How are you? How are you really?
Pause… Breathe…More deeply than normal… Exhale even further… Notice what you are feeling… Just for a moment.
There is a lot of fear being felt in the world right now! Grief also, at the loss of of loved ones, of jobs and livelihoods, of social connection, of ways of life and other simple things we took for granted…it can feel like an emotional tidal wave!
Some would say the felt fear is even more of a pandemic than COVID-19. Some are already predicting there may be mass emotional knock-on effects as and when we emerge from the other side of a crisis. This crisis is happening, for some more intensely and extremely than for others, and affects each and every one of us on our shared planet.
This is where calm and compassion are going to be our ‘superpowers’.
Since 2013, I’ve had the privilege to work with military veterans, with physical and mental injuries, who are in transition “to a more independent and meaningful life”. I work as a facilitator and coach, not a psychological expert. As a facilitator team, our purpose, presence and process is rooted in ‘normalising’ – showing up and being human, centred, with an open heart and mind, about whatever is going on.
When it comes to a range of mental health issues, from anxiety and stress through to PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Diagnosis), these are the body system’s natural design in response to threatening situations and events. This is regardless of whether the threats are real or perceived as real (even imagined). The more intense the threatening situation or event, the greater the response.
And the overriding emotion is fear.
Fear is normal. It’s the emotional response to threat. It’s there for a reason – to protect us. It’s as old as the Reptilian Brain that governs it – which is understood to have originated in fish and reached its most advanced stage in reptiles some 250 millions years ago. It’s an automated response to keep us safe and help us learn and evolve. Think of a child who touches something hot, then (instinctively/hopefully!) learns to not touch things that are too hot. Of course there are more extreme examples; my point is that our threat responses are more deeply rooted than we realise and are there for a very normal and practical reason.
So what is happening emotionally for each of us in the current COVID-19 context? How are we reacting, automatically and understandably? And how can/could we choose more consciously to respond?
There are 6 main responses to threat. Most people will already know fight and flight; there are also freeze, appease, frolic and flow. I have been thinking about how each of these can either serve or harm us, in particular in our current context.
(Please remember, I am coming at this from how I see and feel things, not as a clinical expert, and whether there is something to learn that is useful and practical).
Below are some thoughts on these different threat responses:
1) if you were facing a Grizzly Bear!
2) that are unhelpful or unhealthy in current context
3) that could be helpful or healthy in current context
1) You would stand your ground and fight.
2) Getting aggressive with others while shopping or online; doing the opposite to common sense recommendations and requests from those who know more than you, because you ‘have a thing against authority’.
3) Courage and perseverance; feel the fear and do it anyway; being front line support, and/or supporting those who are; doing your bit in the community; determined attitude of “We will beat this!”
1) You would turn and run! (not sure how far you would get!)
2) Running to family or friends or others places for safety without realising that you could be carrying and spreading the virus; steering clear of situations that raise the risk of infection or becoming a carrier.
3) Starting to think of innovative ways to learn from this crisis to better equip ourselves for potential such future events.
1) You would stand still and hope you’re not noticed.
2) Sticking your head in the sand and pretending ‘this isn’t happening’!; not listening to and acting on sensible recommendations and requests; failure to act and do what you can to take care of yourself, your family and simple essential needs.
3) Staying at home; pausing; reflecting; being more objective; taking a wider perspective.
1) You would be submissive (ie don’t resist) and go loose and floppy until the Grizzly loses interest (hopefully).
2) Going to a friend or family party/gathering because you don’t want to upset anyone; listening to everything you hear on social media!
3) Listening to the sound advice that’s out there and take heed; researching what you need to know to keep yourself and loved ones healthy – mentally, emotionally, physically; staying calm; breathing; relaxing, dropping the shoulders, slackening the jaw, meditating, resting up…..all to release tension.
1) Be light and playful (might not work with a Grizzly!)
2) Not taking the global/local threat seriously enough; joking inappropriately (content or timing or audience); thinking ‘this doesn’t apply to me’ and going out somewhere with friends without social distancing; distracting yourself from what needs doing to take care of yourself, your family and simple essential needs.
3) Staying upbeat and optimistic; keeping a healthy sense of humour (laughter is great for our immune system); knowing when it’s time to turn off the news for a bit; playing games; playing/listening to music; doing something creative; enjoying an uplifting or diverting film or comedy series.
1) You would be calm and organised and know exactly how to use the pepper spray you brought with you (or you might be a total Ninja!)
2) An absence of ‘flow’ could look like sheer panic and not doing anything to change things and/or shift your state. To the extreme, it’s a total lack of resourcefulness and limiting yourself with
the belief that you have no options until that became your ‘norm’.
3) Flow can occur when we are calm and present. It’s a state of resourcefulness and deep trust that we always know what to do when we need to do it. It is often where preparation and training meet instinct and intuition…then trusting and acting decisively on those (think of Captain Sullivan who landed the passenger plane on the River Hudson, thus saving all on board, yet no computer simulator was later able to replicate how he did it).
Of course there is much more that could be explored and said on each of these. The purpose of my writing about all this is:
* Fear is normal (as is grief…and other emotions): you’re a human being and it’s totally ok to feel what you’re feeling.Let’s stop giving ourselves a hard time for what we didn’t do / can’t do, have greater compassion for ourselves and others, and refocus on what we can do…or maybe forgot that we can do….or could now find out what we are capable of by having a go.
* Acknowledge the fear: “Fears hate fame”, as my friend Nick Haines of the Five Institute was telling me only yesterday. As he says, “If you’re afraid of something, shout it out, tell the world. It always sounds silly when you say it out loud. So…put it in the spotlight and watch it hide”. Or you don’t even have to name it with a word, but feel it in your body – once you acknowledge a fear, to yourself or others, that ‘tight’ energy already starts to move, to loosen and release the grip that it had on you up until now. As you may have heard, “What we resist will persist; but what we shine a light on goes away”.
* Fear as motivation: when we listen to our fears, they are telling us, in no uncertain terms, what we don’t want; what can they also do is point us, with focus, to what we DO want. The key to releasing and opening up, rather than closing down, is to ask ourselves empowering questions to shift ourselves to more resourceful states….of courage, possibility, innovation, determination, resilience, collaboration, compassion, love….I could go on, because human beings can be extra-ordinary when they choose to be! Referring again to Nick at the Five Institute, he runs an outstanding and invaluable webinar (among others, for free during these unprecedented times), on using the power of ‘Conscious Questions’ to invoke positive responses, feelings or states. Highly recommended.
So…feel the fear, normalise and acknowledge it, then do something different, the best that you can in that moment. The more practice, the stronger and more natural this will become.
A final word: we are hearing of the daily acts of courage by frontline health and support staff, just even to show up and do their jobs knowing they are putting their own lives at risk. And we are also seeing and hearing countless acts, small and large, of kindness, generosity, innovation, creativity, compassion and care in our communities across the globe.
Maybe this intensely challenging and disruptive time will be a great leveller that
will herald a new era of collaboration and support for eachother’s well-being…? (Once we have the individual and collective will to be and do things differently….)
I love that the word ‘courage’ come from the French word ‘coeur’ meaning heart. In response to the same crisis that invokes fear, we are seeing a global outpouring of love, compassion and gratitude. Wherever there is love, fear melts away. If love feels too much of a stretch in one go, let’s start with compassion and gratitude.
Maybe this is something we have needed to remember in our ‘old’ modern world of ‘ME’, now changed forever – that we are ‘WE’, that we ARE all already connected, through our hearts, through the courage to love fearlessly and with kindness, and what connects us…is love.