“BETWEEN stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”
A famous quote from Holocaust survivor and psychiatrist Viktor Frankyl, this has resonated particularly strongly for me during these recent weeks.
COVID-19 is the stimulus, the event that has happened to us all on a global scale. And our automatic response is to become paralysed with worry and anxiety, fear and uncertainty. A perfectly natural response, considering the enormity of what we’re all faced with. The “space” that it speaks about has opened up before most of us like a chasm, in the form of empty diaries and dwindling to-do lists.
And don’t get me wrong, many of us are as busy as ever, trying to get on with things and keep the show on the road to whatever extent your situation requires. But there is an undeniable space nonetheless, where social engagements and leisure activities once resided. And what so many of us are finding is that this space very easily fills up with thoughts to further fuel that anxiety, worry and fear.
Below is a description of a five step process which I created in recent days, “The C.O.V.I.D. Space,” in the hopes of offering an alternative approach to coping with the challenging, overwhelming situation in which we find ourselves. It’s based on the core concepts of Mindfulness- Based Stress Reduction, a course which has been shown to reduce distress and anxiety, and increase self-awareness and compassion.
Catch the thoughts as they occur. Usually we’re not even aware of our thoughts moment to moment. They act as a running commentary, which we rarely tune into, but affect us regardless.
We have up to 80,000 thoughts in a day, and a huge proportion of those take us off to far-flung worst-scenario places, or never-ending “shoulda-coulda woulda-s”.
Step 1 in The C.O.V.I.D. Space is to practice catching those thoughts as they unfold.
Wake up to them. “Catch them in the act” so to speak! Make a conscious effort several times a day, just for a couple of moments, to audit those thoughts. What are you actually thinking about right now? Is it unhelpful rumination about the past, all-consuming worry about the future, or is it actually something useful?
If you watch closely, it becomes very apparent that our thoughts, emotions and sensations in the body are intricately intertwined. One feeds the other, and when you’re caught in a negative pattern, they can add fuel one another’s fire.
So Step 2 of The C.O.V.I.D. Space is to observe the effect that your thoughts are having on your mood, your body, and how you’re going about your day.
It’s as simple as pausing and watching. The body is an excellent barometer for what we’re feeling or thinking, whether it’s tension in the jaw, a tightness of the chest, or a churning stomach.
An anxious thought might trigger an increased heartrate. A time of sadness may present as a heaviness in the shoulders. If we can pause for long enough to tune in and simply notice these things, they can serve as very useful guides to habitual patterns of thinking and behaving that are not serving us.
There is a very apt saying that you should “name it to tame it,” and when it comes to overwhelming thoughts and emotions during these times, this approach is so powerful.
After spending some time observing thoughts, emotions and sensations in the body unfold, there is so much healing in naming or verbalising exactly what it is you’re experiencing, even if it’s just to yourself in your head. State it as it is, warts and all. Whether that’s “I’m feeling ratty and irritable, and it’s due to the anxiety that I’m currently experiencing,” or “I feel really overwhelmed right now, I notice it in the pit of my stomach.” Putting a name on the specific emotion or sensation acts almost as if to call it out, to take its power away, and to put the ball in your court by saying “right – this is where I’m at right now.” It removes the focus from struggling to fix or change things, and just acknowledges it as it is. You’re allowed to feel this way!
The best investigators in the world are excellent at what they do because they’re curious, they ask questions, and they look for ways to move forward. In this case, Step 4 of The C.O.V.I.D. Space employs these principles and invites you to investigate what it is that you need right now, in light of the thoughts and emotions that you’ve observed. What would be of benefit in this moment? Is it that you’ve been chief teacher, cook and bottle-washer for the day and are craving some headspace? Is it that you’re cocooning and lacking connection, and need to talk to somebody? Is it that you’ve the health of loved ones on your mind, and need to distract yourself from those worries by reading or exercising or otherwise engaging your thoughts? Or is it that you’re currently dealing with a really tough, unprecedented situation and you need to give yourself the opportunity to work through that, rather than trying to be eternally productive and motivated?
Nobody’s answer will be exactly the same, and everybody’s answer will shift from day to day, hour to hour in this ever-evolving situation.
The final step in The C.O.V.I.D. Space is the most empowering one, the one that truly breaks that cycle and has the potential to change your outcome for the better. By now you’ve caught the negative thoughts, you’ve witnessed the effects that they have on your mood and physical body, you’ve named them and investigated what would be helpful in this moment. The biggest mistake that you can make at this point is to brush this knowledge aside and attempt to just “plough on.” Just like a golfer’s swing, the key is in the follow-through!
With this sentiment in mind, Step 5 of The C.O.V.I.D. Space is to decide what you’re actually going to do about this, choosing an appropriate action based upon your investigations in the previous step.
Are you going to halt the thought process that isn’t serving you by deciding to no longer entertain it? Are you going to take the plunge and reach out to somebody for help? Are you able to schedule a day off from working from home, or even just create a momentary pocket of peace? Or are you going to cut yourself some slack for feeling like you’re “not coping”?
Support yourself the way you would support others, and recognise the difference between the things you can control and the things you can’t. Then go ahead and decide to follow through.
After completing the five steps of The C.O.V.I.D Space (Catch, Observe, Verbalise, Investigate, Decide) the hope is that your response will be one that more fully supports and nourishes you. And by supporting and nourishing yourself, you’re also improving the outcomes for your loved ones; calmer interactions, quality engagements, and honest exchanges. In a time where we could all do with as much support and nourishment as possible, every little helps.
Support yourself the way you would support others, and recognise the difference between the things you can control and the things you can’t.
Dr Michelle O’Driscoll is a Lecturer of Clinical Pharmacy in UCC, while continuing to work in the community pharmacy setting.
Her research lies in the area of mental health education, and through her company InTuition she delivers health promotion workshops to corporate and academic organisations nationally.