by Kassandra Lamb
We interrupt our regular blogging schedule… This is not what I had planned to write about this week, but it’s an important reminder to stay calm. Not only for our mental health, but for our physical health as well.
Why is it important to stay calm? Because stress reduces the effectiveness of our immune systems. So stressing about getting sick can increase the chances of getting sick.
We humans have a variety of mental defense mechanisms that our psyches employ to cope with stressful and scary stuff. Some of these defenses are helpful and some, not so much.
The Unhelpful Ones: Denial, Minimizing
Pretending the coronavirus is not a big deal, not in your area yet, etc. (it probably is; just no reported cases yet) is denial and minimizing. Buying into the idea that it’s no worse than seasonal flu is denial and minimizing. The facts say otherwise.
The World Health Organization has declared it a pandemic. The goal of that declaration was not to have everyone either panic or go into denial. It was to get us to take measures to stop the spread of the disease before it gets out of hand in this country and others.
The Potentially Helpful Defenses: Rationalization, Repression, Sublimation
First, do the things you’re hearing that you should do in order to prevent and/or prepare for the worst-case scenario. Wash your hands. Be aware of what you touch and try NOT to touch your face. Wash your hands.
Stockpile, within reason, food and medicines, etc. in case you end up quarantined. (Just got home from the grocery store myself.) Then wash your hands.
Practice social distancing by leaving space around you and subbing a wave or a slight bow for a handshake or hug. Wash your hands. Avoid crowds or going out in public if you can. Wash your hands.
Then, once you have done all that, tell yourself that you and those in your household will most likely be okay. You’re doing everything you can do. It will be fine. (Rationalization.)
Is this lying to yourself? Maybe. Maybe not. You don’t know if the disease will hit close to home, but you might as well assume that it isn’t going to—AFTER you have taken the needed precautions to lower your risk.
There’s no psychological benefit to assuming that you or your loved ones will get sick. That’s pessimism and it’s also unhealthy. More on this in a minute.
Then Push the Thoughts Aside
Don’t let your mind dwell on the disease any more than is necessary to maintain the precautions you have taken. To stay calm, actively push those thoughts away when they come up (Repression) and distract yourself with other things. Read an engaging book, finally do some of those projects around the house that you’ve been putting off (look out bathroom, I’ve got my paintbrush and I’m coming in), do something creative, etc.
This latter idea is called Sublimation—actually channeling the emotional energy into something else. A whole lot of my author friends are currently writing stories about pandemics. Most of those stories will never get published, but the writing process keeps those authors sane (or as sane as authors ever are 😉 ).
(Read more on defense mechanisms here.)
The Proven Benefits of Optimism
Why should we bother to try to fool ourselves into believing all will be okay? First of all, for many of us, it will be okay. We’ll go through a scary time of worrying about our own health and that of our loved ones, but either no one in that group will get the disease or they will have a mild case of it.
And if and when the disease does strike a harder blow, well that’s soon enough to worry about it. As my grandmother used to say, “Don’t borrow trouble.”
Remaining optimistic has been proven again and again in scientific studies to have all kinds of health benefits. Optimism reduces stress, improves immune system functioning, makes people feel happier and helps them live longer. Being pessimistic, has the exact opposite effect. (For more on the benefits of optimism, here’s a good article.)
The first American study evaluated 839 people in the early 1960s, performing a psychological test for optimism–pessimism as well as a complete medical evaluation. When the people were rechecked 30 years later, optimism was linked to longevity; for every 10-point increase in pessimism on the optimism–pessimism test, the mortality rate rose 19%.~ Harvard Health Publishing, Optimism and your Health, 2008.
But Isn’t This Just Another Form of Denial?
Yes, it is. I call it healthy denial. And all of us exercise this defense mechanism every day. Otherwise, we would never get out of bed, much less leave our houses.
Every day, we assume that we will not be mugged that day, we will not be run over by a truck, we will not be swept up by a tornado, etc. Even though those things will happen to some people somewhere.
Without healthy denial, we couldn’t function. We’d be paralyzed.
And that’s what I’m trying to fight here—the paralyzing effects of fear. Because we all need to do what we can, including remaining optimistic, in order to slow and eventually stop this pandemic.
And slowing it is extremely important. Because by slowing it, we keep it from overwhelming our healthcare system. This article has an excellent chart that shows this better than I could explain it (Note the dotted line that is labelled “healthcare system capacity.”)
Easier Said Than Done for Some
Some of us have been blessed with a naturally optimistic personality. Others have not. Those folks are going to have to work harder at this whole stay-calm thing.
Just as we try to become more aware of the surfaces we touch (or don’t touch, in the case of our faces), we need to become more aware of our thoughts. We need to catch ourselves if we are obsessing on the situation too much. We need to redirect our thoughts.
One very simple but very helpful technique that therapists teach clients with OCD is called thought-stopping. When you notice your thoughts going down an obsessive track, you literally say, “Stop!” either out loud or inside your head.
A variation for visually oriented people is to imagine a big red stop sign in your mind’s eye.
Then you intentionally redirect your thoughts to something else that is engaging.
Laughter Is the Best Medicine
Keep your entertainment lighthearted during this crisis. Someone said to me just last night that they started to watch a show about the Nazis in Germany and had to turn it off. It was too much on top of worrying about the coronavirus. Good for her!
Even if you feel yourself drawn to heavier, more negative topics (understandable), don’t go there right now. Positive, uplifting, and even silly books and TV shows are preferable, to help maintain our optimism and healthy denial.
And keep those hysterical memes coming on social media. Promote laughter as much as you can.
Let’s all do our part not just to stop the spread of germs but to increase the spread of positive energy during this difficult time.
What helps you the most to stay calm at times like these?
Posted by Kassandra Lamb. Kassandra is a retired psychotherapist turned mystery writer. She is the author of the Kate Huntington psychological mysteries, set in her native Maryland, and a new series, the Marcia Banks and Buddy cozy mysteries, set in Central Florida.
We blog here at misterio press about twice a month, usually on Tuesdays. Sometimes we talk about serious topics, and sometimes we just have some fun.
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K.B. OwenMarch 17, 2020 at 11:59 am
Fab post, Kass! Thanks so much for pointing out the benefits of “healthy” avoidance strategies (once we’ve done everything we could about the situation). I’m at the point now where I have to take breathers from the latest article or news spot about all this. Lots to worry about with elderly relatives, but I think staying positive when I’m talking to them will help all of us. Be well!
Kassandra LambMarch 17, 2020 at 1:31 pm
Glad you found it useful, Kathy. In our case, Tom and I ARE the elderly relatives…lol. We are definitely staying home as much as possible. Virtual hugs to you and yours!!
Mary AdlerMarch 17, 2020 at 6:29 pm
Thank you for this uplifting post. We, too, are the elderly––quite a surprise!
Have you noticed how often opttimists and pessimists are partners? I wonder what life is like if two optimists are together. Maybe they wouldn’t survive. 🙂
P.S. I love the Buddy and Marcia series.
Kassandra LambMarch 23, 2020 at 7:46 pm
Hi Mary, so glad you love Marcia and Buddy!! And that you found the post uplifting.
I am married to a pessimist. When we were first married (43 years ago) I tried to get him to cheer up. All I accomplish was to frustrate myself and bring my own mood down.
I finally realized that one of the reasons he married me was because I was his little ray of sunshine, so I went back to being optimistic and stopped trying to change him. Probably why we’re still married. 😉
It’s a little scary to think what would happen with two optimists together, or two pessimists for that matter. Better to have the balance, I think.
Vinnie HansenMarch 17, 2020 at 8:43 pm
Thanks, Kassandra. In Santa Cruz County, we’re currently under a shelter-in-place order as the Bay Area is one of the hard-hit regions. That means that gyms, all schools, bars, theaters, public gatherings, all non-essential businesses, etc. are closed. Even my breast exam was cancelled! No group sports, even outdoors. We’re supposed to venture out only to walk, get groceries, buy gas . . . .
I basically treat every surface outside my house as something that could have just been sneezed on. The prediction is that 80% of the people in the county will contract the disease, but as you mentioned, the goal is to slow the spread so as not to overwhelm the healthcare system. It is also true that many people will have only mild symptoms.
Kaye GeorgeMarch 20, 2020 at 6:33 pm
I’m sorry I took so long to get over here to read this. Excellent advice. I’m going to TRY to implement some of it. Thanks for much for this.
Kassandra LambMarch 23, 2020 at 7:35 pm
Thanks for stopping by, Kaye. Glad you found some useful ideas.
Kassandra LambMarch 22, 2020 at 6:32 pm
We’re about to the same spot in Florida now, trying to be a bit proactive. But the Spring Breakers haven’t made it easy. The governor had to close the beaches and now they are congregating at local springs. Grrr.
We have only gone out to the grocery store for the last ten days now, and doing that as little as possible.
Hope this craziness passes soon.
We're Here For You (Plus a Contest for Free Books) - Misterio PressApril 11, 2020 at 9:15 am
[…] the meantime, we are trying to offer as much support as we can. Please see this post and this post for tips to help you stay calm and de-stress during these difficult times. Plus, if […]