emotions in motion
It does not say anywhere that you have to live your life as a stoic. Neither is that even possible, as we, the people, cannot go through life without our thoughts and feelings experiencing a bit of a shake-up every now and then through new events. Certainly, in a situation like the present one, the primary causes instilling anxiety are the fear for one’s life and the considerations of safety and security of one’s livelihood.
This corona crisis is an excellent opportunity to work on our mental resilience. In order to do that, it is important to let your emotions out: cry when you are sad, yell when you are mad, put all of your thoughts on paper if you are distressed or if you are deeply immersed in your worries.
3. Ration your intake of information
As we strive to prevent our feelings and thoughts from relapsing into commotion, we hear advice from all walks of life, that we should consume the news and social media in moderation. Basically, the idea is to select one or two longer segments of your day wherein you will get yourself consciously informed instead of making your brain vulnerable to the torrent of reports on coronavirus at all times.
4. Prearrange a routine for your day
Wake up at your usual waking up time. Do not linger in your bed—even if you have no immediate obligations. Routine keeps a human being resilient. Routine provides a handhold, and ensures that you worry less. This way you can better deal with any setbacks. The human brain loves habits because fixed routines cost less mental capacity than new actions.
It is precisely now when everything is changing so rapidly in a short time for plenty of folks—who start working from home instead of office, who have to take their evening stroll through their neighbourhood rather than to their gym—that it is particularly crucial to stick to those routines that are still in place. Did you use to take a shower every morning before leaving home? Keep doing that, even if you have no meetings scheduled for today.
5. Cultivate conscious feelings of thankfulness and connection
The ‘default setting’ of the human brain is to focus on threats, on problems, on scarcity of something—which is only justified as, from the evolutionary perspective, this ‘predilection for negativity’ helped our species to survive for 200,000 years—and had also secured the survival of the species before us, whom we ourselves had evolved from. It is counterproductive to suppress angst, anxiety or other unpleasant emotions, claims Brewer, as our brain feels ‘good’ when it is focusing on a certain problem—in this particular case, on the coronavirus—for the sake of our survival. The solution is to present the brain with a “bigger better offer” —that is, to ‘load’ our mental facilities with something that will make them feel even better. Powerful emotions ensuring this ‘feeling good’ are thankfulness and connection to something outside oneself—be that people or animals, or nature in general.
Another way to consciously focus the brain on what’s going well is to cultivate gratitude. For example, through a “thankfulness diary,” in which you write down what you value in your life. Like those dozens, maybe hundreds of people who have contributed to every meal we eat, from the farmer to the cashier at the grocery store around the corner. Or, in these times, all the care workers who are ready to offer care day and night.
6. Realize that we’re all resilient
Look around and see what you can do to help others. Do you think you could shop for groceries and deliver them to people who, due to their weak health, better avoid trips to a supermarket? Or could you, perhaps, take on an extra child or two and homeschool them alongside your own kids? The feeling of connection, of doing good—this is what gives people energy.