by K.J. Howe
I’ve had the honor of calling talented psychologist Bryan Robinson my friend for many years. He’s always a calm port in any storm, a supportive and kind person who offers insightful advice, no matter the problem. In these unprecedented times, it’s difficult not to feel unmoored, unsettled. How do we manage to stay focused–and calm–when the world seems to be spinning off its axis? I immediately knew who I wanted to reach out to for suggestions. Meet Bryan, a regular contributor at Forbes.com, Psychology Today, and Thrive Global–and the thriller author of Limestone Gumption.
Daily Writing Resilience During COVID-19 Anxiety
|Bryan E. Robinson, Ph.D.|
If you follow social media for any length of time, you might feel like going to bed and pulling the covers over your head. Long-standing research shows that chronic TV watchers and news followers have elevated fears because everything they see starts to feel like it’s happening outside their front door. The coronavirus pandemic is here. Unfortunately, some news feeds tend to exaggerate fears. One major network continues to play ominous background music as they update reports: school closings for the remainder of the year, banning social gatherings over 10 people, the stock market plunging, social distancing, travel bans, medical personnel dying.
Is your heart slamming against your rib cage yet?
What continues to get buried underneath many of the news reports is that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) believe the risk of COVID-19 to the American public remains low. Experts tell us that 80% of the population won’t require any or minimal medical care and that there is a high transmission rate with a low mortality rate. Still, it’s important to remain vigilant, calm, and level-headed and follow recommendations from the experts whether it’s washing your hands or wearing a mask.
The Psychology Of Uncertainty: The Sulfuric Acid For Fear
Underneath the news coverage, the psychology of our country is at stake. And as thriller writers, your personal psychology is at stake. If you’re like most people, uncertainty can cause you tremendous anxiety. In fact, I always say uncertainty is sulfuric acid for fear.
Why? Your lizard brain (or survival brain) is constantly updating your world, making judgments about what’s safe and what isn’t. Due to its disdain for uncertainty, your lizard brain makes up all sorts of untested stories hundreds of times a day because to the mind, uncertainty equals danger. If your brain doesn’t know what’s around the corner, it can’t keep you out of harm’s way. It always assumes the worst, over-personalizes threats, and jumps to conclusions. (Your brain will do almost anything for the sake of certainty). And you’re hardwired to overestimate threats and underestimate your ability to handle them—all in the name of survival.
When certainty is questioned, your stress response goes haywire, instantly arousing your fight-or-flight response, kicking you in the ass in an attempt to spur you to action and get you to safety. Waiting for certainty can feel like torture by a million tiny cuts. Sometimes the brain prefers to know an outcome one way or another to take the edge off. Studies show that you’re calmer anticipating pain than anticipating uncertainty because pain is certain. Scientists have found that job uncertainty, for example, takes a greater toll on your health than actually losing the job. Statistics also show you’re more likely to maintain the stamina to continue taking risks after a car crash than after a series of psychological setbacks. And British researchers discovered that study participants who knew for sure they would receive a painful electric shock felt calmer and less agitated than those who were told they only had a 50% chance of getting the electric shock.
The Rx: Keep Your Perspective In Check
Someone we all know and love was diagnosed with the COVID-19. Tom Hanks and wife, Rita Wilson, announced they contracted the virus while filming in Australia. Their response was calm and level headed:
“Hello, folks. Rita and I are down here in Australia. We felt a bit tired, like we had colds, and some body aches. Rita had some chills that came and went. Slight fevers too. To play things right, as is needed in the world right now, we were tested for the coronavirus, and were found to be positive. We Hanks’ will be tested, observed, and isolated for as long as public health and safety requires. Not much more to it than a one-day-at-a-time approach, no? Take care of yourselves!” The sixtyish Tom and Rita are now thriving again back at their home in Los Angeles.
Your perspective during the pandemic is the most powerful weapon you can control in a situation beyond your control. Yes, these disruptions are scary, but fear, panic, and worry are not preparation. They add insult to injury—another layer of stress that can compromise the immune system and paradoxically make you even more vulnerable to the virus. Recently, I had the pleasure of interviewing singer/songwriter Rhonda Ross, daughter of icon Diana Ross, for Forbes Magazine after one of their performances. Here are her wise words about perspective during these uncertain times:
“It’s all about my perspective and what I have control over? I have control of how I see it, how much I focus on it, how much energy and time I give to it, how much mental space I give to it. I can’t stop a global virus. I can be stressed or scared or tense about it, which will only hurt me in terms of high blood pressure or depression and other mental and physical problems. Or I can look at the parts of it that are not as scary like how many people have recovered from it. And I can do the things in my life that help me feel in control or give me back my power. I can wipe down the phone, keep my hands clean, I can keep my immunity up. I can get sleep and drink water and make sure I’m not running myself ragged. One of the things that gives me power and control is to not think about what’s going to happen two weeks or six months from now because no one knows. I can focus in the now, be present and know that for right now I’m healthy and safe.”
Yes, things are going to be different, but ask yourself if it’s the virus that scares you or the drastic changes, the uncontrollable and uncertainty that scare you. Meanwhile, once we stay informed and follow what the experts tell us, our best ally is to find the opportunity in the difficulty, the upside to a downside situation beyond our control, and stay in the present moment. Find something you can control whether it’s cleaning out your basement or doing an act of kindness for someone else. And make the best of an inevitable situation one step at a time—just as the “Hanxes” did.
My warmest wishes to all of my fellow writers, especially you rogue writers, as you protect your well-being so you continue to being well.