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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