Positive Psychology in a Time of Pandemic
As the latest wave of the pandemic crashes into our lives, what is there in the science of resilience and wellbeing that can help us cope with the covid crisis? Positive psychology offers a proactive and practical approach to wellbeing with evidence-based tools that can build our defences against the virus and strengthen our mental health.
Watch your diet By this, I don’t mean what you put in your mouth, although of course this will boost your physical immunity to the virus, but rather what you feed your mind. As someone whose background is in the broadcast media, I’m all too aware of its power to influence our mental health. The way the media works currently is based on the belief that negative stories will attract people’s attention, which translates into ratings and clicks for advertisers who want to reach the widest audience.
‘What’s wrong is strong’ and our attention is held more easily by bad news. Emotions, like viruses, are contagious so consuming 24-hour rolling news can raise and spread anxiety levels. This is the ‘achoo’ effect – negative emotions spread. Take regular breaks from the media – getting into nature calms the mind and acts as an instant digital detox.
Switch on the positive Doing things that make you feel good gives you one big advantage in the current covid crisis. Not only will it support your mental health, you’ll also be strengthening your immune system so you’re more resistant to viruses. Research shows that positivity – the frequent experience of positive emotions – enhances physical health with lower levels of stress hormones and higher levels of dopamine and other happy hormones. It’s a more positive body chemistry that leads to lower blood pressure, less pain, fewer colds and enhanced immune functioning. So all the feel-good practices that lift the mood in normal circumstances are just as important now – they might just need a tweak to adapt them for these extraordinary times. Having a laugh relieves stress and tension, increasing immune cells and infection-fighting antibodies which improve your resistance to disease. Ask yourself questions such as what is there to be grateful for right now? What positives have there been in the pandemic?
Living through a pandemic throws up a rollercoaster of emotions. Anxiety at catching the virus, fear of its consequences, frustration at the restrictions imposed and boredom at being unable to progress our lives. The stress response can get stuck on high as the acute pressures become chronic and natural defences crumble. So how to cope positively in a time of pandemic?
Emotion-focused coping is when your focus is on dealing with the emotional fallout caused by the crisis. This can help us manage the distress and pain of finding ourselves in difficult situations which are out of our control. Emotion-focused coping methods include having a good cry and the cathartic release that comes with a sob, talking things through with a confidante and leaning on friends and family for support.
Self-compassion can really help with soothing the emotions provoked by the pandemic. Dr Kristin Neff describes it as acting kindly towards yourself when you’re having a tough time. Instead of adopting a “stiff upper lip” and ignoring the pain, you tell yourself that “this is really difficult right now,” and ask how you might comfort and care for yourself in this moment? Self-compassion involves three key elements in Kristin’s model.
Self-kindness Being warm and understanding towards ourselves when we suffer, fail, or feel inadequate, rather than ignoring pain or flagellating ourselves with self-criticism. When the reality of the pandemic’s impact is accepted with sympathy and kindness, greater emotional equanimity is experienced. Tell yourself: This is a moment of suffering: Ouch. This hurts.
Common humanity Self-compassion involves recognising that suffering is part of the shared human experience – something that we all go through. Frustration at not having things exactly as we want them to be is often accompanied by a sense of isolation – as if “I” were the only person suffering. All humans suffer, however. The very definition of being “human” means that we are mortal, vulnerable and imperfect. Tell yourself: Suffering is a normal part of life. Other people feel this way. I’m not alone. We all struggle in our lives.
Mindfulness Self-compassion requires a balanced approach to the experience of negative emotions so that feelings are not suppressed nor exaggerated. Mindfulness is a non-judgmental mind state in which we observe thoughts and feelings as they are, without trying to suppress or deny them. Mindfulness helps us to stop over-identifying with thoughts and feelings, so that we are caught up and swept away by negative reactivity. Say: May I be kind to myself, give myself the compassion that I need, learn to accept myself as I am.
Acceptance and Commitment Therapy What works well is to attend to overwhelming feelings first with emotion-focused coping and then when you feel calmer, you’ll then have a better headspace to come up with a strategy to help you manage your life during the covid crisis. This is the essence of problem-focused coping where your attention is on what steps you can take and an action plan. Acceptance and commitment therapy is a helpful practice here. ACT is a behaviour-based therapy, which uses some of the principles of mindfulness. It’s based on the idea that the best way out of a crisis is through it. The focus is on helping us accept the realities of life and to accept thoughts for what they are – just thoughts. If we can accept the restrictions that life under covid has imposed, then we can turn our attention to what is within our control.
Accept the reality of the covid crisis. What can and can’t be done right now?
Consider and commit to what’s important to you. What is your priority in the crisis?
Take the action that is within your control.
After the crisis There is light at the end of the tunnel and cause for optimism. Vaccination programmes and new treatments are being rolled out. One of the silver linings to the crisis will be examples of post-traumatic growth – positive changes that can happen in the wake of an adversity. Research shows that going through a crisis can act as a springboard to better functioning, in other words what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger.
Personal strength: Feeling stronger in yourself and having a better understanding of who you are and what’s important to you.
New possibilities: After the endings come new beginnings. A sense of new priorities and more meaningful pursuits.
Appreciation for life: The crisis has been a wake-up call that has led to a fresh appreciation of life and what you have.
Better relationships: Having warmer, closer relationships with those that count in your life. Having greater compassion for others and a stronger sense of community.
Spiritual growth: Feeling a deeper sense of meaning and purpose and having a stronger faith.
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