We are living in unprecedented times. Covid-19 has taken the world by storm and changed all our lives instantaneously. Having lived with it since 2020, most of us are still looking for ways to cope with the resulting uncertainty. We reached out to Psychologist Carol Gooneratne Amarasekara for her expert advice on dealing with some of the issues at hand, so that you can better prepare for the future and focus on living a healthier, longer, better life.
1) The pandemic has created uncertainty in nearly every aspect of daily life. How can we deal with this unpredictability and manage the general anxiety and stress that it’s causing us?
Not knowing is an uncomfortable experience. As human beings, we are naturally curious, We want to understand, to predict, and control. It helps us learn and keeps us safe. Uncertainty can feel like a threat to us because we cannot predict what will happen.
While it is quite natural to experience uncertainty as discomfort during this time, for some it may seem unbearable. Finding it difficult to cope with the experience of not knowing, could seriously affect our mental health and subsequently our physical health.
If uncertainty feels dangerous it will increase worry and cause anxiety. And if we think that we cannot cope with the changes life throws at us, then it’s understandable that we may feel defeated and depressed. That’s because when we struggle to cope with the experience of uncertainty, our minds worry and come up with a number of frightening possibilities. Like for example, I may get sick, will the medical world find an answer for Covid-19, will I ever be able to go out with my friends again, will we have enough food, supplies and so on. The unknown is often the worst in our imagination. We may find that our mood is more negative when we feel less able to cope with the unknown.
The human mind is designed to protect. It can act on impulse or conscious thought. Most often stress and anxiety is caused by a state of mind. A thought that we consciously or unconsciously feed our minds with. For example, if a car was coming at you, would you not automatically jump away before even giving it a second thought? What if you accidentally touched something hot, won’t you jerk your hand away from it? This is called automated defense. This happens with a thought that has triggered a past experience that puts your whole being in a defensive or protective mode. Thus, the brain will pump you with stress hormones called cortisol and adrenaline to make you act to protect.
Stress and anxiety are caused by fearful thoughts. We humans are fearful of the unknown. Thinking is part of being human. It is a capacity we are blessed with and so we can make choices by changing the way we think. When we encourage ourselves to accept the uncertainty and not think of it as a problem, as I have often seen it happen in my clinic with clients, we begin to manage the uncertainty better in the way we think and act.
2) How important is mental health for our functionality?
Have you experienced the power of emotion? It manipulates the intellect. Emotion will make you weak to the bone. That is how important mental health is for the functioning of the human being.
People often take mental health for granted as we cannot feel or see it. We are mostly concerned with physical health because we instantly feel pain and see the seriousness of a wound. For example, if you have a chest pain you will go to a doctor or if you have a wound on your hand you will clean it, remove the pus, and medicate it, as it helps to ease the pain and start healing.
But what about your mental health? It is often neglected and taken for granted.
Your mental health is more powerful than your physical health. The power of thought and emotion drives your whole being. Physical and mental health are like the wheels of a bicycle. They both need to spin simultaneously for the healthy functioning of your body. A mental wound though abstract can be detrimental if not addressed, as mental health is often visible only when it becomes physical. Like for example when you cannot eat or sleep, feel depressed, etc. These symptoms manifest only after the mind has become weak or wounded.
The mind has the capacity to make the whole body ill as all executive functions, such as commands to the body are given by the brain. That is the power and importance of mental health.
3) Too much stress can sometimes have a snowball effect and affect those around us as well. When we feel overwhelmed, how can we stop ourselves from spreading the negative energy to others and how can we protect ourselves from the negative energy of others?
Feeling overwhelmed or stressed is a result of a negative thought, a fear of some sort. Most often fear is projected outwardly as anger, irritation, or frustration on the external environment (i.e. a person, thing, animal, etc.) in an attempt to take control of this feeling.
What can you do:
- Firstly, understand that you have been consumed by this fearful thought and emotion.
- Thereafter know that this thought and feeling is ‘YOURS’ and thus, becoming conscious of what it is, is most important, as often it is a subjective perception and NOT the real situation.
- Then, distance yourself or create a space away from this emotion by calming yourself down and not being in haste to act verbally or physically, in the heat of the moment.
- Take some deep breaths to calm down.
- When you are really calm, opt for a more purposeful and controlled action to handle the situation.
- If you are exposed to another’s negative behaviour, understand that he/she too is going through this same process and give him/her some space by being silent or if possible, excuse yourself from the vicinity.
- Remember, stress is a result of YOUR subjective thoughts and not the behaviour of another.
4) How can we tell if a family member or friend is struggling mentally and emotionally, and what can we do to help them?
The first thing you will notice if a family member or friend is mentally or emotionally disturbed is that he or she will behave out of character, deviating from their normal self.
If an individual is acting unlike themselves, for example, eating too much or too little, sleeping in or having trouble sleeping, isolating themselves or feeling unusually bored, low or hyperactive, feeling irritated, angry, sad or disturbed more often than usual or complaining of body pains without any physical cause – these could be symptoms of mental or emotional distress.
The best mental first aid that could be offered at the time is to observe if the above said symptoms are present and gently let the individual vent or talk at a comfortable pace and time about how he or she is feeling. Help them to release whatever they are going through and is bothering them. If the symptoms persist, please refer the person to a professional mental health therapist.
5) As Covid-19 affects us wave after wave with no end in sight, what can we do to stay motivated and maintain focus on our life goals?
Human beings have been given the mental faculties of memory and imagination; the ability to pull from memory, which consists of past experiences and the ability to imagine the future. The purpose of this human brilliance is to enhance human capacity; to bring joy to human life. But unfortunately, we use our minds to bring back memories of suffering and to imagine the worst possible scenarios in the future.
When Covid-19 hits us wave after wave what does memory teach us? How to protect ourselves. Personal hygiene, social distancing, vaccines, proper use of masks and sanitization, etc. We need to extract from the past (memory) the values to enhance life. History teaches us that nothing lasts forever. Everything comes to pass. Holding onto this truth will help us envision the best possibilities for the future and help us to stay focused.
Switching between the past and future will not do much to help as change can take place only in THE PRESENT. Whatever we do now is what we have control of. So, stay focused on the present moment and act to move towards your life goals. The pandemic is a fog that you need to get past. It may seem hazy right now, yet will certainly pass and clear, so keep your NOW in focus.
6) Working from home is part of the new normal and, can be challenging and stressful. How can we make the most of it and also maintain the boundaries in terms of work life balance?
Maintaining a structured routine will definitely help to compartmentalize.
Setup a routine and be sure to not cross boundaries. Keep to the routine as much as possible. Having a separate space or room for office work is helpful so that all at home will be aware you are not to be disturbed. If there are children, prioritize setting up a routine that’s convenient to them as their capacity to adjust is less.
Furthermore, include mealtimes, water breaks and quality time for self-care in your routine. Most importantly, remember that work is done to make life comfortable. If work takes over comfort you need to question your line of balance. Re-adjust.
7) Living under the same roof, all day, every day brings its own challenges for relationships, especially between parents and children, husbands and wives, and among siblings. What are the best practices in maintaining cordial relationships with all?
Maintaining cordial relationships with family members in a time where you are with them 24/7 is not easy. But acting with emotional intelligence can help ease the tension you feel around the people you care for most.
Some relationships that get strained can be improved by simply creating space. When you see or talk less you distance or remove yourself from their dynamics of conflict and stop fanning the flames. If a family member is in the habit of disrespecting boundaries, they will not accept your distancing so you may need to be a bit firm and persistent in telling them.
Don’t argue but tell them how you ‘feel’ briefly. Keep it simple and CALM. Avoid accusatory language.
Try to spend your time doing things you can do on your own without being too dependent on your spouse as it may make the other feel constrained or trapped. Try to spend time together when both of you are relaxed.
Be creative and organize fun ways of spending the day, such as movie nights, board games, virtual dinners, singsongs and maybe late-night activities like storytelling, skits, etc. These are most important for children as they keep the mind active and away from boredom which can create an irritable mood
8) As the Covid-19 related death toll continues to rise, fleeting thoughts related to the possibility of one’s own passing and that of loved ones can be very distressing. How can we deal with these feelings?
The rising of death tolls is often overly emphasised in the media. Watching related images and regular updates can further push the thinking into a negative mindset. The media amplifies news to create an impact, increase curiosity and to gain a wider audience. Staying away from social media and unnecessary updates can be helpful to maintain a positive mindset.
As mentioned before keeping a clear focus and taking charge of the present moment can help one to stay active and occupied with oneself. Draw from the positive possibilities. If you feed your mind with negative thoughts it will certainly give you negative feelings. Therefore, keep to objective thinking, always. If you feel the need for it, speak with a professional to clear your mind.
Carol Gooneratne Amarasekara, MSc (Applied Psych, UK), BSc (Psych Coun), Dip (Psych Coun, IRE), Dip (Child Psychology, Netherlands), is an Applied Psychologist and Senior Therapist with proven experience in supporting clients in the workplace and in educational settings. Her client-centred approach empowers individuals and enables them to make informed decisions. She is known for her theoretical counselling approach and its application to real-life settings. She is also well-versed in EMDR, Imago Therapy, Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, Integrative Counselling, Gestalt Therapy, and Person-Centred Counselling.
Carol is a Senior member of the Psychological Associations of USA, UK, New Zealand and Sri Lanka, and the former Vice President of the Sri Lanka National Association of Counsellors. She works with corporates such as Shangri-la and Dialog (Yeheli platform), is a freelance writer for The Sunday Morning newspaper and a guest speaker at psychology-centered programs conducted by Sirasa TV and TV1. Her private practice is based in Colombo and Ja-ela. She can be contacted on 0761999908, 0779925939 and 0718241455.