Coping Strategies for Uncertain Times

Part One: Finding resilience during the outbreak.

Posted Mar 23, 2020

Image by Pexels from Pixabay
Source: Image by Pexels from Pixabay

I have a confession to make. I am writing this blog as much for you as I am for me. These are challenging times. I find it especially hard to hear such difficult news on a daily basis — news that is not balanced with much good news. We don’t get an alert on our phones every time someone recovers from coronavirus, and we hear more about the hoarding and shortage of supplies than we do about the acts of kindness and care taking place each day to help people. In addition, it can be hard to escape the panic, anxiety, and fear that is around us on a daily basis that feels contagious.  

As we face uncertain, unprecedented, and challenging times, a critical question becomes: What resources can we draw on to help us through this? How can we remain responsive to the challenges at hand without letting fear, panic, or anxiety overtake us? I have been asking myself this question daily lately, and again and again reminding myself to open my toolbox and use the things that I teach.

In the service of offering these tools, I have divided this blog into two parts, so be sure to continue on to part two.

Rick Hanson writes that as human beings we have three basic needs — for safety, satisfaction, and connection. When we perceive that these needs are met, we are able to remain in what he refers to as the “green zone,” where we can meet challenges in a responsive and helpful way. When we perceive that any of these needs are unmet, it is easier to slip into what he calls the “red zone,” where our fight-or-flight response and stress, fear, and negativity can take over.  

For many people during the uncertain time of the coronavirus outbreak, all three needs feel threatened in very real ways. In particular, many people feel a heightened sense of a lack of safety. Having tools to help calm the body and mind, to bring us back to some felt sense of safety in this moment — as much as is available — can be immensely important.

Tools to help meet safety needs:

Understand your evolutionary wiring. As a species, our nervous system was wired through millions of years of evolution to fight, flee, or in some cases freeze in response to threats to our safety, such as saber-tooth tigers. This adaptive response helped our ancestors survive the physical threats they faced, and they ultimately passed along their genes to us. While this response is there to protect us, the problem is that it doesn’t always serve us in modern times. While some aspects of my stress response can be protective and mobilize me to take appropriate actions and precautions, if my alarm sounds too loudly and incessantly, it can leave me in a chronic state of tension, stress, and fear, which is not so helpful or protective.

So how do we work with this habitual response?

1. One thing I have found helpful is to thank this part of me, this inner alarm, for trying to protect me. It is doing the best it can, operating from a very old template. But as an evolved human, I can step back and remind myself that, in times like this, when my nervous system is calmer, it can help me think more clearly and see what is needed. Like a loving parent who knows best, I can remind myself that instead of my habitual instinct to fight or flee, I can actually do more to protect myself from a place of calm presence and from activating my "tend and befriend" instinct. This instinct is thought to be an alternative to the fight or flight response and involves nurturing and soothing instincts that we can offer to ourselves and others as well as seeking out supportive connections with others.  

2. Don’t focus on getting rid of fear; instead focus on inviting something else in.

Practice some ways to bring ease to your nervous system, even for brief moments.

What I have been finding increasingly is that I don’t have to focus on getting rid of fear. It may still be there — but I can choose how I respond to it. Instead of focusing on pushing it away, I find it helpful to invite something else in that can sit side-by-side with the fear, to soothe, comfort, or bring ease to whatever I am experiencing. Two things that I have found especially helpful are: 1) inviting in a gentle, accepting awareness of what I am feeling, like a giant container that can hold my emotions in a kind of loving embrace; 2) inviting in a sense of self-compassion, imagining sitting with my emotions the way I might sit with a good friend or fearful child.  

Having ways of calming the body through meditation, finding some comfort even in the steady rhythm of one's breath and the deep inner stillness at one's core, despite the waves and storms thrashing wildly at the surface, can be very helpful for some people. Practicing meditation has helped me to observe what is happening from a place of spacious awareness, rather than being hijacked by every passing thought and emotion (though at times I certainly get hijacked!). 

Some metaphors and images that I have found especially helpful include: sitting on the bank of a river watching the ships float by (representing my thoughts and emotions) without getting swept away by each one; imagining that I am the vast, expansive ocean that holds all of the waves rather than being swept away by any one wave of intense emotion. As mentioned above, inviting in self-compassion at times of heightened fear can also be very helpful. One way to do this is to think about how you might comfort someone you care about and offer yourself those same sentiments.

There is no single right way to invite calm into the body. For some it might be a warm bath, spending time with a beloved pet, or listening to inspiring music. Don’t worry about getting rid of fear, just focus on also inviting in a felt sense of calm in whatever way it might be available to you.

Please see the continuation of this blog in "Coping Strategies for Uncertain Times: Part Two" for other important strategies to help you cultivate resilience and a healthy mindset during this most challenging of times.

Please note: The original version of this blog was published in PsychCentral's World of Psychology Blog.