Okay, by now you have probably seen thousands of updates either by scrolling on your phone (guilty!) or you have been glued to your TV in order the get the latest updates about the constantly-evolving coronavirus.
This is an emotional pandemic as much as it is a physical one.
Research shows that one’s mental health is implicated during a global disaster (Pfefferbaum et al., 2012). Coping with your stress and uncertainty during a global pandemic is vital to keep your mental health intact. Coping with stress remains difficult as there is a tremendous amount of uncertainty.
Anxiety = Perceived Danger
Uncertainty = Perceived Danger
Individuals who are anxious perceive that there is a threat of some kind. Scared to take a test because you fear you might fail? Don’t want to initiate a conversation for fear that you’ll be rejected? The perception of a threat IS anxiety. Uncertainty also causes anxiety because the anxious brain usually expects worse-case scenario and attempts to prepare for Plan A, B, C, etc.
Due to the uncertainty and threat that our world is facing, I am sure that our “anxiety baseline” is much higher’; that everyone’s stress levels are a bit higher, that everyone is a bit more on edge, and is having a more difficult time coping. People respond to stress in a number of ways.
Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT), a treatment created by Marsha Linehan, is a comprehensive treatment originally designed for those who are suicidal. This treatment is now widely used and its effectiveness has been studied for those with anxiety, depression and other mental health issues.
The foundation of the treatment is based on dialectical tensions- the idea that extremes of a concept are opposite and the goal is to find the synthesis. For example, DBT treatment is based on Acceptance vs. Change, which are inherently opposites (i.e, accept that you are doing your best and know that you need to change to try harder and do better).
IF YOU DO NOT RESOLVE THE DIALETICAL TENSIONS, THEN YOU WILL SUFFER MORE AND FEEL MORE MISERABLE. THE GOAL IS FIND THE KERNEL OF TRUTH IN BOTH EXTREMES.
Denial vs. Panic
I thought of a dialectical tension that reflects how I’ve experienced others to react to COVID-19- denial vs. panic. People are heading to the stores and panic buying toilet paper and groceries- so much that grocery stores are out of stock of most products. People are waiting for hours in line to find no groceries available.
On the other end of the spectrum, people are in denial, and existing in the world, business as usual. When I was at the farmer’s market today (with using my 6 feet of social distancing), I heard someone say that COVID-19 is a stage and that this pandemic is completely made up. He then began to get closer to people, ignoring management’s requests.
The extremes are a dangerous place to live. It makes sense how people can go to one extreme to the next. Yet, we can become less effective in our life if we’re sitting at the extreme. Here’s how we resolve it!
Finding the Middle Path
Resolving the dialectical tension requires you to take a step back from the situation and adopt a curious mindset. Put your detective hat on for a minute and collect some evidence and the facts of the situation. Play devil’s advocate with yourself and find the kernel of truth in both extremes.
It makes sense why people are panic buying because of the uncertainty that if you are quarantined for 2 weeks, that you may not be able to leave the house. Because this is the first time we have ever been ordered the quarantine, there is so much uncertainty about how long this will occur, that others want to be prepared. On the other hand, there is no shortage of supplies, but by panic buying, we are creating more issues. So, there are others who are denial because they have not seen it impact anyone they know. They go by the saying “I’ll believe it when I see it.”
There is truth in both the panic and denial. The synthesis of these extremes is justified fear- the fear that enables you to act most effectively, while improving your emotional and mental health.
Step by Step Guide
Label the extremes & the synthesis
Define what your denial or panic looks like for you and what the synthesis may be for you.
You can reach out to friends and family to help you if you feel that your emotions are getting in the way.
Notice the urges you have (to buy food, to hang out with friends, etc).
Before acting on an urge, use mindfulness or another self-soothing behavior until the urge starts to decrease.
Once the urge has decreased, act with intention and in alignment with the middle path.
Linehan, M. M. (1987). Dialectical behavior therapy for borderline personality disorder: Theory and method. Bulletin of the Menninger Clinic, 51(3), 261.
Pfefferbaum, B., Schonfeld, D., Flynn, B. W., Norwood, A. E., Dodgen, D., Kaul, R. E., … & Jacobs, G. A. (2012). The H1N1 crisis: a case study of the integration of mental and behavioral health in public health crises. Disaster medicine and public health preparedness, 6(1), 67-71.