Anxiety can be the gateway to creativity
Dr Armin H Danesh
21 April 2020
Our current unprecedented situation has changed our daily lives dramatically. Everyone in the world faces an existential crisis. More than 170,000 people around the world have died, and millions are infected. Health workers worldwide are risking their lives in their amazing work to help the growing numbers of people suffering from the Coronavirus. The feelings of anxiety, fear, vulnerability, uncertainty and grief that we all share are surely even more widespread than the virus itself.
Anxiety triggered by the Coronavirus epidemic can take many forms. Some people are just generally worried about catching the virus and its possible impact on their family life, their country’s economy and the world situation. Others experience full-blown panic attacks; they feel overwhelmed by a sudden sense of impending doom that now has a name: Coronavirus. And, perhaps most commonly, large numbers of people have developed a constant sense of unease, a brooding sense of hopelessness or – at worst – feelings of helplessness and defeatism. If we can’t control this virus, then what else can’t we control? Is our whole way of life changing forever? Will anything ever be the same again?
All these responses are understandable. As psychotherapists, we are accustomed to treating all kinds of anxiety: panic disorders, phobias, social anxiety, generalised anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder and many other conditions. Anxiety presents itself in many different forms. It can involve anxious thoughts (obsessions, worries, ruminations), emotional problems (tension, depressed mood) and physical symptoms (tachycardia, excessive perspiration, hand tremors, sleep deprivation). Each individual tends towards her/his own combination of these symptoms, which can change over time.
Our task today is to discover how to keep our anxiety proportionate to the actual risk we face, how to practice living with our own share of worry, and how to navigate the uncertainty that coronavirus has brought to our broader lives.
This paper will offer psychological advice for the management of anxiety and panic related to Coronavirus. It aims to help readers recognise the actual risks posed by Coronavirus, and to set that risk in context and in proportion.
The world is inundated with information, advice, speculation, rumours and falsehoods about Coronavirus. Some of the information is useful and reliable, such as the facts and advice provided by the WHO (www.who.int) and the UK’s National Health Service (NHS) (www.nhs.uk). Reputable medical journals such as The Lancet (www.thelancet.com) and BMJ (www.bmj.com) have made extensive information and breaking research freely available to health professionals and the public. Knowledge is a solid basis for psychological wellbeing. There are many reliable resources available.
The mortality rate with Coronavirus is less than 3 percent of those diagnosed and possibly less than 1 per cent (since not everyone who is infected is diagnosed). In other words, over 97 percent of people diagnosed with Coronavirus will survive it, while some 80 percent will suffer a mild illness (probably not requiring hospital treatment).
Social media can do much good by providing prompt information and facilitating support networks. However, much of this good information is buried under masses of misleading, unreliable and false information, especially in the social media. So while it is very important to stay informed about coronavirus, it is equally important to verify sources of information carefully and to prioritise reliable sources.
False information can have negative effects; some of us might believe the falsehoods and spread them. One solution to this problem is to limit our media intake to certain times of the day and to trusted sources. Another is immediately to ‘fact-check’ all the information we receive and to develop our emotional awareness of how media consumption affects our moods.
Thinking shapes feeling, and vice-versa. The Coronavirus outbreak has triggered strong emotions in many people. It is important for us to recognise these feelings as they arise. It is also important to recognise that Coronavirus has put many people in unfamiliar situations which give rise to unfamiliar emotions. There is fear of the unknown.
We can try to identify specific habits of thought that distort our view of reality and contribute to unnecessary anxiety. Monitoring our thoughts for these errors and being more aware of them can help stem the panic, which is fed by misinformation.
One of these errors is ‘catastrophisation’: an irrational tendency to believe, and behave, as though a problem is far worse than it really is. Another cognitive error likely to prove especially unhelpful in our present context is ‘negative automatic thoughts’. These are negative ideas that we relate to ourselves in disproportionate and irrational ways. They often involve over-generalisation. For instance, someone might think, ‘Things at work went badly today so I must be bad at my job.’ Or: ‘I forgot to wash my hands properly – how thoughtless!’ Or: ‘People are finding it hard to control Coronavirus, so if I catch it I will definitely pass it on to everyone I know.’
Faced with an event like the current pandemic, we must remain compassionate towards ourselves (we are doing our best) and others (so are they). It is especially important that we continue to see ourselves as part of a larger whole, as one element in our common humanity. This can be difficult, so it is useful to make a conscious effort to think about other people, especially in poor and developing countries, as the Coronavirus epidemic continues around the world.
All human beings are deeply interconnected, almost to the extent that the entire human race could be usefully considered a single living organism. The spread of Coronavirus and the fear associated with it demonstrate how true this is. Here is a powerful argument in favour of compassion towards all sentient beings, including ourselves. The suffering of others is continuous with ours, as is their happiness.
Since we exist in relationship with others, we can practice listening, and we can also tell others how we feel. Sharing a burden or caring for a loved one can reduce anxiety. We can draw inspiration from the Sufi and Buddhist teachings of ‘no separate self’. Everything we experience in life – including our ‘self’ – arises, settles, changes and vanishes, and is dependent on causes and conditions.
We can meditate on being present with an uncomfortable emotion or distress, without trying to understand it fully or “fix it”. Find a quiet place where you are not distracted, centre your body and focus on your breath: firstly the in-breaths to a count of ten, and then the out-breaths to a count of ten. You could also count the intervals between the breaths, or those between in-breath and out-breath. With this calming practice the body’s increased oxytocin level sends a signal to reduce cortisol, the stress hormone.
During lockdown, more than ever, take the unique and unprecedented opportunity to create small moments of happiness with your solitude or with your family. When you pause to appreciate the moment or to smile, it helps to boost serotonin, the hormone of pleasurable connection with yourself and others. This brings tranquillity and strengthens your immune system by improving your state of mind. The creation of wellbeing in our life helps to dissolve the negative effects of anxiety. We can co-create the tone of our life, whatever our circumstances.
It is also important for us consciously to list the activities that we enjoy and that make us happy, optimise them and try to find more space for them in our lives. One of the best ways to maintain mental health is to find an absorbing activity that clears all your worries from your mind for a time.
As embodied creatures, our minds are inseparable from our bodies, so there is no real distinction between physical and mental health. For many people, running provides this kind of complete absorption in the present. This can also happen with other physical activities or with such pursuits as jigsaw puzzles, card games, reading, music, artwork, cooking, playing with children or spending time with a pet. Yoga or meditation can meet some people’s needs. Whatever you choose, it makes you better able to face any challenges that lie ahead. It is also deeply satisfying to discover our own capabilities, which enhance our sense of being. We can try being not doing – living in the world, rather than reducing our lives to a list of tasks.
As the Phoenix rises from the ashes, so we rise through our difficulties, whatever they may be at the time. The challenges open as we move along the path and become fully alive. To suffer, to be aware and to care is the human condition. Suffering creates the possibility for evolutionary change. When we commit ourselves to human values, pain is inevitable, because we care about others.
The Phoenix is a symbol for transformation and renewal of life, whatever the circumstances. In darkness we can be a voice for the Light, for transformation and for hope. The darkness points to birth. The Phoenix is the light we kindle in the darkness within ourselves, the wish to move forward and to understand. The Phoenix burns and purifies the individual and society at all levels in the direction of rebirth.
Phoenix “theory” is direct action. It means doing something for others or engaging in original creative work whose essence can reach others. Creativity means connection. Creativity mirrors in the individual the connectivity of humankind, through nature and the world. Many people, known and unknown, have risen from the ashes of Coronavirus anxiety; they have seized this opportunity to create possibilities, to develop qualities of life and relationship, and to help their fellow human beings. I will end by paying tribute to the 99-year-old war veteran, Captain Tom Moore, who has now raised £27 million for the NHS by walking round his garden. He has entered the hearts of millions and led a veritable army of people supporting the NHS, fighting the world enemy – Coronavirus – and saving lives. He has become a great inspiration to the whole nation. He deserves a place in our national history.
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