A courageous, compassionate response to COVID-19: keeping it simple to save lives

25 March 2020

A message from Dr David Cameron Inspire Clinical Lead Psychologist.

A courageous, compassionate response to COVID-19: keeping it simple to save lives

When we find ourselves gripped by a fear of the unseen and unknown, in this instance a nasty microbe, COVID-19, this fear-terror drives habitual reactive thought patterns which in turn drive mindless and largely ineffectual patterns of behaviour. Although these behaviours are designed to control our fear, paradoxically they have the opposite effect, simply fuelling and adding to our distress and suffering.

Emotional distancing:

At one extreme we can emotionally distance ourselves from and minimise the seriousness of the threat. For example, we convince ourselves that COVID-19 is nothing more serious, debilitating or life threatening than the common cold or flu. Simultaneously we ignore the fact that for many at risk groups, tragically it is fatal, meaning sound public health advice, “stay at home”, “social distancing” and “regular hand washing” which will save lives, can fall on deaf ears. Remember, these simple, mindful acts of kindness are behaviours which are under everyone’s control and if actioned will ultimately save the lives of our most vulnerable. Be responsible and tap into our common humanity.

Panic - catastrophizing:

At the other extreme we can greatly exaggerate the actual threat, analogous to Corporal Jones of Dad’s Army fame, “Don’t panic, don’t panic reaction”, fuelling irrational fear driven behaviours that drive a mindless reactive cycle that is no less contagious than COVID-19. This explains the seemingly bizarre compulsive behaviour of bulk buying toilet paper, sanitary and medicinal products / masks etc. which give the illusion of being in control, but which are largely futile, ineffectual responses that do little to control and contain the spread of the virus.

It is important to be prepared, take all reasonable precautions and reliable advice such that you can respond and adapt mindfully and not over-react or panic. Think about and be grateful for what you have, share what you have and don’t need with others who need it, use your time purposefully to check in and connect with work colleagues, neighbours, friends and relatives who may have to self-isolate using social distancing mediums.

It’s everybody else’s fault - projection:

The government, Public Health Agencies, NHS, HSE, businesses and financial services etc. undoubtedly could always do more to be better prepared, and everyone including the media are quick to blame these ‘faceless entities’, anyone and everyone for the current situation along with the perceived inadequate and futile response.

Projecting our own vulnerabilities, helplessness and resignation goes some way to contain our fear. However, the real villain is a faceless virus which as viruses do, source a host to invade and multiply. We are where we are, right here right now. It is the right time therefore, to recognise, tap into and trust in our common humanity. This means collectively supporting and getting behind everyone who is keeping the wheels turning, not least those frontline medical, health and social care staff selflessly, tirelessly risking their own lives to care for the most sick and vulnerable.

Avoid getting get caught up in the so-called and nonetheless viral info-demic of sensationalist headlines, inaccurate, and unreliable information, take control of what you can, follow NHS, Public Health Agency / HSE guidelines (see links below) which will take the burden of frontline staff as well as protect you and your loved ones.  

Undoubtedly emotional distancing, catastrophizing and projection are natural emotional, psychological defences summonsed to protect us from the fear and uncertainty of the unseen and unknown. In reality, however, these defences are counter-productive and provide no immunity to COVID-19.

A compassionate response

We are in the midst of an unsettling pandemic where tragically many have already lost loved ones, creating understandable anxiety about the uncertainty of the future. However, the human spirit has survived previous pandemics - one as recent as 1918. COVID-19 will inevitably and predictably run its course, and predictably in the future another pandemic awaits. This alerts us mindfully and with humility to the cyclical, predictably unpredictable changing and dynamic nature of human existence – life, joy and despair.

While despair, if personalised can alienate and isolate, compounded in this instance by necessary self-isolation, this adds to suffering. In contrast, by opening our hearts and minds to the fact that everyone suffers, it is what connects, will motivate collective and compassionate action. It is this hard wired drive for belonging which will see us through. Often when faced with life and death scenarios we are forced to re-calibrate, becoming astutely aware of what and who is important, vital to us cultivating compassionate action and behaviours which are invigorating, meaningful life-giving and life-sustaining. Use whatever space and time you have to reach out and connect safely with work colleagues, family, friends and neighbours - these simple small acts of kindness are good for your wellbeing.

Over the coming weeks, our Lead Mindfulness Practitioner will be bringing a mindful awareness to an ever-evolving, fast-changing situation, introducing so-called psychological antibodies - strategies and techniques to protect us from the inevitable emotional impact of COVID-19, by encouraging and enabling everyone to connect and respond with kindness and compassion.

I will end with the words of wisdom of an ancient Eastern contemplative practitioner: “In the West you say panic, panic everything is out of control. In the East we say relax, everything is out of control!”

Control what you can, keep it simple and follow the simple advice which will save lives: keep indoors, keep the recommended social distance, keep washing your hands and as far as is possible keep calm.

Official COVID-19 advice

NHS: https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/coronavirus-covid-19/

PHA: https://www.publichealth.hscni.net/news/covid-19-coronavirus

HSE: https://www2.hse.ie/conditions/coronavirus/coronavirus.html

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