I sometimes think that if we wanna know how healthy we are as a society in the age of Covid-19, we only need to log into Facebook and scroll down our feed. Like a thermometer to the temperature of our collective state of mind, it tells us exactly where we stand. And scrolling down lately, I get the feeling we’ve let the virus take over a little more than we thought it’s capable of. Could it be that whilst we work our hardest to suppress the virus in the physical world, we are unintentionally damaging our immune defence in the virtual world?
Watching an interview with Dr Judson Brewer, an American psychiatrist, neuroscientist and author, I came by the reason that apparently caused people worldwide to panic hoard toilet paper. According to Dr Judson, it all started with a meme. Which is how panic often starts. All you need is a rumour. The only difference with this meme to all others is that it appeared on social media right on time and in parallel with the fast-growing uncertainty and fear over Covid-19, and kicked off the most irrational panic buying episode in modern history.
Our minds are so very easily manipulated. And social media, as we all know, is designed by the best teams of psychologists in the world, to compete for and grab hold of our attention. And as we grow deeply addicted to the disruption it provides… And with panic being so quick and cheap to manufacture… well, you don’t need to be a rocket scientist to add up the numbers and to observe the impact. I read somewhere that the R-naught of Covid-19 is ca 2.5. That means that on average every carrier passes the virus onwards to 2.5 new carriers. The R-naught of a meme however that anyone can produce in minutes, or just share without much thought, is easily hundreds of times if not thousands of times that. Not to mention it travels around the globe at the speed of light. And what’s worse, it can too easily create phenomena more dangerous to our mental and physical health than the virus itself.
Toilet paper and cartons of milk aside. Our history is filled with horror stories of murder, lynch mobs, even genocide carried, all based on a lie amplified by humans at times of fear and uncertainty, anger and frustration, and once the rumour or meme is out there, it can get impossible to suppress again. Fear can be far more dangerous than we often realise. And every interaction on social media counts right now.
What is fear and how it works? Fight or flight is an ancient instinct, built-in our operating system, to protect us from danger. Protecting us from approaching predators in pre-historic times, when we used to live in caves. But oftentimes, in this virtual reality world we live in today, this ancient instinct, when manifesting, can achieve the opposite impact, and hurt us and others instead of protecting us. Fear can exaggerate the danger in our minds making a mountain out of every tiny mouse. It can paralyse us when we most need to keep calm and carry on. And when this ancient instinct takes over, when the level of fear and anxiety is very high due to Covid-19 and the taken measures, when the future seems unclear, we don’t need more than a gentle push for it can quickly snowball into an avalanche of mass panic. And when it does so, and it always happens unexpectedly and lightning fast, we are in danger of acting like sheep that can’t help but keep following each other over the cliff.
Dr Judson that I mentioned earlier, suggests that we can protect ourselves from panic-ridden behaviour. This is where kindness comes to play. And that as an act of kindness towards one another, we should now start practising social distancing on social media. I thought he had a great point there!
We already perform a physical form of social distancing of course. We do that so we won’t mistakenly pass on a potentially deadly virus to an older person or a person at risk. We follow the rules because we care. So that we can protect ourselves and our families and friends, our neighbours, our communities. Staying inside so as to help protect the NHS from being overwhelmed. And it’s exactly this type of kindness that is more important now than ever on social media too. Restraining ourselves on Facebook and Twitter. And even staying out entirely if needs be. Especially when we feel negative, anxious, worried, depressed, afraid or angry… It’s these feelings the psychiatrists point out, that not only significantly increase when we engage on social media, they also make our thinking blurred and impair our judgment. It’s then that we impulsively spread sensational negative headlines, unknowingly share misinformation and fake news, irresponsible memes, negativity and misery, or even sometimes end up fighting someone on Twitter.
And so before we pass this viral load on with a flick of a button, impulsively, like a carrier sneezing unintentionally in the morning rush hour tube, spreading the virus to the rest of the wagon, just before logging in to Facebook or Twitter, we should ask ourselves how we feel… Are we anxious? Do we feel stressed right now? Are we afraid of what the future might hold for us? And if we feel in such ways, then out of kindness to others, to protect them, to shield them, we should stay away from our friends and communities online… Log out, virtually self isolate for a few hours, breath, until we feel better again. And then when we do login and post and share, why don’t we put more kindness out there? Kindness as an antidote to fear, is apparently just as contagious and spreads just as fast, but with a huge positive impact!
I’ve listed below some of the stuff that I do to leverage this incredible opportunity and also to cope with fear and uncertainty. And it sure does keep me out of trouble too. Away from the toxic news sites. Far from social media harm. But I’d love to hear your tips too – I’m sure you have incredible ideas that I can learn from and apply – so please share in the comments below!!!
1. Meditation. In case you have never tried, let me tell you it’s easier than you think. I find it an incredibly powerful tool to ground myself, to become mindful to the impact of the ongoing situation on my mind. And then to relax… To let go. And to gather myself back together before I hit the virtual road again. There’s great guided meditation sessions with lots of great teachers online, all free of charge, some of them streaming live on YouTube or you can choose to access them from podcasts on Spotify. I find Ajahn Brahm’s methodology, which he often refers to as “Kindfulness”) as in the combo of mindfulness and kindness) based meditation technique and which he teaches by live streaming on YouTube, being super easy to learn and to practice. Tara Brach is another great guide. And there are plenty of others. Enjoy!
2. Keep a schedule. I spend about 20min every evening just before going to bed writing down my schedule and goals for the next day. I keep it all very flexible and dynamic of course. Been doing this for years. But I find it helps me to feel even more in control now and to accomplish and maximise the benefits of this unique opportunity to stay inside.
3. Exercise. I personally focus on a combo regime made of three components. I practice Vinyasa and Ashtanga yoga for mobility, balance, flexibility, strength, awareness and meditation in movement. I jog regularly in the park near by my house for cardio and endurance. I have to say I find jogging as well being a great meditation in movement technique. And for resistance and strength I lift weights, predominantly focusing on using the powerful combo of bench and dumbbells. It’s all I need. But I bet it makes little difference what form of exercise you practice. The benefits are well known and researched. No point repeating them here. So dance. Jump around. Find your own kind of movement and just do it. I can’t put into words how important and helpful it is for me to exercise. Especially now. Tons of amazing teachers online these days. Many accessible via zoom and are affordably priced. Lots of incredible free of charge material on Youtube too.
4. Study. It doesn’t have to be an expensive and complex diploma. There are thousands of free of charge courses run by numerous universities from all over the world. I’m currently taking a free of charge 6 week course on investment management and finance on Open University. But you could study whatever interests you. History. Arts. Nutrition. Even how to brew beer professionally. For free and in your own time !!!
5. Restrict the news. Twice a day is enough for me these days. Once in the morning. Once in the evening. I’m considering dropping to just once a day to be honest. I always try to make sure I only use reputable sources. I don’t hang around too long either. I scan through and move on. I started practicing this some days ago and I can hardly believe how come I never consciously restricted myself previously and just allowed all the sensationalism and clickbait through to mess with my mind. It’s a Stephen King horror movie out there every day. For your own safety, stay away as much as you can.
6. Write your thoughts and feelings down. The last few years I found that writing works magic on me. Writing down my thoughts helps me to deal with stress. Suddenly my thoughts that just moments ago raced through my brain causing me all sort of pain are all written down, structured, black on white, right there in front of me, many don’t look as bad as they felt when they were just in my head, some even look funny or just utterly ridiculous. Why was I ever worried about those? Suddenly things can start making sense. Aha moments follow. Writing has this wonderful calming impact on me. I learn about myself when I write. It helps me focus. Careful though, it’s addictive. You might even end up starting a blog!
7. Volunteer, I started recently with the NHS. I’ll let you know how it goes. I guess the idea here is to step outside of yourself and your own mind and to reach out to help someone else. Someone who perhaps needs your help and has it harder than you to cope right now. Some say helping others is the most powerful way to help yourself…
8. Optimise your health. And at least don’t worsen your immune system. I take my multi vitamins religiously. We don’t get vitamin D in English winters. I also eat healthier than ever before. I’ve hugely moderated my alcohol consumption and at most I have a glass of wine or two per week. What better time to improve myself than right now? I found that having a diet of organic plant based produce and keeping away from processed foods, and limiting alcohol to special occasions only, is almost all that I need to do to keep my weight and cholesterol in check – the rest like magic just falls into the right place. I calorie count against daily goals, using this free of charge NHS app. I find it easy to use and the only efficient system that works for me. Perhaps because it’s so simple. Losing weight is slower of course when you can’t get out as much. And being inside a lot the temptation to eat Ben and Jerry’s ice cream has been noticed to grow exponentially! But counting the calories works there too and progress is visible. And feels great !!!
9. Plan for the day after Covid-19. The world is not about to end. This is all very natural. Pandemics. Recessions. Depressions. We’ve been here before. Breath in. And breath out. Remember that this too shall pass… In parts of China, Taiwan, life is already returning to a new normal… and soon enough, it will return to normal here too. And what will you do then? Plan your next holiday. Plan your career break. Plan a new project. It will be a new day. A new dawn. A new life. And it will feel good. Smile. I’ve already planned my next chapter. Have you?