How to manage your mind in a pandemic

How can you control your anxiety during a pandemic? We’re bombarded by news with headlines designed to terrify us: ‘global pandemic’, ‘rising death rate’, ‘temporary mortuary’. The economy is tanking worldwide, many have lost their livelihoods and don’t know when or how they will get them back. We fear for our own health, and for our friends and family, all the more so if we are working in frontline jobs in hospitals, social care and the community.

Lockdown could go on for months and it’s likely to be at least a year until a vaccine is developed for the coronavirus. In the meantime, how can we attempt to stay on an even keel?

It’s only human to be anxious

Earlier this year, I had a few sessions with life coach Marlene McNally, and was impressed by her pragmatic wisdom. So I wondered if she had any thoughts on how to manage your mind during a pandemic.

“First of all, if you’re not anxious right now, you might want to check that you’re not a robot!” she laughs. “But the fear of fear is bigger than the coronavirus itself. And that fear is driving panic, which means people’s minds immediately go to the worst case scenario.”

“We need to beware of falling into that trap, and deliberately manage our mind so that we can stay open to the beautiful things in life that still exist among the chaos.”

1. Fill up your ‘resilience tank’

“Our state of mind is like a bank account,” says Marlene. “Stressful activities take us into negative territory, so it’s vital to balance those stresses out with positive activities that help us to be resilient.” She recommends:

  • Getting enough sleep
  • Meditation
  • Yoga
  • Exercise
  • Regular touch / hugs
  • Eating well
  • Gardening
  • Knitting
  • Crafts
  • Drumming
  • Dancing
  • Playing music
  • Hot baths / saunas
  • Spending time in nature

I’ve found meditation to be helpful, especially the Insight Timer app and online courses by the Sage Institute in New Mexico. You can read my thoughts on walking meditation, which works well in confined spaces as you’re moving so slowly.

Meditation also encourages us to live in the moment. Right now, we can help manage our mind by avoiding all those ‘If only’ and What if?’ thoughts that propel us into regrets about the past or fears for the future. You are where you are. Your friends and family are where they are. Accept that and trust that if or when something changes, you’ll know how to respond in the moment.

2. Timetable your day

With life in lockdown, it’s easy for all your usual daily rhythms to fall away. You can’t see the people you usually see or go to the places you usually go. The gym’s shut, cafes are closed, and weekdays and weekends blend into one. Although we should have all the time in the world, it can be hard to get things done.

“People are in danger of thinking this is an extended holiday,” says Marlene. “But it’s not. At a time when our security and safety have been taken away from us, we need structure in our lives. So don’t just wake up and see what you feel like doing. Put together a timetable of what you’re going to do each day, hour by hour, including exercise, a walk to the shops and cooking meals, as well as working and spending time with your family. That structure will give you back some control and help you feel safe.”

3. Don’t binge on terror

When the coronavirus first hit Britain, I became a news junkie, constantly hitting refresh, seeing reports of hospitals in the ‘red zone’ of northern Italy, reading about mounting death tolls worldwide and imagining a series of increasingly dire scenarios. I knew it wasn’t good for me, but I couldn’t seem to stop.

Marlene says this is a common reaction in a crisis. “News channels and social media use dramatic language to get our attention. That’s their job. But when we hear reports of ‘a coronavirus tsunami’ or a ‘global emergency’, it lights up the amygdala, the area of the brain that responds to fear. And once the amygdala is activated, it starts searching for more proof that we’re in danger, so we become hooked into watching more news that confirms that we’re right to be terrified.”

Only check news and social media twice a day

“We get into the habit of bingeing on terror, the fear part of the brain takes on a life of its own and we start to live in a horror movie. At that point, we can start to feel powerless and become completely discouraged, which can send us into a dangerous mental health spiral.”

The answer is to be selective about how much news and social media we consume. Marlene recommends a quick check-in, no more than twice a day. Anything more just feeds our primal fears.

4. Feel your emotions

“We have to give ourselves time to feel our emotions, be sad and cry if we want to,” says Marlene. “You might feel scared about paying the bills, disappointed at missing out on events that you’d planned, sad that you’re isolated, or worried that you don’t know what’s going to happen in a week or a month or a year.”

“It’s all part of being a human living on this planet. We need to allow ourselves to feel and process our emotions. The trick is not to stay stuck in that same place and feel permanently upset.”

5. Give equal airtime to positive thoughts

So how can we ensure that we don’t get stuck in negative thinking? One solution is to try to balance negative thinking with positive thinking. Marlene suggests asking questions that use a different part of the brain, so we switch from the fear-centred amygdala to the prefrontal cortex, which focuses on thinking and reflection. For example, ask yourself:

  • What’s going well in my life right now?
  • Why is this a great time for me, despite everything that’s happening?
  • How can I make this period of time work to my advantage?

“It’s good to write these answers down, because it helps us to get our thoughts out of our head. By asking these questions, we get a different part of the brain to work and it encourages us to think positively and constructively. It doesn’t mean you’ll never feel sad again. You’ll flip between the two states. But over time, this approach can help you shift your focus and allow you to be compassionate about the times when you’re feeling disappointed, sad, angry or fearful.”

Try the ‘AND’ technique to balance out scary thoughts

“The ‘AND technique’ can be a gamechanger,” she continues. “It allows us to acknowledge the scary facts while regaining a sense of agency by looking at other equally true, affirmative points. For example, I may get COVID-19 AND I know that I’ve taken all the recommended precautions and have successfully fought off viruses before. Or, I only have £xxx in the bank and bills to pay AND I have overcome financial difficulties before, have lots of marketable skills, am looking into government support and have a network of family and friends who may be willing to help me.”

6. Avoid ‘catastrophisers’

Whether it’s in real life or online, the last thing you need right now is to hang out with people who are in full-on panic mode. “That’s not helpful; it will just take you down in quicksand,” says Marlene.

“Talk to friends who are grounded, stable and calm, and spend time tuning into their emotional vibration. Keep asking yourself, ‘How can I get the support that I need?’ Our brains are incredibly resourceful and creative. Give yourself a chance and you’ll be able to reach out to people who can help you out, and then you’ll be in a better position to do the same for others.”

7. Do something for someone else

It’s well known that altruism distracts us from our own problems and makes us feel better. One of the most heartening aspects of the coronavirus outbreak has been the huge number of people who have signed up to volunteer to help others.

“In difficult times, doing something for someone else is the perfect way to shift our focus from our own narrow world view,” says Marlene. “You feel good because you’re making a difference as well as connecting more with your community.”

8. Allow other people to make their own choices

When we feel out of control, that fear can make us want to tighten our grip on other people and control their lives instead. How many times have you heard friends complain about grown-up children who insist on self-isolating far away or parents who just won’t stop ‘popping out to the shop’?

It’s pointless to try to make other people do what we think is best for them

“I see so many people using up so much energy trying to control their parents at the moment,” says Marlene. “But our parents are adults and they get to choose what they do. Ironically, we try to take control to make ourselves feel better. We think that if we tell our parents to stay safe and indoors, we won’t have to deal with the horror of imagining what could go wrong.”

“Our job is not to control our parents,” she continues. “Our only job is to love our parents. This tiny virus has shown us that there’s no such thing as control or certainty. It’s a big wake up call. Let your parents – or your adult children – get on with their own lives. Stop being bossy and you’ll discover you build connection instead of creating distance.”

9. Plan for the future

When this is all over, what will you do differently?

“Planning for the future is a way of keeping ourselves actively busy and ensures that we’re in a better place at the end than when we started. It might mean learning some new skills online, improving our connection with friends and family, or deciding how we want to change our lives.”

Ask yourself:

  • How do I want to be different when this pandemic ends?
  • How do I want to spend my time, resources and energy in the future?
  • What would I do if I knew that I couldn’t fail?

“So often, our biggest fear is loss,” says Marlene. “When we’ve faced loss directly, it helps us to focus on who we really want to be. We might decide to make small changes – having regular Zoom lunches or drinks with family and friends, or we might decide to strike out in an entirely new direction – looking for a new job, forging a new relationship, or moving to a new country. Use this time to evaluate how you can make the best of this experience.”

Contact Marlene

If you’d like to contact Marlene, you can email her at marleneb.mcnally@gmail.com.

How do you manage your mind?

How about you? Do you have any tips to share? What have you learned about coping with anxiety during the pandemic? Please get in touch and let me know at fiona@wordspring.co.uk