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Making sense of ourselves during the coronavirus pandemic

Making sense of ourselves during the Coronavirus pandemic: our thoughts, feelings and behaviours.

We are all currently experiencing a collective trauma. This article will focus on the psychological impact of what we are experiencing, individually and collectively on a local and global scale.
We all process things differently. Some people are struggling right now. Some people will manage until this is all over and then find themselves confused as to why they are struggling. And some people won’t know how this has affected them for a long time. But it will affect us all in some way. This article is my attempt to simplify a complex mix of psychological factors and to make our experiences more understandable, as much for myself as for others. This is most certainly not exhaustive but my current reflections bring me to an interrelated combination of anxiety, satisfying human needs, the grieving process and triggers to historical trauma and/or past or current emotional issues. I will explore each in turn and try to relate them to thoughts, feelings and behaviours we are currently experiencing, displaying or witnessing.

1. Anxiety

Anxiety is a feeling of unease that can vary widely in degree of severity. It is based on fear, projection of the past into the future and uncertainty; all the ‘what ifs’. Some feelings of anxiety can be perfectly normal as it is a positive part of a natural instinctive process to survive in the external environment. The body tries to create a balance. Given our current situation, it is completely understandable therefore that many of us may be experiencing some feelings of anxiety.

A tiny bit of neuroscience here:

When we experience anxiety, there is a neurobiological activity taking place in the brain. This article will keep it simple. For a more detailed explanation of what occurs in the brain, please read a previous article which can be found here.

The nervous system is a network of complex cells that co-ordinate to allow functioning. It is within the autonomic nervous system (ANS) where we find the focus for anxiety. The ANS is always activated but it is either in the sympathetic or parasympathetic state. Different chemicals are released into the body during each state. Depending on the situation, one state can dominate the other.

It is normal to be faced with challenging situations from time to time. When we do, the amygdala, a tiny part of the limbic system within the brain which is responsible for memory, emotions and survival instincts, sets off an alarm system in the body; the sympathetic system is activated and ‘stress chemicals’ are released. We may all be familiar with the two main stress chemicals, namely adrenalin and cortisol, which have a positive effect as they allow an instinctual ‘fight or flight’ response and help us to survive the perceived threat. When the situation is over, the parasympathetic system dominates and we return to a normal state of ‘rest and digest’ with what I refer to as ‘happy hormones’. This explains why so many of us may be experiencing anxiety in the current situation we are facing as it is a natural survival instinct.

The danger, however, is in the longer-term effects. Should a challenging and traumatic situation last for a period of time, even when it is resolved, the brain, in order to keep us safe and able to cope, may recalibrate. This means that the response to make the release of ‘stress chemicals’ the normal state, and that fight or flight reaction, stays turned on. In other words, our current experience could trigger an ongoing instinct to face challenges, adapt and survive, long past the need to do so. To put this into context: Have you ever experienced a difficult situation where others may say “I don’t know how you coped” but you just did? But when the problem/situation was no longer there, you ‘fell apart’ or became anxious, worrying about everything that didn’t bother you before? The overload of those ‘helpful’ chemicals can then have a detrimental effect on our mental and physical wellbeing. As if experienced for a prolonged period of time, it can lead to problems such as ongoing anxiety, depression, sleep problems, irritability, digestive problems, headaches, heart disease and memory and concentration impairment.

Some people are more pre-disposed to anxiety or maybe currently suffering from severe anxiety. Some may be experiencing it for the first time due to the situation and some may experience it long after this pandemic situation has been controlled.

So, what can we do?

It is important to take action to prevent the long-term re-wiring. We have the ability to heal ourselves. So, to manage and control anxiety, we need to take action to increase the parasympathetic system with intention. That is, it won’t just happen, we have to take action to re-wire the brain. We have to actively engage in our repair to reduce the excess stress chemicals and present a different model to the brain.

All the practical and therapeutic advice given to reduce anxiety and our natural response to danger and ultimately prevent this re-wiring, is to control what you can control in uncertain times: limit exposure to negative news or negative social media, take exercise, engage in only positive interactions with others via social media and technology, spend time doing things that we enjoy within our homes, go outdoors for a walk, run or cycle - and try to do it mindfully, engage with nature, put some structure into our day, yoga, meditation, coping strategies to rationalise fears, assist other people, try to live each day at a time, think of the things we are grateful for and be kind to self and others.

How good do we feel when we hear or read about the kindness of others or take part in all the fun activities now on social media? And the huge sense of pride and gratitude we experience when outside clapping to show our appreciation for the amazing work of the NHS and all our keyworkers in such difficult circumstances? All these things will help to maintain, what I refer to as the ‘happy hormones’ and reduce the negative impact of the stresses and concerns of our current situation in the present and help reduce the longer-term effects.

2. Satisfying needs

In 1943, Maslow developed a psychological theory comprising of a five-tier model (often depicted as a pyramid) of human needs.

A little bit of theory:

From the bottom of the pyramid/hierarchy upwards, the needs are:

  • Physiological (food, water, warmth and rest).
  • Safety (security, safety).
  • Love and belonging (intimate relationships).
  • Esteem (prestige and feelings of accomplishment).
  • Self-actualisation (achieving one’s full potential, including creative activities).

Physiological and safety needs are classed as being basic needs. Love and belonging and esteem needs are classed as psychological needs and self-actualisation is classed as a self-fulfilment need.

The first four are deficiency needs. In other words, people are motivated due to deprivation and this motivation becomes stronger the longer that need is unmet or denied. The need doesn’t have to be completely met but when more or less met, the motivation will decrease and we seek to fulfil the next need.

The top layer works the other way around. This is a growth layer. The need to fulfil this continues and may even become stronger as we begin to meet it. So, this doesn’t come from a deficiency but from a desire to grow and continue to grow.

Theory suggests that everyone has the capacity to move towards self-actualisation but life events can often disrupt progress as we need to move back and forth between fulfilling the other needs.
Maslow continued to develop his theory and later found that the hierarchy is not as rigid as first suggested and may be flexible based on external circumstances or individual differences. In 1987, he stated that “any behaviour tends to be determined by several or all of the basic needs simultaneously rather than by only one of them”.

His theory has since expanded further to include three more levels:

Cognitive (knowledge and understanding, need for meaning and predictability, curiosity and exploration), Aesthetic (appreciation, search for beauty, balance and form), and after self-actualisation, Transcendence needs (motivated by values which transcend the personal sense – mystical experiences, experiences with nature, aesthetic experiences, sexual experiences, service to others, pursuit of science, religious faith etc). these are all growth needs.

So, what does all this mean?

Let’s look at what has been happening in recent weeks. The ‘panic buying’ of large quantities of food, the anger towards those who left the shelves bare and those not adhering to social distancing. The increased need for social interaction with others, lots of increased community-based initiatives to help others, sharing news of kindness, the push towards new, often creative activities. All behaviours which arise from a need to fulfil basic, psychological and growth needs in a society that has literally been turned on its head in a short space of time, and thus, challenging and threatening how we had already met or are meeting those needs and the norm of our lives.

3. Grieving process

Grief is not just about bereavement but about loss in general. Sadly, there will be too many people and families grieving the loss of a loved one due to coronavirus and this is by no means taking away from their grief, pain and loss. Loss can also be of any kind; a job, a relationship, of hope, of security etc. The process follows the same path.
A bit of theory:

It is often referred to as a grief cycle which can be misleading as that suggests that it goes around and around. It can do, if you get stuck in it. But it is generally a process that we move through.

There are different stages but they are not linear; we move back and forth between the stages until we eventually gain acceptance. Before this, we experience

  • Denial – shock, panic and confusion.
  • Anger – blame, hostility, questions about ‘Why’.
  • Bargaining – If only I, If only they etc.
  • Depression – a sense of despair, hopelessness and futility etc.

The emotions we feel can go back and forth in the same week, day or hour. It is only when we achieve acceptance of the reality that life will go on for most of us - albeit it will be different. It doesn’t mean that it is right, good, fair or desirable, but rather involves stopping fighting the situation and accepting it for what it is. We are then able to move on to make the necessary adjustments and gain the confidence to change our routines and activities, our priorities, values and new lifestyles.

We are all experiencing loss and grief at the moment. It is a collective process but the experience will be very individual. For some, it will be of a loved one, for others lack of contact with friends and family, loss of freedom to pursue interests, a job, financial security, change of routines, holidays and plans that cannot be fulfilled. It is very real. We are shocked by the situation, there is a great deal of hostility towards some, we do wish we had done something or seen someone before lockdown, we do wonder and worry about if or when it will end and what will be the longer-term consequences. But we cannot do anything about the situation other than following guidelines and adjust our lifestyles accordingly.

Hopefully, this will only be for a short time in terms of everyday life but there will be far-reaching longer-term consequences. It may well be that some things change permanently. Some maybe for the better. For example, we may see more flexible working patterns, more community involvement in caring for others, continued use of technology for entertainment. In the rush to return to ‘normal’, it may be worth reflecting on what aspects of ‘normal’ we wish to return to and creating a new and different ‘normal’. Acceptance is the key to moving forward and achieving the best, or ‘least worst’ of a dreadful traumatic experience.

4. Historical trauma and past/current emotional issues

This is too individual to describe numerous theories. Needless to say, any of what we are going through at the moment may trigger a memory or previous trauma. Remember the amygdala that was mentioned earlier - responsible for memory and emotion? Lots of renewed neurobiological activity can occur to our psychological detriment.

Given the situation, many couples or families that were already struggling may be facing greater difficulties now, whether that be financial, practical or emotional in their relationships. Abuse and neglect may be more prevalent. Isolation may trigger past/current feelings of low self-worth, rejection and abandonment may be increased. Remember that for some, isolation is the norm and current restrictions on going out maybe increasing that. Indeed, should community support end after this crisis, feelings of isolation and loneliness may increase further. Those experiencing suicidal thoughts, suffering anxiety and depression may find those levels increasing in the face of the current hopelessness and despair.

Parents may be questioning themselves and their abilities under the pressure to be ‘Super Mum or Dad’ as social media is encouraging. Tensions in households may increase as people are forced to spend more time together with no time for ‘personal space’. People with existing physical or mental health issues may not be receiving the care and support they need. People may feel that their needs are not as important as the current situation and not be seeking the help they need and deserve, or indeed, be able to. The lack of understanding of our own and others thoughts, feeling and behaviours may be causing frustration, stress and confusion.

This whole aspect of the psychological impact of our situation is wide-reaching.

Hopefully, this has given a simplistic breakdown and some insight into the complexity of the psychological impact of the traumatic times we are trying to survive through. We will all be experiencing it in an individual way and will process it differently. Hopefully, some understanding will help us all to be kind to ourselves and others, and keep ourselves safe mentally as well as physically.

If you do feel that you need help to talk about your situation, past or present, or develop some coping strategies, then please contact a counsellor or psychotherapist who is trained to help you.

References/sources:

www.mindbodybreakthrough.co.uk; Wale Oladipo
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Peripheral_nervous_system
https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/stress-management/in-depth/stress/art-20046037

Siegrid Löwel, Göttingen University; The exact sentence is: "neurons wire together if they fire together" (Löwel, S. and Singer, W. (1992) Science 255 (published January 10, 1992) "Selection of Intrinsic Horizontal Connections in the Visual Cortex by Correlated Neuronal Activity". United States: American Association for the Advancement of Science. pp. 209–212. ISSN 0036-8075.
McLeod, S.A (2020, March 20) Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Simply Psychology: https://www.simplypsychology.org/maslow.html

Doug McCulley & Carole Hess, 1993. Grief Cycle

Holt, Angela, 2018; 'What fires in the Brain, wires in the brain...' https://www.counselling-directory.org.uk/counsellor-articles/what-fires-in-the-brain-wires-in-the-brain

Counselling Directory is not responsible for the articles published by members. The views expressed are those of the member who wrote the article.

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Written by Angela Holt (Mindwell Therapy) PGDip, MBACP - Individuals and Couples

A grounding in person-centred approach, holding a PG Diploma and Registered Member of the BACP, I work pluralistically, drawing from different approaches including Person-Centred, CBT, Transactional Analysis and Solution Focused, with individuals and couples via face to face, telephone or video sessions from therapy rooms based in Sale.… Read more

Written by Angela Holt (Mindwell Therapy) PGDip, MBACP - Individuals and Couples

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