So we’re in the middle of the most (here comes that word braze yourself) unprecedented crisis in decades, something utterly movie-script like, an unreal artificial world-with-all-the-fun-bits-take-out, and our lives turned upside down. Uncertainty lies around every corner, we are exposed to distressing news almost every time we turn on a radio or TV (I’d say or read a newspaper but of course we’re not allowed out to buy one) and the normal rhythm of life has been decimated. For many of us, genuine threat and risk lie not just around every corner but outside the front door, or even the bedroom door for those having to shield from their own families.
Phew. This is the third article I’ve done on how to manage the emotional fall out of the coronavirus crisis and things are moving on, a couple of weeks in. We’ve survived over a week in lockdown, we’re picking up homeschooling, getting used to staying 2 metres from anyone other than those we live with, and we’ve learned to use more video conferencing programs than we ever knew existed. We’re pulling off amazing things in our everyday spaces, and doing it under difficult and alien circumstances. And a couple of weeks in, it’s starting to sink in: this is going to be for a while. These things we have managed to sustain for two weeks somehow have to find a rhythm we can do for many more, the changes to our life we’ve endured are not going to return to normal and time soon, those people we miss so much it causes a physical ache in the core of our being are not going to be able to be within hugging distance for months. This is hard.
And yet, as we react to this next phase of what we’re living through, one of the most common things I have heard people saying to me is variations on this: ‘I shouldn’t be complaining. Many people have it worse.’
And I get what that is saying - it's true, on the whole, there are some heartbreaking situations out there, and I have been heard reminding my own family that there are a lot of ways this could be harder. But it doesn’t mean where we are is easy.
Do me a favour - write down right now what is hardest for you about your situation. Then look at what you wrote for a minute. Now hear me say something so important: those things are valid. They matter.
Now your list won’t be the same as mine. In fact, if you looked at mine some of the things I find hardest might not even feature in your mind right now. Human beings are always so easily drawn into comparison and it rarely helps anyone - this is a perfect example. because when we take our situation and compare it to others in an attempt to force some of what we’re feeling to go away, it doesn’t work. The emotions you are experiencing right now are your brain's way of alerting you to important things that have changed or are significant in your situation that need to be processed and understood. Suppressing them, or stifling them or distracting yourself from them will not make them disappear. At best it will delay them until in a later, less guarded or more vulnerable moment they emerge.
Suppressing emotions isn’t a bad thing to do - but if it is the only thing we allow ourselves to do, particularly in circumstances where there genuinely is a need for a significant processing task in our minds, we set up trouble for later. And if we beat ourselves up about what we are feeling in an attempt to somehow fully ourselves into a better state of mind all we do is add an additional emotion to what we are having to deal with: guilt.
The truth is, in our current situation there are three difficult emotions we probably can’t avoid experiencing at some point. The extent to which we are facing these depends on our circumstances, but whatever the mix you have had stirred up in you, the likelihood is you cannot avoid feeling them. However this fourth intruder we can get rid of, recognise as unhelpful and work to remove from our minds. So let’s not add guilt to the list of rubbish things we have to deal with right now. Let’s allow ourselves to feel what we are feeling, without fear or judgment, accepting and caring for ourselves in what for many of us is the most challenging sustained experience we have ever faced.
Here are the three most common emotions we are all likely to face during this crisis, and some thoughts on how to respond to them:
1 - loss
Loss and its close friend grief are nobody favourite feelings. And yet, reluctantly, I have to put them first. Because SO much of what we are dealing with right now has a root in loss. This crisis has taken so much: our routine, the rhythm of life, the things we love to do, our sense of work and achievement, our security, our freedom, our choices, our connections, hobbies and pastimes, our chance to travel, even our ability to enjoy nature and the world closer at hand. From the simple pleasures of life grabbing a coffee and watching the world go by to the anguish of people we love and can’t be with, loss is everywhere. And of course, tragically, many of us will experience the loss of loved ones who suffer the complications of infection with the virus before this is all over.
Loss is an awful feeling. The physicality of it is remarkable, the ache, pain, and nausea, and the instinctive way people respond in those moments when suddenly a sense of it hits, literally curling up against the pain of it. We know that loss affects us physically, hits us with real physiological blows: it is an intense and profound experience. Loss is also felt in the brain, as your mind works overtime trying to figure out what this means, what rules you need to relearn, what habits and patterns need to change, what things you used to depend upon are just no longer there. As your mental energy is diverted loss takes its toll on your attention, your memory, your ability to problem-solve or focus. Simple things feel much more tiring and for a time you can lose the detail of yourself in the fog of trying to make sense of it all.
The only way to manage loss is to find a way to allow your mind to process. Grief is like waves that hit you, sometimes with little warning: the trick is not to fight them, over analyse them, question or criticise them. Let yourself feel what you are feeling, allow it expression, find ways to give it headspace and think it through. Ride the waves like a surfer, let them take you on to the next stage - even when doing so is painful. And if it is particularly hard, find a good teacher or mentor to walk you through the toughest bits.
2 - frustration
The second tricky feeling is the red hot one which bubbles up from within, often in moments you really WANT to keep your cool and act like a better version of yourself. In this moment, with our baseline stress level already raised some of us feel like volcanos constantly on the edge of a possible eruption. Small challenges which usually might be mild irritations now feel like they could be the final straw. Frustration is about things that are not the way it feels like they should be, things we cannot do the way we would want to, goals thwarted or blocked, things that matter but that are out of our control and we cannot influence as we’d like to.
Frustration is a particularly physical emotion, triggering as it does our fight or flight system very strongly in the FIGHT zone. Frustration is felt and experienced in your muscles, tensed and ready to go like tightly coiled springs. But frustration, unlike anger or fight, often has no one you can fairly aim it at - no sensible or mature outlet. So the risk is it builds up and simmers and smolders until some unlucky soul triggers it and bears the brunt of all your pent up irritation.
Frustration is best released in ways as physical as it builds up. Make good use of your allotted exercise and go for things that help you literally pound out your frustration. Work hard enough when you exercise (generally at least 40/45 minutes at a reasonable intensity) and you will release endorphins which really do drop the level on that physiological system.
Or find ways to express how you are feeling: a good friend you can debrief at or rant at without them judging you for how it really isn’t as bad as you are feeling it right now. Or write down how you are feeling then destroy the paper - tear it up or take it outside and burn it. Find things you can justifiably destroy - cardboard boxes you can jump on, weeds you can pull up, whatever works for you.
3 - fear
And finally in our terrible threesome, let’s end by thinking about fear and anxiety, and the mental fuel that feeds them: worry. These are fascinating emotions, essential as they are to human life. You might think life not experiencing anxiety would be wonderful but people who do not have a normal ability to feel these emotions are hugely limited by this. Fear keeps us safe, anxiety warns us of potentially significant things going on in the world around us and worry - when done in the right way - helps us problem solve and mull things over. You cannot be human without experiencing anxiety.
It’s important therefore to clarify something I have heard many calls for recently, particularly for people in leadership roles: to be non-anxious presences. Let’s be clear - being a non-anxious presence doesn’t mean not experiencing anxiety - it is about whether we transmit and conduct anxiety and panic to those around us. Being a non-anxious presence as a leader means that we have developed an ability to hold the inevitable anxiety we will experience well, without panic or self-condemnation, so that we can lead others in times when they might be overcome by their own. It means being emotionally mature enough to recognise a natural human emotion and find ways to express and process that appropriately.
There are some wonderful teachings around on this topic so I won’t try to repeat them - if you are interested do check out John Mark Comer speaking at a recent vineyard leaders conference on this very topic (and huge thanks to vineyard for making this available to everyone in the current situation). Or check out this talk I gave last summer on freedom from fear.
Our response to fear, and the other complex and uncomfortable emotions we might be experiencing right now - for you may well have others you are grappling with than these three - is not to make ourselves feel guilty for what we are feeling. This helps no one. It is about how we act or react in the moment to respond well. And acceptance, and allowing ourselves to feel is an important first step in our adjustment to what is much more than a short term challenge we are facing.