Chartered Psychologist and author of How to Build a Healthy Brain Kimberley Wilson shares thoughts on managing media intake and finding your five anchors of normality
The growing Coronavirus pandemic has bought with it unrelenting news updates and government guidance that changes every few days. Within little over a week, we went from being able to go to work to having our daily movements rationed to one bout of exercise and one trip to the shops for essentials only. This rapidly changing landscape has prompted a sea-level rise in population anxiety as we try to come to terms with an extraordinarily uncertain situation.
The human brain hates uncertainty. In fact, research tells us that we find uncertainty more stressful than the prospect of an assured negative outcome. In a paper published in 2016, a team from UCL found greater levels of stress when participants were unsure whether or not they were to receive an electric shock. They were actually less stressed when they knew that a shock was definitely coming.
Our aversion to uncertainty is so strong that we sometimes convince ourselves of the worst-case scenario as an attempt to regain control over the situation. Catastrophising and mind-reading (the belief that you know what someone else is thinking) are linked to this; it’s easier to think the worst than to sit with uncertainty.
When faced with overwhelming uncertainty – as many of us are right now – we may express seemingly irrational behaviour
When faced with overwhelming uncertainty – as many of us are right now – we may express seemingly irrational behaviour. For example, despite reassurance from governments and supermarkets that there is plenty of food and a strong supply chain, one of the most striking public responses to the pandemic has been the panic buying and hoarding of essential items such as soap, hand sanitiser, food and toilet paper. This behaviour has been criticised on social media as simply ‘selfish’ but – with the exception of those stockpiling items to sell at exorbitant prices online – I don’t think that is the full story.
Hoarding is often seen in response to psychological distress. If you’ve watched any TV show about hoarders, invariably there’s been some significant loss at the root of it, whether that a shock redundancy that leaves the person feeling without purpose or status or the sudden end of a marriage or the loss of a child that leaves them bereft. In these cases the subsequent hoarding serves a psychological or emotional function that we also see in the current crisis:
Loss aversion – when a valuable resource is limited the rational (from an economic standpoint) response is to make sure you have enough of it. Though food, soap and toilet paper are, fortunately, not limited resources in this country, social media and rolling news tell us otherwise. The more we hear and read about empty shelves and long queues, the more anxious we become about missing out, rushing down to the shops ourselves. Ironically, this increases demand, creating the very conditions that we feared in the first place.
Control – the pandemic has overturned many of the things that we took for granted in our everyday lives. Autonomy. Predictability. Freedom of movement. Suddenly the world feels deeply unreliable and we are confronted with the unnerving reality that very little of our lives is under our direct control. However, shopping and filling our cupboards, is something we can control and it becomes a way of temporarily relieving some of the anxiety of the current chaos.
Safety – the pandemic heightens awareness of our existential anxieties. Many risk losing livelihoods, homes, loved ones. Our fundamental sense of safety has been disrupted. When this happens we revert to ‘survival mode’. We’re no longer focused on abstract ideals like status, instead focusing on basic, physiological needs such as food, water and shelter. Having plenty of food in the cupboards makes us feel a little bit safer.
The modern news media means that it’s not just physical items, some people ‘hoard’ information too. Reading all the newspapers, following all the Twitter science accounts and news channels. Here again there is likely a wish for control or an ‘edge’. The idea being that, ‘The more I know the safer I will be’.
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I have certainly seen an uptick in anxiety in my clinic and, in some cases, a partial regression (a return to previous coping mechanisms). When everything is new and unfamiliar, familiar behaviours, even if they are unhelpful, are easier to fall back on. With my clients I have introduced practical interventions to help reduce the experience of uncertainty and increase healthy coping mechanisms. The first of these is to limit exposure to the news.
Outside of one or two official bulletins, most of the news at the moment is death counts and speculation about which location is next to be worst hit. While it’s important to be informed, there is a limit to the usefulness of this information for people who don’t have any power to intervene. Instead it just increases a sense of powerlessness, fear and uncertainty. For people who are already anxious I recommend a Two by Two approach: limiting news viewing to two good quality sources that checked at only two point in the day. So that might be the BBC breakfast news and the PM’s daily briefing, viewed at 8am and 5pm. And that’s it. Anything important that happens after 5pm you’ll hear about in the morning, anything important after breakfast will be in the 5pm briefing. And avoid reading updates in bed or close to bedtime.
I also suggest finding five anchors of normality; five behaviours or rituals that were a common feature of your everyday life before the pandemic. So, if you always changed the bedsheets on Sunday morning, keep doing that, even if you now have time to do it on Wednesday afternoon. These anchors will help you to hold on to a familiar sense of time and space when everything else feels strange and unknown.
Try to protect you sleep and make the most of that daily exercise ration to get outside into fresh air and natural light
Taking care of your physical wellbeing is also important, because the processes that underlie physical resilience help to protect mental health too. So make sure you’re getting plenty of fruit, vegetables, fibre-rich foods and oily fish. Try to protect you sleep and make the most of that daily exercise ration to get outside into fresh air and natural light. Finally, the most important factor for psychological resilience is the quality of our relationships. So schedule regular group chats and get in touch with community support groups (such as Covid Mutual Aid) to ensure that you stay connected.
In the UK we are at the start of our leg of this global crisis. Putting these measures in place now will help to improve you chances of staying mentally well as we make our way through what is to come.
Kimberley Wilson is a Chartered Psychologist and author of How to Build a Healthy Brain. Follow her at @FoodAndPsych.