Here in the UK, we are now in the fourth week of ‘lockdown’ because of the coronavirus threat, with no clear end in sight. Staying at home has become the new (temporary) norm and it’s an adapted reality that we have all come to accept, even though many of us do not like it. The bottom line though is that the current situation is almost certainly set to continue for some time to come.
But how we act now, the mindset we adopt and the way in which we use the extra time many of us have on our hands could end up defining how we get through this crisis and if we gain anything constructive and helpful from the overall experience.
Why does the current situation feel so uncomfortable?
Before we look at how your mindset will ultimately determine what you get out of the COVID-19 lockdown, it’s important to first understand why most of us feel so uncomfortable right now.
Aside from the actual threat the new coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2) poses to our health, it also makes us feel decidedly uncomfortable because it has resulted in many of us temporarily losing our sense of freedom, as well as feeling a whole lot of uncertainty.
First and foremost, we humans hate feeling trapped. Our stress response increases and our focus locks in on what the trap is with thoughts spiralling out of control about anything related to the perceived trap.
It’s all part of basic animal instincts that define us. As a case in point, even amoebas – one of the simplest living organisms – do not like feeling trapped. We know this because they display agitated behaviour when they are, and we’re the same!
But add an escape route and it creates a psychological safety valve which allays our feelings of anxiety and unease. The problem right now is we don’t have such an escape route, which leads on to the other situation that makes us humans feel uncomfortable: uncertainty.
With no known definitive end date in sight, the COVID-19 lockdown is certainly uncertain. Will it be extended? If so, how long for? How long before things go back to normal?
Even if an end date six months from now was given, we would feel better. We may still rail against and struggle with it but the ‘certainty’ of a specific end date gives our minds a rest. It’s the uncertainty, the lack of a specific ‘end date’ is what’s driving a lot of our unhelpful feelings at the moment.
Stuck in unhelpful thought patterns
As a result of feeling trapped and the uncertainty surrounding the current situation, many of us will be experiencing unhelpful thought patterns, including snowballing and mental tennis.
Snowballing is where we have a single unhelpful thought which then turns into an avalanche of negativity. For example, the COVID-19 lockdown means most of us aren’t seeing our friends as much as usual. But they are still our friends. With snowballing, the initial thought of not being able to see our friends might lead to us worrying that we won’t have any friends left once this is all over. An irrational thought, but one we could think nevertheless.
Mental tennis is where we are indecisive and go back and forth between two thoughts. Should I do this, or should I do that? In fact, we get so hung up going back and forth we fail to appreciate that there are other options available to us.
Apart from the drain on our energy of such unhelpful thought patterns (snowballing and mental tennis) there’s the question of the what we are making this current situation mean. With two of our most primal discomforts – feeling trapped and uncertainty – we are likely to experience reductive stories about how we are having to endure something or that something is being done to us, which in turn affects our feelings and behaviours.
The quest for meaning
Even though you didn’t ‘choose’ this situation and didn’t sign up for it so to speak, this is now your experience. You therefore have a choice in how you move through it. You can either learn from it and grow, or not. This is where you have a choice. It’s all up to you and affects what kind of mindset you adopt.
With a fixed mindset, you’ll resign yourself to the fact the situation is hopeless and inevitably. There is a conviction that there is nothing you can do, that there is not gain much from the current situation and that it’s best just to grin and bear it.
With a growth mindset, you’ll get curious about how the COVID-19 lockdown can become an opportunity to learn something about yourself or even a new skill. This is the conviction that you can come through to the other side of this actually having benefitted from what’s going on.
In his psychological memoir, Man’s Search for Meaning, celebrated Austrian neuroscientist, psychiatrist and holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl talks about the primary purpose of life: the quest for meaning.
What does this have to do with the coronavirus outbreak? Well, it boils down to the fact that if people have a ‘why’ to live, then they can bear with almost any ‘how’. In other words, If you have a meaning to bring you through a challenging period, it shifts you from being the victim of the circumstance to your own agent – even if the external circumstance is the same. By making the meaning your own, you will come through better than if you just endure it.
“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.” – Viktor Frankl
Consider Paralympic gold medal winning cyclist Mark Colbourne. In 2009, he was forced into an emergency landing while paragliding. He broke his back and spent a year just learning how to walk again, though his accident means he’ll always need assistance doing so.
Despite his disability and despite the odds, Mark has established himself as one of the best paracyclists ever to compete for Great Britain. In 2013, Mark was awarded an MBE and also retired from cycling.
Mark embodies of true determination, showing that there is always hope – even when tragedy strikes – and that mindset is the key.
Map how you are currently feeling
Before you can go any further and look to change your mindset and approach so you are getting the most out of the current situation (or any situation, for that matter), you need to know how you are currently feeling, thinking and doing – and the best way to do that is by creating a map.
Grab a notepad and a pen, then take a few minutes to write down the answer to these three key questions:
- What am I thinking about the current situation?
- How am I feeling about the current situation?
- What am I doing about the current situation?
Write down your answers verbatim as they come from your head, as if you were downloading a file from your brain. Also, be specific. This will allow you to clearly see your thoughts outside of your head and enable you to analyse them more easily. What are your thoughts telling you? What are the words you are using? What’s the story you are telling yourself about what’s going on?
By creating a map, you can address the clues implicit in your thoughts and feelings, and start to identify what’s helpful and what’s not. The map shows you where you are now and from there you can work out where you want to be.
Resistance develops strength
So now you have a map of how you are thinking, feeling and doing, what are you going to do with it? Well, a good start would be to look at your map and see which of the points you’ve recorded relate to things you struggle with.
Then, you can repeatedly practice ways to deal with them – a bit like doing repetitions of resistance training in the gym when you want to improve your muscle strength and size, as well as your endurance. As a result of your practice, you will increase your strength and lessen the impact these things have on your life.
Start by asking, is it helpful? A good marker is whether it makes you feel good or bad about yourself? Then ask, what would be more helpful?
Also, don’t forget that you can only change what’s in your sphere of influence. So acknowledge everything that isn’t and simply focus on what you can control.
What are you learning about yourself?
Answering these questions will help guide you to a meaning that will be more helpful to bring you through the current situation. Taking the growth mindset approach, you are increasingly likely to become more comfortable with the uncertainty and less reliant on external influences for your own sense of self.
Whatever losses you are experiencing as a direct result of the lockdown and COVID-19, by making yourself the agent of your own experience, you will cope and quite likely even thrive during this situation that you find yourself in.
Remember, uncertainty is always there. Learn to be more comfortable with it and you’ll be more in control of your own experience.
Let’s look at some of the struggles or issues many of us are experiencing and how you can address the thoughts, feelings and actions that you struggle with in a helpful way:
- If you’re feeling a loss of control, recognising that there are aspects of your experience that are truly outside of your control. This is not news but rarely have we experienced the truth of that so starkly and our usual attempts to create an illusion of control are currently not working. Get curious about what’s within your sphere of influence. Once you realise this and accept both that there will always be aspects outside of your control as well as aspects (like your mindset) that are within your control, you’ll find that the whole situation becomes a lot more manageable.
- If you’re feeling disconnected from others, why not use the current situation to improve your connection with yourself. Get curious about this primary relationship. How do you care for your mental, emotional and physical health. How much do you know about yourself? If you and you went out on a date, what would you have to talk about? Cultivate and nurture this relationship so that it’s the way you want it to be. After all, it’s the most important relationship you’ll ever have.
- If you’re feeling trapped, get curious. What exactly is triggering the trapped feeling. Be specific. How does that relate you how you are perceiving this situation. What are you making it mean? Are you enduring it or harnessing it for your personal growth? Developing a growth mindset will generate a sense of liberation, like a weight has been lifted from your shoulders and even a sense of an empowering challenge.
- If you’re disliking the uncertainty, practice shifting your focus from living in the future and to what’s happening now, here in real-time. Chances are you con’t have a crystal ball that predicts and controls the future, so treasure the real-time experiences you are actually living. Inherent in all uncertainty there is potential (when everything is certain, there is no potential). So get curious about the potential here for you in your life today. For example, savour a tasty meal, rather than just eating it without really thinking about it. Or play a game and have some fun. This is your time, your space and your potential.
Practising these 4 things (or other learnings that are specific to you) is like taking yourself to a strengths bootcamp and just like resistance training in the gym builds your physical muscle so this will help you build the strengths that give meaning to how you come through this lockdown.
My invitation to you is to give yourself the time to consider and choose how you want to think about this experience when you look back on it in the future.
My hope for you is that you will look back on this time with a powerful sense of meaning and growth that happened not despite of these unique conditions but because of them.
Would you like personal support to navigate your way forward and help you find the meaning you need to come through this? Book a chat with me and let’s explore how I can help you through 1:2:1 consultations.
You’ll discover how to:
- Help yourself feel better straight away
- Work with your brain and your body to respond better to challenges
- Get curious about your feelings and why they show up
- Have more helpful self-talk
- Pace to manage stress, pain and fatigue and reduce where possible
Till next time, go gently with yourself and stay safe.
All the best, Thor