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How to stay sane in troubling times

As I swiped through the latest news on my smartphone about how borders were being locked down and wide-ranging measures to contain the rapidly spreading coronavirus were being extended by various nations, I could feel my anxiety levels start to rise. Offices were being closed, conferences and major sporting events cancelled and whole industries were warning of potentially fatal consequences from the economic fallout of the worsening global pandemic. All of this off the back of one of the sharpest stock market falls in history, with billions being wiped off the value of many household names overnight.

Just the day before, I had gone to our local supermarket to pick up some groceries and noticed how many of the aisles had been ransacked and were now empty. There was no pasta or canned goods. No soap or toilet roll, or kitchen roll for that matter. It was as if we were at war and supplies were in short supply. Unfortunately, the fear that has permeated sections of society, causing mass hysteria and the panic buying of goods and the mass selling of shares, will only make things worse. At a time when we need to pull together, we appear to be tearing the very fabric of our society apart.

The problem with fear is that is it not rational and it can often lead us to make very poor decisions - decisions that actually undermine our best interests in the long-term. I have heard of people stealing antibacterial gels from hospitals, putting those who are most in need of care at risk. I have witnessed people shunning those of Asian ethnicity on the London Underground in the mistaken belief that they will be carrying the virus.

While some fear is adaptive – coming face to face with a bear would warrant you to be fearful – the fear which is being promoted by the media is not. This type of fear, the one that robs us of reason and preys on the most vulnerable in our society, only serves to create panic and undermine people’s wellbeing. As I put down my smartphone, I noticed a black cloud had descended on my thoughts. No real surprise, given that our emotions are responsible for directing our thoughts - when we experience fear, our thoughts will automatically narrow and tend towards the negative in an attempt to keep us safe from harm.

In that darkness we lose our ability to think rationally and optimistically. Our emotions fundamentally alter the way in which our brain scans the world around us for information. When you consider that we only consciously perceive a fraction (circa 0.0005%) of our environment at any one moment in time, when you experience fear you perceive objective reality very differently to someone who is in a joyful emotional state - what you perceive is almost guaranteed to be negative. If you are in a negative emotional state, it is irrelevant to your brain that 99% of your environment is safe, it only cares about the tiny fraction that isn’t and it will make sure you focus your attention on it. Rather than seeing the good, you will only see the bad.

The way in which our emotions direct our attention is a hang-up from our evolutionary biology. It worked really well when we didn’t have a near constant stream of fear generating headlines to keep us in a heightened state of alert. However, as I put my smartphone down and noticed that my mood had shifted towards the negative, I found myself more irritable and needlessly worrying about things that I wouldn’t normally worry about. To my brain, everything I had just read indicated that my immediate environment was no longer safe and that I should be on high alert. Only, that wasn’t true. Yes, I should take precautions such as regularly and diligently washing my hands, but I didn’t need to worry that my life was in imminent danger.

Stepping out of fear is essential if we are to beat this pandemic together. Having noticed the negative impact that reading the news had had on my emotions (and consequently my thinking), my wife and I decided to head out for a long walk through Greenwich park and up to Blackheath. In the park we were greeted by a number of furry and feathered friends who proved the perfect antidote to lift my previously sombre mood. By the time we sat down for a hot drink in Blackheath, my emotional state had shifted back to positive and with it my thoughts.

Being mindful of the media we consume has never been so important. It can have a tangible effect on our emotions and consequently our wellbeing. The news relies on selling the extraordinary and that is often a far cry from reality. Don’t allow your brain to become all consumed by the negative news stories that adorn the broadsheets. Seriously think about limiting the amount of negative news you consume and when you do consume it, remember to retain some semblance of perspective.

For the vast majority of people who do contract the virus, they will make a fast and full recovery. Do take sensible precautions, such as washing your hands and self-isolating if you feel unwell. If you are elderly or have an underlying health condition, think about limiting your exposure to others – perhaps ask friends or family to bring you groceries to avoid your risk of exposure to the virus. If you can work remotely from home, do so. But please avoid causing yourself undue stress by looking at the latest news updates as they happen. At most, aim to catch-up on the news no more than once a day. Instead, use that time to focus on the things that bring you joy and contentment. For me it was going for a walk with my wife surrounded by nature and reminding myself of all the good things that exist in the world.

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