A time of crisis can also be a time of discovery. We have to make sense of what is happening, and adapt to new realities. The COVID 19 pandemic is perhaps the most significant global challenge of this generation.
As well as its effects on health, the coronavirus is also wreaking another kind of havoc - on our well-being. It is holding up a mirror to our vulnerability in every sense: the fragility of our health, the illusion of financial security, and the weaknesses in key supply chains that provide what we need. This has disoriented us. What we took to be firm ground has turned out to be shifting sand: how we work and what we value most, the freedom to travel and whom we can rely on. We’re in the middle of a sandstorm and the sand dunes are moving all around us.
It has taken the COVID-19 pandemic to wake us up, but this renewed awareness creates uncertainty, disbelief, fear and worry. We’re left with unsettling questions: “How can we make sense of this situation?” “How can we navigate our way through it?” And “How do I take care of myself and my loved ones; if we get sick will we be okay?”
As we look to answer these questions the pandemic has renewed our trust in the very best of medicine, science, journalism, business and charity as they try to solve urgent problems. In the same way, the best of psychology can also help us to make sense of our predicament and provide us with a sense of direction. Here are four insights that can help.
Steadying our attention.
In a crisis, our focus is naturally drawn to all the threats around us, and everything that urgently demands our attention. A cacophony of news and opinion clamours for our interest, and with 24/7 news our focus gets easily hijacked. William James, one of the first modern psychologists, put it this way: “without selective interest, experience is an utter chaos.”
Allowing our attention to be escorted from threat to threat creates a heightened and exhausting state of unease and anxiety. So standing back to see when and where our attention is being hijacked is the first step towards exercising the “selective interest” that James recommended. It can be tremendously empowering to know that we can - at least to some extent - choose what we attend to. For example, we can choose to update ourselves on the news just once a day. We can take time to appreciate aspects of our lives that are uplifting, such as our loved ones, the natural world around us, and the people who inspire us.
This can seem like a big ask, but our attention is a natural human capacity, and therefore something we can train. Each time our attention is hijacked represents a chance to do something radically different. Rather than surrender to the chaos of daily life in a lockdown, we can recognise and even befriend the hijackers by asking, “Who are you, and why are you so compelling?” It turns out that they are simply manifestations of our crucial, hard-wired ability to see and attend to threats very quickly. Given the real threats that emerge from COVID-19 this ability has understandably become highly activated.
Helpfully however, many contemplative traditions have developed ways of steadying and focusing our attention. They include quiet contemplation, prayer and mindfulness practices. Such training isn’t easy, but research suggests that mindfulness supports our well-being. James put it like this: “the faculty of bringing back a wandering mind, over and over again, is the very root of judgment, character, and will.”
Changing how we relate to the pandemic.
Having stabilized our attention, we can start to explore the different ways we relate to what is happening around us. Most people are used to getting busy and fixing problems. We have an extraordinary ability for time travel, planning the future, and remembering the past. But right now this has real potential for creating even more anxiety.
Many problems aren’t actually fixable. When we think about our vulnerability and uncertainty, it’s all too easy to “catastrophise” - to imagine all the worst-case scenarios. Even momentary feelings of appreciation for what we have can easily trip into guilt - “I have what others don’t” - and fear: “What if I lose everything I value?”
If we let our imaginations run riot, it isn’t difficult to imagine disasters in either our personal or larger worlds. Will we or our loved ones end up in a terrifying and lonely fight for life in an intensive care unit? Will there be civic unrest and widespread failures in society?
Not surprisingly, at times like these our habitual ways of coping kick in: denial, myriad forms of distraction including getting busy, excessive “screen time” and desperate attempts at “fixing.” There is some wisdom in this: our minds know when we need protecting from harsh realities by such reactions. But while they are useful in the short-term they rarely serve us best in the longer term.
Fortunately, we have access to another way of being which involves intentionally gathering the mind in “present-moment awareness,” and holding our experience with kindness, care and a sense of balance instead of reacting to it at every turn. This represents a key shift from being hijacked by our thoughts and feelings to choosing to see them as reactions in the moment, not facts. The external reality surrounding us isn’t changed, but what does shift - and this is crucial - is that we create a space between our experience and our reactivity, be that catastrophising, getting busy, or zoning out.
Recognising that our thoughts, words and actions shape our minds and the world.
Having steadied our attention and created some space, we have a choice about how to respond. Most contemplative traditions and many branches of psychology teach variants on this theme: our words and actions have real consequences. Contemplative traditions invoke our values and ethics to guide us, and point to the benefits of using them as a compass. As the Dhammapada puts it, “a guarded mind” brings happiness “like a never departing shadow.”
Modern psychology speaks to the same sense of understanding in slightly different terms: “if I do this then I get that.” This was the life work of the psychologist Walter Mischel, who demonstrated that our ability to exercise self-control shapes our future health, financial security and relationships from childhood right through adulthood.
Ancient wisdom and modern psychology converge on the idea that our words and actions have consequences, so we must choose them with discernment. If we read bad news all day, we’ll become worried and negative. On the other hand, if we act as if we have the coronavirus ourselves, we’ll do everything we can to avoid passing the infection onto others. This is a powerful act of care and generosity that safeguards those around us. If all of us act in this way, we will change the course of the pandemic.
Taking care of ourselves and taking care of others.
Psychologists know quite a lot about what supports mental health, and it isn’t rocket science. Mental health is maintained by adequate sleep, a healthy diet, exercise, positive social connections, and doing things that give us a sense of accomplishment - and that we enjoy. In the same way that we “practice” a sport or a musical instrument to become more proficient, we can practice doing what supports our mental health. This can seem self-indulgent, especially in the midst of a crisis. But it’s essential: we need to resource ourselves if we’re to weather this storm.
While the pandemic is possibly the most significant global challenge of this generation, historians remind us that previous generations have endured plagues, economic depressions and wars, each with lasting effects. Psychology offers ways for us to meet such crises with courage, clarity and wisdom. It offers concrete advice and techniques to prepare ourselves for the work we need to do, so that with attention, focus and equanimity we can shape the world for the better.