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Dealing with the aftermath: innoculating against the Pandemic

Stormproofing, as previously elaborated upon, can help us withstand adversity generally in life. How does this relate more specifically in the context of the Pandemic? Firstly we need to acknowledge that we got through it. It might feel like we didn't emerge intact, but in order to adopt a resilient mindset, it's important to appraise experiences in a positive light. This is so that brain areas involved in emotional memory do not imprint negative behavioural responses that are drawn on instinctively in future adverse situations! Control boils down to choosing how to respond, even in the aftermath (especially so!). This couples with a notion that having constraints imposed can facilitate innovation, progress and draw on exploration based approaches rather than exploiting knowledge based on prior experience. It's not too late to innoculate yourself to the psychological after-effects of the Pandemic...

In my blogs I put forward ideas from Adventure Psychology to help people figure a way to thrive in uncertain times, and make sense of the crazy world. By adopting an Adventure Mindset (I'll gradually reveal how) you can approach the challenges of life with an adaptable resolve, and embrace the chaos knowing full well that it's a wild ride so you might as well enjoy it!

“The Pandemic imposed constraints. Some constraints still prevail, and may do so for a long time to come. Life is good at imposing constraints. But sometimes the boundaries that constraints produce force us to come up with new solutions – in effect to explore new ways of thinking as opposed to exploiting what we already know. If we can see situations that constrain us as opportunities to explore new options then we are exercising mental circuitry that contribute to resilient and adaptive ways of moving forward."

Innoculating against the pandemic

The pandemic has given us all an opportunity to reflect on how we live our lives. Yet being subject to constraints can provide impetus for transformation in thinking and behaviour. When freedoms are removed we learn how much we take things for granted, as well as what is extraneous to requirements: indulgences we can do without.

With restricted movement in Lockdowns 1 through...(was it 12? - I forget how many times) we came to terms with our more immediate surroundings – both in terms of geography and relationships with family, neighbours, and core ‘zoom’ friendship networks.

The first thing to note about the experience is that we got through it. To some this may be a badge of honour, a sense of having prevailed, as with the spirit of the Blitz. They can say they are robust individuals, took on the Zombie Apocalypse, and emerged unscathed. Bulletproof. Others may feel a sense of relief – thank God that’s out the way and we can get back to ‘normal’. But nerves might be frayed and it wouldn’t take much (another Lockdown) to push them over the edge. Others still may be suffering in the aftermath, the strain has proven too much and they feel drained or worse from the experience.

Can we ‘Stormproof’ ourselves irrespective of the above status we find ourselves in?

As the old adage about locking (down) the stable after the horse has bolted goes, we nevertheless shouldn’t assume all hope is lost. We still have a capacity to explore as well as exploit our situation and environment.

A first step in heading hopefully into the future resides in acknowledging what has happened in the past, and how we reacted to life events and challenges. Many a therapeutic process will attempt to trace back into earlier life the origin of current responses, be that childhood experiences, interactions with parents and peers. The process is designed to ‘return to the source’ and reveal explanations about the way we are now. With this revelatory knowledge we can attempt to divert habitual responses and create new traces towards positive and fulfilling actions into a desired future.

Any shock to the system which activates the stress-response, can cause the brain’s emotional centres to lay down negatively-valenced stock responses that will be activated in future. This increases the likelihood that an exploitation based approach is favoured over exploration. We resort to what we know and base responses and evaluations on prior experiences. Our options become limited and behaviour more instinctive. The Pandemic has been a shock to our collective system.

It took away control.

Or did it?

Control is thought to be a key facet of resilience against stress. I have talked about this in terms of executive control. In summary: negative appraisal of a situation can lead to an aversive response imprinted in brain regions such as the amygdala. When reactivated, resources are diverted away from the higher centres that otherwise plan, strategise and regulate emotion.

Control is a weighted term that feels all or nothing. To feel ‘not in control’ can induce panic, despair. The existential philosopher, Jean-Paul Sartre, talked about free will and the sense that we ALWAYS have a choice. There is no situation where we have no choices. Indeed, at the end of the day even if all apparent sources of freedom are removed, we still have choice over how we respond. We have agency over our own ability to appraise a situation.

The Pandemic imposed constraints. Some constraints still prevail, and may do so for a long time to come. Life is good at imposing constraints. But sometimes the boundaries that constraints produce force us to come up with new solutions – in effect to explore new ways of thinking as opposed to exploiting what we already know. If we can see situations that constrain us as opportunities to explore new options then we are exercising mental circuitry that contribute to resilient and adaptive ways of moving forward. The stress-response is an impetus to improve rather than inhibit.

We can ask the question: in what way are we now (as a result of the Pandemic) constrained? How is this provoking us to re-evaluate what is important, what we are capable of, what we can do next to break the cycle of previous ‘unconstrained’ living?

No matter how much we appear to be the culmination of past experiences, habits and experiences, to repeat: we still have agency over how we respond now. This is true over how we choose to evaluate our situation and the options we have moving forward. The oldest myths and stories are redemptive: the transformational journey of the hero who overcomes past sins and chooses a path to fulfilment absolved of historical wrongdoings.

We can look back at the last two years and look at what we did to get through it. Some things we did out of necessity and we wouldn’t want to relive those experiences. I talked earlier about exposing myself to the elements on occasion. It doesn’t mean I want to do these things again (voluntarily), but the fact I have experienced adversity means I am better equipped to do so should I involuntarily encounter similar circumstances. Likewise, my decision to take certain future opportunities will be less daunted knowing that I WILL encounter in high likelihood aspects that I would rather not. Rough with the smooth.

An important step in evaluating what we have recently been through is to appraise it in positive terms. This means generating positive feelings about it so that the amygdala doesn’t imprint a negative aversive valence that will spring to mind next time. Note we are talking about situations that contribute to growth, as opposed to severely traumatic situations one has unwittingly been exposed to – I am not advocating that terrible experiences one was victim to be appraised as things you enjoyed. But the principle still stands that you got through it, it wasn't pleasant, but you have a semblance of control over how you feel in yourself, as impetus to process this and move on into the future. Yesterday/last month/last year was formative rather than painful. (I do this when going through a gruelling exercise session – instead of collapsing at the end feeling traumatised, I instead grin, and tell myself “that was brilliant!”. Tomorrow I come back to do it again, but without the crushing weight of dread that reminds me it was a real struggle to get through yesterday – which is likely to be called to mind if I finished it collapsing and weeping at the turmoil experienced. Instead, I recall that it was ‘enjoyable’, because I affirmed this to myself at the end, right?) Lockdown was awful, yes? NO! Lockdown was GREAT!! (Not that I am clamouring to go through it again, but at least it's not haunting me in the recesses of my psyche.)

How we remember an experience is more often based on the end point when we sum it up as a whole and evaluate it rather than the collection of moments encountered throughout. (Daniel Kahneman refers to this as the remembering self versus the experiencing self.)

Reiterating the notion of exploration, Lockdown provided opportunity to notice more about one’s surroundings – physical and social. It can be useful to draw on the constraints imposed to pay more attention to detail. It’s too easy being housebound to become imprisoned and descend into madness as the walls close in. But we found that we could collectively re-organise the domecile to segregate/facilitate work and home lives. I repurposed areas of my home to instantiate new exercise regimes and provide stimulus cues to regiment and motivate fitness (without Joe Wicks invading my living room thankfully). Our environment cues us to respond habitually – walking through the door of the lounge, the sofa beckons collapsing in front of the telly. A designated exercise zone 2m square instead cued me on stepping into it to perform sit ups, press ups. The area provoked motivation, raising enthusiasm to get fitter.

Exploration is of value when engaging with each other, by zoom or in person. Listening more to what someone has to say – even if we are overly familiar with that other and therefore likely to switch of or ignore or dismiss what they have to say. Paying attention to the meaning behind what someone is saying, why it is being said, involves finding others to be interesting (even revelatory) agents in their own right (we can forget this).

Attention is at the heart of this – attention to not just others, and the surrounding environment, but also to ourselves. Our attention fluctuates naturally – unless we constrain it somewhat. We become lost in our own heads, inflate the meaning of our thoughts and consider less the cues and opportunities that are to be found beyond. Yet we have a capacity, if accessed, to step back and note thoughts occurring, dissociating mindfully from being caught up in the stream of consciousness.

Here are some take homes from the notion of ‘Stormproofing’ one’s mindset against adversity, as relates to the effect of the Pandemic:

  • Be mindful that you got through it – this is key to recognise (and reinforce in mind) as it means future circumstances will draw on the experience of having prevailed

  • Take an opportunity to look at what worked, how you adopted adaptive and creative strategies, acknowledging that you were capable (and can use this in future)

  • Realise that even when it appears you have little control in life, you can choose how you respond, so there is always some control – there is some solace in that, however small the action you take

  • We can re-appraise a situation in terms of constraint rather than ‘control’ - recognising that boundaries imposed can in effect help us focus on what is important/prioritised. This can also provide impetus for change (some of history’s most revolutionary ideas and thinkers were born out of intense repression – inhibiting thought and expression can make it more creative and powerful)

  • We have a capacity to decide how to respond NOW, interrupting instinctive and habitual tendencies to exploit what we already know, instead seeking to explore new ways of looking at the world – it's never too late to redeem yourself, no matter what has led you to this point in time

  • The mechanism of attention allows us to focus it on details outside of ourselves, enrichening our view of the world – we just have to look more – as well as within ourselves (we can look back at the sources of our current motivations and responses as well as being more mindful of our current thoughts and reactions)

None of this is a panacea or an instant magic pill towards self-help. It's all part of a journey of exploration (and exploitation). We can all become more stormproof.

Perhaps you already have, you just haven’t realised it yet.

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