Managing the COVID-19 blues

Last week I wrote about the loss and the grief that we suffer because of the COVID-19 lockdown and how easy it is to feel overwhelmed by all of these emotions while we underestimate exactly the impact this is having on us. The point of the article was to bring home that we underestimate the reach of the lockdown because we don’t understand all the areas of our lives that it impacts and because of the obsession with staying positive.

A friend of mine who was diagnosed with more than one life threatening medical condition in a short space of time taught me a lot about how to grieve when you not grieving the loss of a physical life but of a future and are combating a loss of “who I am” or “who I was”. One day he showed me a cartoon strip of Charlie Brown and Snoopy sitting on a dock and Charlie Brown says to Snoopy “Someday we will all die, Snoopy!”. Snoopy very wisely responds “True but on all the other days we will not”. This example explains how to carry on when things look dark, when we feel that there is an imminent danger. It is in remembering that there is a gap between imminent and current.

Where does this focus on the negative come from? As humans we have a built-in bias towards negativity, this is largely because of a part of our limbic brain called the amygdala, which helps protect us by finding and focusing on danger so we can take the necessary action. Imagine a caveman walking through a jungle and not seeing a snake hanging from a tree he will walk under – this could be a potentially fatal mistake. The caveman’s amygdala acts like a sensor that is constantly scanning the environment for any small sign of danger so that an appropriate response can be formulated. Back to our own amygdalas and, unfortunately, when we have so much danger around us as we have now and it all seems imminent, they flood us with information. So much, in fact that instead of being able to isolate and plan around this danger we are overwhelmed and our flight, fight or freeze response calls on us to freeze because there is not place to run for safety and there is no ideal way of fighting this because the danger is too pervasive.

The answer however is not to ignore our feelings, which are trying to signal all the danger around us. We should identify what we working with – what is the danger and where is it coming from. Once we know this then we can start taking care of ourselves moving through the perceived dangers and start making plans.

A useful tool is to start by triaging the dangers, using the following guide.

Step 1:

Set up a table containing a few rows. Plot all the areas of your life that are important to you. To make this exercise easier you can use the basic outline of a life wheel which may include areas such as work, personal development, money, home, health, friends, community, spirituality, recreation and so on.

Areas  
Work  
Personal Development  
Money  
Home  

Step 2:

Write down all the perceived threats in each of these areas.

AreasThreatsTiming
WorkI feel overloaded at work because we are working shifts to enforce social distancing. 
Personal DevelopmentWhat happens if I lose my job, can I be relevant in a remote working environment? 
MoneyWe may need to take pay cuts for the business to survive. I don’t know if I can financially cope. 
HomeI am stressed because I need to take care of my family and I don’t feel emotionally up to it. 

Step 3:

If you can it is also a good idea to write down if you have a concept of the time when this might happen.

AreasThreatsTiming
WorkI feel overloaded at work because we are working shifts to enforce social distancing.Current as this is happening now.
Personal DevelopmentWhat happens if I lose my job, can I be relevant in a remote working environment?This may or may not happen but it is a concern.
MoneyWe may need to take pay cuts for the business to survive. I don’t know if I can financially cope.This seems to be imminent, but I don’t know when and the details of the pay cuts. How much and for how long.  
HomeI am stressed because I need to take care of my family and I don’t feel emotionally up to it.Current, this is impacting myself and my family now.

Step 4:

Next categorize each entry as follows: red (disastrous), yellow (threatening) and green (concern).

AreasThreatsTiming
WorkI feel overloaded at work because we are working shifts to enforce social distancing.Current as this is happening now.
Personal DevelopmentWhat happens if I lose my job, can I be relevant in a remote working environment?This may or may not happen but it is a concern.
MoneyWe may need to take pay cuts for the business to survive. I don’t know if I can financially cope.This seems to be imminent, but I don’t know when and the details of the pay cuts. How much and for how long.  
HomeI am stressed because I need to take care of my family and I don’t feel emotionally up to it.Current, this is impacting myself and my family now.

Step 5:

This mapping gives us the ability to plan and prioritise to turn from catastrophe into a series of events that can be managed when we have enough psychological and mental space to deal with them one thing at a time. To return to the example above it is clear that the areas to focus on would be the feeling of overwhelm at the office and the inability to cope emotionally at home. These are topics which are the domain of the helping professions, such as coaches, doctors, counsellors, therapists, etc. A good way forward would be to speak to one of them to help formulate strategies on a way forward.

I hope you find this a useful tool which you can apply to yourself, your family, your team, your community initiatives, and so on. I was amazed at the volume of feedback, comments and messages I received from people on social media who where thanking me for the previous article. Some expressed that it helped them identify feelings and emotions that they had not really understood and that they were judging themselves for. I write about a variety of topics normally related to business but as there has been such a big response to this article I would like to hear from you if you like to see more information on a variety of tips, tools and ways of this sort. Please respond to any of my articles on linked in social media or connect with me via my website and let me know if you would find this useful. I would love to be of service where I can.