Outdoor Therapist and friend of the Millican team, Ruth Allen, answers your questions on fear and anxiety amidst the Coronavirus outbreak and dealing with these uncertain times.
"How do I stop worrying about getting COVID-19? I'm a healthy active 29-year-old!"
This is such an important question, and at the heart of it is the ability to offer yourself perspective, and be realistic about the risks. If you are healthy and active, staying local and observing the hygiene indicators then there is no reason to think you are at risk at anything more than mild-moderate symptoms. Whilst there are no guarantees, it is really important at times like this to remind yourself of the things we know. Most people will have symptoms that will pass quite quickly. Most people will not need further treatment or to be hospitalised. Most people will recover. With the media storm that accompanies a crisis, as well as an environment that is fluid with other people’s fears, it is easy to soak up the worry and start imagining catastrophic outcomes. Now is the time to speak to yourself gently – reassure yourself - take sensible precautions, and use boundaries around the things that feed your fear or cause you to over-inflate the risks in your mind, inducing more fear and worry. Done persistently and kindly, you will hopefully alleviate your own worries.
"Life in lockdown is starting to feel normal. I'm worried about coping outside of it. How can I prepare myself?"
The human spirit is remarkably resilient and creative, isn’t it? Faced with conditions we could never have imagined this time last year our minds and bodies have quite quickly adapted and many people are finding they are starting to adjust to lockdown life. This might give you a clue as to how you will cope when you are given your freedoms back. It is likely that many people will feel the adjustment in reverse, perhaps finding it odd to go back outside again, perhaps feeling a bit anxious or suspicious, perhaps feeling overwhelmed, perhaps feeling challenged by the noise and bustle again. It’s important to remember there are no rules of how to be, or how to cope but to trust that if you are gentle and kind to yourself when the time comes then there is every reason to believe you will adjust to a return outside, as well as you adjusted to lockdown. In addition, you could start making a list of the things you might like to do in the future, and this will start connecting you through imagination, with what it looks and feels like to do the things you want. This may soften the impact of your re-emergence. And of course, when the time comes I think we should all feel free to take it at a pace that feels right. Some people will rush out, some people will take it more slowly. Your job is to work out what approach you will take and to feel you have control over that.
"How do you deal with guilt in times like this? From how much I buy at the shop to taking a short walk in near-by countryside when I know so many others can’t."
I am very mindful of this in my own life. I have hardly left the village in weeks, but I do have lots of nature around me and I do feel a bit guilty at times. I know how fortunate I am. What I say to myself is this: by feeling guilty and miserable about my nature privilege I am not actually alleviating anyone else’s suffering. All that happens in that scenario is that everyone is suffering (though there is some solidarity in that). Instead, I say to myself I have this access and that affords me some capacity to feel well in this crisis; so how can I utilise this capacity in positive ways? I don’t think anyone should feel obliged to do more than stay home, but for some people turning what they have into a benefit for others somehow is a useful approach and it’s worked for me. Another thing to consider is that your guilt points to a care and empathy for others and this is a compassion that is really valuable to others at any time. If you can hold the guilt lightly then it will soften you with humility, and not break you. It is likely to make you more considerate of what you share, and how and I think this can only be a positive thing.
I have always had quite bad anxiety and people I know think I am over-reacting to the outbreak. How can I separate out what is normal anxiety at a time like this and what is excessive?"
This is hard to say precisely without knowing the specifics, but I think there are a couple of things here. Everyone is showing different responses to this crisis and where there are commonalities there is also variation in when and in what order people feel the same things. With that variability I think it’s really important we try not to judge other people in their responses. There is no ‘right way’ to respond to this, and I truly believe everyone is doing their best with the resources they have. In terms of discerning for yourself what feels excessive (and this could be important for sparing yourself the energy that anxiety steals from us) I think there are a couple of things you could do. The first is to do things that relax and calm you as best as you can. From this place you might be in a better place to consider how your level of anxiety sits with the official guidance, the things we know about the virus, and your own risk factor. For example, if you are keeping yourself safe through recommended precautions, if you are staying home, if you are limiting your travel and contact with others, and staying healthy in your body with exercise and food, then there is every chance that you will fight any infection that comes. It is perfectly healthy to feel anxiety about so many unknowns, and about a disease that is killing people worldwide – this is not irrational, in fact, it’s profoundly human – but if you are going way over and beyond in changing your behaviours to the extent that you are fearful all the time, not sleeping, unable to meet your own basic needs, then this is when you might want to think about getting some further support. This is my second piece of advice on this: it can be very difficult by yourself to discern what is normal and what is excessive. Anxiety skews our thinking, so it’s useful to work with someone who understands the effect of anxiety on your mind, body, thoughts and behaviours. In this way, you can get to know your own anxiety better and work out together what is normal and what is ‘too much’.
"How do I reconcile my feelings of being helpless in this situation, to want to do more to help but can’t."
This crisis is leaving a lot of people feeling helpless and powerless. We are being told that Staying Home and observing the rules is enough to play our part, but being surrounded by keyworkers and other volunteers giving their services, it can feel frustrating to be left on the outside of that collective effort, especially if we know we have skills to offer, or suspect there is more we could be doing if only there was a chance. I recommend reminding yourself of the key message that you can help but staying away from others. Whilst this is counter-intuitive it is also true at the moment. Secondly, I recommend extending your view to the future. Whilst there is less that we can do for others now the effect of this crisis will likely reverberate a long way into the future and there will be much need further down the line for people who are willing to be supportive and help in the ‘aftermath’. Once the frontline is able to step back and rest, there will be many, many opportunities to offer whatever it is that you can bring in helping people in creative and unique ways.
"How do I find the escape/peace of nature when physically removed."
Now is the time to be creative and connect with nature in ways that you might not usually consider in easier times. We all get into a groove with the things we know and do, so now is a great opportunity to think more broadly about where nature exists and can be experienced. The peace of nature is available in books, artwork, documentaries, podcasts, films…to name just a few places. A great nature or adventure book can really connect you to your imagination of place, which can be deeply evocative and offer much-needed escape right now. Likewise, observing photos and images of nature can simulate the effect of seeing them in real life. It is a compromise but if you are creative it is possible to find a quiet haven of peace. You could play ambient nature sounds in the house during the day, watch David Attenborough re-runs at night and get lost in imagination at any other time of the day. This requires exercising different muscles than we might be used to when we’ve had it easy before, but if you can master a more creative connection with nature now then it will serve you in the future, should you ever find yourself physically separated again.
"How do I keep myself objective in a time when it feels very subjective?"
It is really hard to stay forever objective, when the effects of this time are so often idiosyncratic and personal. But one thing to remember is that feelings come and go. If we attach to them too much we start to believe they are The Truth, but in reality, most people are experiencing such a rollercoaster of emotion at the moment then they are not necessarily a reliable indicator of the way things are, or will be an hour from now. Feelings are amazing and we should feel them all, but the trick is to let them come and go and try and be a more objective observer of them if you can be. Notice mindfully what you’re feeling, name it, and let it float away as the next feeling arrives. This is a way of keeping yourself stable in unstable times. I am not sure that total objectivity is ever possible – we are all rooted in a context that is specific to ourselves, but we can offer ourselves a bit of calm and measure by seeking different perspectives and observing everything we feel with a healthy lightness. In this way perhaps we can resist falling into a subjective hole.
"How do you manage your feelings toward others who are dealing with this differently without becoming the 'moral police'?"
I try and remember that everyone is doing their best at a difficult time with the resources they have available to them, and based on their previous life experiences. Stress, anxiety and trauma can all cause people to react differently and some of those ways will look from the outside pretty anti-social and anti-community. But I remind myself they might have their reasons, and what do we ever truly know about people’s fears and delusions? I remind myself that the reality of this situation will land in people at different times and with different speeds and so some people might be slower to catch up. But I temper all of this with the reality that my own actions in this time will be grating on other people’s nerves. We all project our attitudes and beliefs in our actions to some degree, and who is to say my way is any better? I think we have to find humility right now, and this is really very hard at times when it seems some people are simply acting really badly. It is easier to cut some people slack than others, and right now I am just trying to sit with my anger and frustration and being curious about why it is making me so angry? Often it comes down to a conflict with our values that perhaps we never give much thought to, but at times like this we become very aware when they are being violated. Offer yourself compassion – you are also doing your best and trying to work this out. Sit with it for a bit longer, and step away from what irks you if it gets too much. Use the Mute button on social media, turn off the news – don’t feed your frustrations because it’s you that has to live with that horrible gnawing anger, and no one wants that.