As we experience level 5 Covid-19 restrictions personal, family, community, national and global wellbeing are very much to the fore. As a species we appear to be under attack from what could be called a known unknown. From an emotional perspective the current set of circumstances can be unsettling in the sense that uncertainty is clearly afoot and as a species we do not like uncertainty. Our egos are built upon the illusion of certainty and when dramatic unpredictable events happen that we feel powerless over our egos tend to react by going into anxiety mode.
Furthermore as the news-feed keeps changing so too do our emotions and our thoughts. This of course is not necessarily negative as change in life is unavoidable. What can however be negative is how you manage the emotional fluctuations associated with this change. Whereas life as we know it right now is testing our personal and collective mental health it is also providing us with an opportunity to identify and perhaps modify how we respond to psychological and emotional fluctuations, particularly those associated with COVID-19. In this article we will examine some of these responses from a Cognitive Behavioural Perspective.
A Cognitive bias is – for all intents and purposes – a faulty way of thinking where we draw conclusions based on predispositions that we possess as opposed to evidence. There are many cognitive biases in existence with one of them being the Confirmation bias. This is a tendency to interpret new evidence as confirmation of one’s existing beliefs or theories. In an era of non-stop media reporting on COVID-19 where much of the reporting is anxiety provoking this type of reporting – and indeed peer to peer conversations of a similar nature – can perpetuate, strengthen and deepen our initial sense of anxiety to such an extent that it could become unnecessarily problematic.
Developing insight and awareness is one of a number of ways of overcoming cognitive biases and thankfully there is much practical information out there for members of the public about how to counteract the anxiety and uncertainty that may be associated with COVID-19. The information contains very good advice, much of it practical and behavioural in nature such as reducing media intake, using our support networks, living healthily and so on. The jewel in the crown however without regard to reducing excessive COVID-19 related anxiety and uncertainty may not be behavioural. Or at least not only behavioural. It may be the way we think, know, remember, judge and problem solve. In short, our cognition.
The American psychologist Albert Ellis (1913 – 2007) (above) founded a pioneering type of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy called Rational Emotive Behaviour Therapy on the basis that in his opinion irrational beliefs cause and sustain many emotional disturbances.
Ellis’ definition of an irrational belief is that:
- It distorts reality
- It is not logical
- It prevents you from reaching your goals
- It leads to unhealthy emotions
- It leads to self-defeating behaviour
Based loosely on Ellis’ work the following are some destructive irrational beliefs that may be associated with COVID-19, accompanied by some productive and more rational alternatives.
The idea that I should be thoroughly competent, adequate, and achieving in all possible respects with regard to COVID-19 if I am to consider myself worthwhile.
I don’t need to be successful in all possible respects in any area of life to be worthwhile and even though I would like to do as well as possible as often as possible I am not perfect and like everybody else I get things wrong on occasion.
The idea that because COVID-19 exists it is awful and catastrophic that things are not the way I would like them to be.
When things are not to my liking, and I cannot change them, I can tell myself, “I wish things were different but they aren’t so I just have to put up with them for now.”
The idea that the world should be fair and just and if it is not, it is awful and I can’t stand it.
I would really like it if the world was fair but unfortunately sometimes it doesn’t seem to be. If I can accept this reality it will make my life a lot easier.
The idea that if COVID-19 is or may be dangerous or fearsome I should be terribly concerned about it and should keep dwelling on it.
Like everyone else on the planet all I can do is to try my best to rise to the challenge so worrying about it and dwelling on it may not be the best use of my time and energy.
The idea that I should become upset over other people’s problems and disturbances with regard to COVID-19.
There is no reason why I should or must become upset over someone else’s problems. It is not a sin to become upset over someone else’s problems and if it happens it happens. However, depending on the circumstances empathy, compassion, kindness or support may be more appropriate. Either way I do not have to become upset.
The idea that human unhappiness is externally caused and that people have little or no ability to control their sorrows and disturbances.
I can choose my attitude in any set of circumstances.
The idea that there is invariably a right, precise, and perfect solution to COVID-19 and that it is catastrophic if this perfect solution is not found.
Even if a problem has a perfect solution—which it probably doesn’t—there is no reason why that one perfect solution must be found. Most problems have several solutions and in this instance it might be advisable to avoid thinking that is black and white or perfectionist in nature.
The Stoic philosopher Epictetus (c. 55 AD – 135 AD) (above) said “Circumstances don’t make a man; they only reveal him to himself.” This mindset is evident in devotee Marcus Aurelius’ (121 AD-180 AD) colourful advice that only a madman wants a fig during winter. The provenance of the advice reflects his opinion that we frustrate ourselves unnecessarily by disagreeing with nature and resisting it, rather than simply accepting it as something outside of our control.
Whereas personal adherence to all up to date COVID-19 medical guidance is within our control and a matter of personal choice, so too is the way that we think about this phenomenon. Other aspects of the phenomenon, however, are not within our control. At least not yet. So as we try not to be too hard on ourselves in these uncertain times and as we move from the known unknown to the known known Marcus Aurelius’ age old advice may be as pertinent right now as it ever was. And not just with regard to the male of the species!
Cogbeh provides a range of Cognitive Behavioural services in person and online (www.cogbeh.com).