“Helping you gain control over the things you want to change”
How We Can Cope As Winter Approaches In The Middle Of A Global Coronavirus Pandemic
Posted on 1st November 2020
I posted a message on my Facebook page recently. I said: “Things do not feel good at the moment. We will all need all our resilience and a lot of strength to get through the next period. I think this can be done and it may even teach us some useful life lessons. More this week on how we stay well and happy and we go into a tough winter.”
The response I got interested, worried and delighted me in equal measures.
We cannot resume our old lives
I often encourage people to look at the end of the lockdown as a new start rather than as a resumption of their old life. There are a couple of reasons for this. Firstly, life is not going back to the old normal, there are still restrictions and uncertainties and to be honest, we need to face up to these. Secondly, if we talk just about resumption, we miss the chance to make changes which could benefit us. It is a good mental habit to treat everything as a learning opportunity and a window to a better time and this is no different.
At the same time, we should face up to loss. For some the loss of our old life is a trigger for feelings of grief and unhappiness. Again, the first thing to do is to acknowledge these feelings. Until we do it is impossible to move on.
If we admit that it is more complicated than just going back to the way things were before Coronavirus then we put ourselves in a learning frame of mind, which is a particularly good and healthy place to be at the moment. Coming out of lockdown will mean setting up new habits and possible ways of being. Some of our old beliefs may prove to be an obstruction to these new ways and we may have to find different approached to understanding our own personal world.
The concept that ‘we can do nothing’ leads to problems
Some people were actually quite angry with me for suggesting that we could learn anything from living through this unprecedented and difficult time. I do understand how in a tough time, where we do not know what is going to happen next and may well be frightened for our health and that of our loved ones, life can seem totally overwhelming. Whilst we are in this mindset it can be difficult to learn anything but thinking and believing we can ‘do nothing’ is a route to worsening mental health. I am hoping I can help to change the beliefs of some of the people in this group.
Face up to the fact of fear in the time of Coronavirus
Do not underestimate how tough this can be. Not only are we dealing with change, but for many of us fear is never far away. We may fear getting the virus ourselves or fear for vulnerable friends and family members. We may fear for our jobs and for the futures of our young people.
This all costs a lot of emotional energy. Many people are emotionally and mentally exhausted. In such a situation resting and recharging our emotional batteries is very important.
Poor coping mechanisms can be changed
Other people disclosed that they were using coping mechanisms which they knew were not healthy. Drinking too much was right up there, as was a decrease in activity, both mental and physical. Staying in bed all day is not usually good for anyone long term, but it can seem the only thing to do if you are feeling very down. I have seen some clients who are using unhealthy coping mechanisms and know that they are doing so but cannot find a way to stop. What I do for these clients is to uncover what needs these poor behaviours are trying to address. It can be that drinking seems to reduce anxiety for example. Not engaging with the world (by staying in bed for example) can be a way of avoiding situations which we might find stressful or even frightening. The good news is, there are other, more healthy ways, of achieving these ends and I work with my clients to find them.
The mindset which can learn from lockdown
The third group of people who contacted me were in some ways the most interesting. They made me really think and learn. These people were able to step back reflect and take good lessons from the situation, even though the situation is difficult.
One famous figure who coped with taking good lessons from the worst possible situation was Viktor Frankl, an Austrian neurologist, who worked in the middle of the 20th century.
Frankl was Jewish and spent much of the war as a doctor in Nazi work camps. He observed that some people coped better, even in this awful situation. Those who had a sense of meaning and purpose in life survived longer than those who did not. He was one of only two members of his family to survive the war. He returned to Vienna and wrote his best-known book Man’s Search for Meaning (I like the literal translation of the title better; it is Saying Yes to Life in Spite of Everything).
Frankl summed up his ideas by saying: “Those who have a ‘why’ to live can bear with almost any ‘how’.”
He argued that the “why” could be found in three essential areas.
- Doing, using our talents in work or creativity
- Experiencing the world through relationships, enjoyment of art and culture and the environment
- Attitude, which we can determine whatever our circumstances.
Frankl was a great believer in the individual making choices for themselves. He said each individual’s response to what life throws up would lead to each person finding their life’s meaning for themselves through the choices they make. He called his body of ideas logotherapy (from the Greek word logos meaning “meaning”). Some techniques based on Frankl’s work are still in wide use today.
Stop obsessing and start focusing
I think one, called Dereflection can be a great help to us in the pandemic.
If you are constantly turning over in your mind all the problems we are facing at the moment you can end up in a bad place. If you are always asking questions which you cannot answer and certainly cannot control you can end up feeling helpless. Yet many of us spend much of our mental time ruminating on the future, of the virus, of the economy, of the possibility of a vaccine and the rest. Then we can end up getting completely stuck. It is easy to become obsessed with the virus and end up neglecting everything else in the world. This can rapidly lead to anxiety and depression. It actually makes things worse as it robs us of the sense of meaning in our own lives. Frankl developed the dereflection technique to help us in such situations.
He advised taking the focus away from oneself and making the effort to reflect instead on something in the present which we can affect. By losing ourselves in a task or an experience our attention is diverted from ourselves, we lose the focus on ourselves and by doing so actually find ourselves again.
An example might be, if you find yourself watching the news every hour and constantly searching for updates on the Corona virus figures then you can end up downplaying or even forgetting that there is a good play on the TV later or giving yourself to a work project which could absorb you and make you feel proud and fulfilled once you have delivered it successfully. So, stand back and think what you can focus on to give your own life a sense of meaning and purpose now. Then do that thing. Activity and agency count here.
Attitude and mindset in the far north
I was advising a client along these lines when she told me about an interesting article, she had read in The Guardian newspaper, which focused on attitude and mindset.
David Robson reported on the reflections of US psychologist Kari Leibowitz, who was interested on how Norway’s citizens regarded the winter. In northern Norway, where the sun does not rise at all in the depths of winter, she wondered how people coped.
Interestingly, they did not seem to find winter a problem. Levels of Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) were low, and studies showed that their levels of wellbeing did not vary very much across the year.
Why was this? Leibowitz speculates it is about mindset. This can be as simple as looking at things from a ‘glass half full’ rather than a ‘glass half empty’ perspective. She asked people to rate different statements such as ‘winter brings many wonderful seasonal changes’ or ‘there are many things to dislike about winter’ and found that those people who preferred the positive statements coped best. It is the same winter; it is just looking at it from a different perspective.
Leibowitz even found that positive attitudes to winter grew stronger the further north people lived. It seems that people living in the far north have developed a mindset to get the most out of the circumstances in which they find themselves. As Leibowitz puts it: “Once you put it in people’s heads that mindsets exist, and that you have control over your mindset . . . that is tremendously powerful.”
None of this is to say that bad things cannot happen and we should acknowledge these and not supress sad emotions. But it is to say that there can be a different way of looking at things which appear hard or unpleasant.
Take control of what you can control
Being proactive, recognising that we are in control of the attitude we take to things is absolutely central here. I am encouraging my clients to welcome the winter. If we are likely to be at home more think about all the things you can do rather than what you cannot. If you are working from home, focus on the advantages this can bring, more time with family perhaps, or getting to know your local areas better.
The answers will be different for everyone, depending on personal preferences and likes and dislikes and personal circumstances. Within these differences, however we can all change our mindset to make the most of the situation in which we find ourselves. Coping by action is what we need. This can help us overcome things we thought were insurmountable objects. Or as the Norwegians say: ‘There is no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothes.’