Note: In this post I discuss how our minds can distort our realities, and link that idea to some of the irrational purchasing behavior we’re currently seeing in North America. In no way am I making light of this pandemic and its impact on people and economies. COVID-19 appears to be a significant infectious concern, especially for high-risk groups, including older folks and those with chronic underlying disease. And it will significantly strain on our medical infrastructure. Find accurate COVID-19 information here.
I have a confession to make: I don’t always have my sh*t together.
As a recovering high-achieving perfectionist, this is hard to admit.
But guess what? None of us has it together all of the time.
Friends, these are trying times.
Sometimes our coping skills can’t keep up with all that life throws at us.
There’s a lot of crap going on in the world right now. It would be difficult to be aware and not be freaked the hell out.
Fear of uncertainty. Of not knowing what is going to happen in the future. Fear of death. Fear of bad things happening to our loved ones.
Once it was clear that novel coronavirus was becoming a pandemic, I started to worry. As a scientist and clinician, I wasn’t too freaked out about the virus itself, as it seems to have a fairly low mortality rate and didn't appear to be The Big One we've been fearing.* I followed updates from the experts at the CDC and WHO, and shared accurate information with friends and family.
*From what we can tell so far. The truth is we don't have an accurate estimate of the number of infected asymptomatic folks, and without this, we cannot calculate an accurate mortality rate. Death rates do appear to be higher among older folks and those with chronic underlying health issues.
What DID distress me was how people were reacting to the insane media coverage and social media inaccuracies currently on 24/7 scroll. Depleting stores of toilet paper, Lysol, and bottled water. And as of yesterday, stores in my area are out of isopropyl (rubbing) alcohol.
Most appalling is the stealing of boxes of face masks, gloves, and hand sanitizer from hospitals and clinics. This selfish behavior is putting front line professionals in jeopardy of not having adequate protection as they help sick patients, because supply chains originating in Asia are currently negatively impacted by the virus.
What’s going on here? Uh oh, maybe things are worse than I realized… cue the anxiety.
Let’s pause for a brief interview with Christine’s brain:
Prefrontal cortex (logical brain): “This is predictable. People are reacting to the fears being promulgated by ratings-driven media outlets. They are anxious and feel a lack of control over global events, so they are controlling what they can. It's not a zombie apocalypse, just people behaving like it is.”
Limbic system (lizard brain): “It’s the end of times! Must buy bleach! Avoid public spaces! Seal the doors!”
I leaned on all of the skills that I’ve accumulated over decades of personal development books and podcasts, therapy, being coached, my own professional coach training, yoga and meditation training, and more. Skills that have gotten me through many challenges.
And I was managing my anxieties pretty well. Despite COVID-19, the impending US election, building my business, global geopolitical unrest, I was functioning well. Until....
My dog died.
The thing that cracked me? A 7-pound chihuahua.
My geriatric dog Sadie, my beloved companion of 14+ years let me know that her quality of life was no longer good. So I scheduled an appointment to help her transition from this life.
And I lost my sh*t. Like a pinball machine shaken too hard, I hit tilt and stopped functioning well.
My grief was profound.
This is typical for most of us. We do well until finally something causes us to reach our “adulting threshold” and lose our ability to cope like we normally do.
I hated how I was feeling, but I was emotionally exhausted. So rather than “doing the work” like I know how to do it, I started numbing with social media, which only fueled my coronavirus concerns and anger. So I turned to games on my phone, eating junk food, Netflix. I thought about the warm relaxation facilitated by cocktails. I wanted to forget.
And I recognized that my behavior was not all that dissimilar from that of those clearing Costco shelves of Charmin Ultra Soft. I was allowing my emotions to hijack my common sense.
So what happened next?
How could I let this happen to me? As a professional coach, I literally make my living as an expert on mindset. Fraud alert! I felt deep shame and guilt over not managing myself like “I know how to.”
Then I remembered a concept my business coach Amanda taught me a while ago that helps me recognize my shame over not always having it together: Personal Development Awareness Guilt. As in, you have the skills and know what you should do, but you don’t do those things, and you feel shame and guilt because you “know better.”.
My guess is you’ve had thoughts along these lines:
As a licensed medical clinician and certified professional coach, my thoughts can spiral to:
These are not helpful thoughts, and they’re rarely actually true.
Catastrophizing is a cognitive distortion. It’s when your mind goes on a fantastical journey beginning with a circumstance that triggers an uncomfortable feeling and ends with you believing the worst case scenario will actually happen.
Here’s the thing: IT’S UNLIKELY TO EVER HAPPEN. We know that logically, but once our primitive (lizard) brain gets activated and tells us we’re in danger, we start making choices that don’t ultimately serve us or others well.
That’s the thing about our thoughts--they are powerful, and they are often profoundly unhelpful. Not to mention inaccurate.
Reader, I bought toilet paper.
While in my grief and shame spiral, COVID-19 concerns started percolating in my lizard brain. I bought some bleach and toilet paper (ok, I actually needed the toilet paper). I started down the rabbit hole of irrational thought and wanted to take control of the situation. And my anxiety climbed, until I was reminded of...
You can’t control this situation, and catastrophizing isn’t going to help you, so take control of what you can--the information you consume.
I’m not an expert on COVID-19, which is why I’ve only been sharing information from sources that link directly to the CDC and WHO.
It’s also why I’m not providing COVID-19 information in this post beyond these links, because this is a new virus and things change on a daily basis. Therefore, it’s best to get your information straight from the CDC and WHO.
As I write this, the US stock market just dropped 7% and trading was halted, sending a whole new current of anxiety through our collective conscience.
We don’t know how this pandemic is going to play out globally and locally.
What matters most is that we not panic and that we take care of each other.
In my home state of Vermont, there is a grassroots effort to connect individuals within each community to ensure that those who may end up under home quarantine will still have access to medications, food, heating fuel, and other essential supplies.
Consider doing something similar in your own community.
Prepare, don’t panic.
Ask how you can help.
And don’t believe everything you think.
Resources: COVID-19 advice for the public