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How to stay sane in a mad world

How do we stay sane, when the world as we know it appears to have gone mad? Although a lot of thought is going into the health and economic challenges the world is currently facing, there is little acknowledgement or support for the rising levels of overwhelming stress, confusion, sadness, grief and panic most people are experiencing. We are being told to ‘calm down,’ but this warning is easier said than done. How on earth do we do this? In an attempt to answer this question, I am going to share some easy and effective strategies by the author of The Happiness Trap, Russ Harris. But before I do so, I would first like to offer my own brief introduction about how our minds work.

Our minds are ‘solution making machines’, just like a computer. Whether we are aware of it or not our minds spend all day, every day, utilising all the information that was previously imputed to find solutions. This information includes all the experiences we have had and all the knowledge we have gathered, as well as all the physical bodily functions we were born with combined with the unique genetic information that is coded into our DNA. 

Most of the time we aren’t aware that our inner solution making machine is working, such as when we are breathing or when we coordinate our muscles to smile or go for a walk. At other times we are somewhat aware of the solution making machine sending us information, such as when we’re hungry, to which we might respond by deciding what we are going to eat. Then there are the more obvious moments when we are actively trying to nut out a solution, at which time we may be highly aware of how our minds are working. We can often ‘hear’ this information presented by the narrative or images we are telling ourselves. We listen to our thoughts as we try to decide what action to take. 

However, unlike a computer, our minds are more than the sum of our parts. We are relational thinkers. When we think of something, we imagine it, and as we imagine outcomes we are able to consider possibilities. This is how we sometimes come up with completely new information. This means, unlike the rest of the animal kingdom, humans can take leaps in understanding, without previously having an experience that informs us.  For example, you know fire is hot. So, even if you have never been burnt by a fire you can imagine what it might feel like to be burnt. So, you keep your hand out of the fire. This capacity to imagine and learn from our imaginative experiences is unique to humans. In fact, it’s probably why we sit at the top of the food chain. Humans have survived and thrived because of the solution making machines inside our heads, that imagines.

This computer-like machine we all have is intrinsic to our survival. If we imagine that we might starve, even if we have never gone hungry before, we also correspondingly imagine how this would feel. Even though this is not happening, on some level, as we imagine it we feel it. It feels empty and uncomfortable. It feels scary. And in response to that discomfort, we attempt to protect ourselves. It’s a basic human instinct. Deep-rooted, survival-driven instinct that is actually quite hard to overcome. So, when the government leaders forcefully say: ‘don’t’ hoard – just stop it!’ and make you feel wrong for doing so, they are also ordering you to overcome the signals your solution making machine is telling you as it attempts to keep you alive. With this knowledge, you can see how overcoming survival instincts is much easier said than done. I’m not saying, keep hoarding. I am just saying hoarding is a normal reaction that you shouldn’t be ashamed of.

What’s more, the messages that our solution making machine give us, that urge us to act, can be physically strong and psychologically loud. They hurt. They can include heightened heart rate, quickened breathing and aroused senses, as well as a desire to hide, run… or cause paralysis from taking any action at all. Do you recognise any or all of these symptoms? What I have just described is a normal stress reaction to a threat. And if you keep thinking about a future threat over and over again, and try to work out how to solve the way the threat will impact you, your friends, family and community, it is perfectly normal for you to become highly anxious. In this way, we can think of anxiety as our friend. It’s a message, sent from the solution making machine, urging us to act. 

Think of anxiety as a natural side of thinking about the future and trying to work out what to do next.

Anxiety occurs when, faced with a challenge, our solution making machine begins to work through all the possible scenarios to resolve the threat. And the more we consider the threat and imagine the different outcomes the more we feel discomfort. Remember I mentioned that we learn through imagining what something would feel like… and what we are all imagining, on some level at the moment is nothing short horrific. In its most catastrophic level imaginable our problem-solving machine may be creating images that are associated with the survival of ourselves, our loved ones and humanity. It big and it hurts. It really hurts. Given that, being told to ‘keep calm and carry on’ is hard. 

To make matters worse, this is nothing like anything any of us have experienced before, which makes imagining a solution literally impossible. And when we can’t find a solution, we feel out of control. We are faced with is a novel situation. ‘Novel’ is an Old English word that describes something that is so new and original that it has never been seen. This means that when our inner solution making machine attempts to understand and predict the future it’s unable to do so. Daily life as we know it is rapidly changing and the feeling associated with finding a solution in an unknowable landscape, feels awful. 

This is a world gone mad. Trying to cope when very little feels safe. And as everything turns to shit this is manifesting as hoarding. And that is why this cataclysmic, life-as-we know-it–threatening event is heavily branded by memes about the disappearance of toilet paper. Pardon the pun, but without toilet paper, how are we going to clean up all this shit? 

In essence, it’s important to understand that your stress and your desire to hoard, is perfectly normal. It’s a perfectly normal response driven by your solution making machine that is trying to give you strong messages relating to your survival. It’s OK to feel this way. Most of us feel this way.

But, on a bigger scale, we know that we need to be careful with the messages our minds are sending us. We need to develop some level of awareness beyond the fear, to help us to cope with the pain this is causing us.

What follows below is a guide for dealing with these heightened emotions by author Dr Russ Harris, who is a leading expert in managing mental health challenges via Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT). Essentially, ACT offers simple mindfulness-based, values-driven practises that help us understand and develop a better relationship with our inner solution making machine. Russ, who has a special knack for making difficult concepts seem both understandable and memorable, has cleverly dubbed these strategies for managing the impact of coronavirus – ‘FACE COVID.’

Here’s a quick summary of the key steps, and in the information that follows Russ explores each of these strategies in more depth: 

F = Focus on what’s in your control
A = Acknowledge your thoughts & feelings
C = Come back into your body
E = Engage in what you’re doing 

C = Committed action
O = Opening up
V = Value
I = Identify resources
D = Disinfect & distance 

Let’s now explore these, one by one 

F = Focus on what’s in your control 

The Corona crisis can affect us in many different ways: physically, emotionally, economically, socially, and psychologically. All of us are (or soon will be) dealing with the very real challenges of widespread serious illness and the inabilities of healthcare systems to cope with it, social and community disruption, economic fallout and financial problems, obstacles and interruptions to many aspects of life … and the list goes on. 

And when we are facing a crisis of any sort, fear and anxiety are inevitable; they are normal, natural responses to challenging situations infused with danger and uncertainty. It’s all too easy to get lost in worrying and ruminating about all sorts of things that are out of your control: what might happen in the future; how the virus might affect you or your loved ones or your community or your country or the world – and what will happen then – and so on. And while it’s completely natural for us to get lost in such worries, it’s not useful or helpful. Indeed the more we focus on what’s not in our control, the more hopeless or anxious we’re likely to feel. 

So the single most useful thing anyone can do in any type of crisis – Corona-related or otherwise – is to: focus on what’s in your control. 

You can’t control what happens in the future. You can’t control Coronavirus itself or the world economy or how your government manages this whole sordid mess. And you can’t magically control your feelings, eliminating all that perfectly natural fear and anxiety. But you can control what you do – here and now. And that matters. 

Because what you do – here and now – can make a huge difference to yourself, and anyone living with you, and a significant difference to the community around you. 

The reality is, we all have far more control over our behaviour than we do over our thoughts and feelings. So our number one aim is to take control of our behaviour – right here and now – to respond effectively to this crisis. 

This involves both dealing with our inner world – all our difficult thoughts and feelings – and our outer world – all the real problems we are facing. How do we do this? Well, when a big storm blows up, the boats in the harbour drop anchor – because if they don’t, they’ll get swept out to sea. And of course, dropping anchor doesn’t make the storm go away (anchors can’t control the weather) – but it can hold a boat steady in the harbour, until the storm passes in its own good time. 

Similarly, in an ongoing crisis, we’re all going to experience ‘emotional storms’: unhelpful thoughts spinning inside our head, and painful feelings whirling around our body. And if we’re swept away by that storm inside us, there’s nothing effective we can do. So the first practical step is to ‘drop anchor’, using the simple ACE formula: 

A = Acknowledge your thoughts and feelings  C = Come back into your body E = Engage in what you’re doing 

Let’s explore these one by one: 

A = Acknowledge your thoughts and feelings 

Silently and kindly acknowledge whatever is ‘showing up’ inside you: thoughts, feelings, emotions, memories, sensation, urges. Take the stance of a curious scientist, observing what’s going on in your inner world. 

And while continuing to acknowledge your thoughts and feelings, also …. 

C = Come back into your body 

Come back into and connect with your physical body. Find your own way of doing this. You could try some or all of the following, or find your own methods: 

• Slowly push your feet hard into the floor. 

• Slowly straightening up your back and spine; if sitting, sitting upright and forward in your chair. 

• Slowly pressing your fingertips together

• Slowly stretch your arms or neck, shrugging your shoulders. 

• Slowly breathing 

Note: you are not trying to turn away from, escape, avoid or distract yourself from what is happening in your inner world. The aim is to remain aware of your thoughts and feelings, continue to acknowledge their presence …. and at the same time, come back into and connect with your body, and actively move it. Why? So you can gain as much control as possible over your physical actions, even though you can’t control your feelings. (Remember, F = Focus on what’s in your control) 

And as you acknowledge your thoughts & feelings, and come back into your body, also …. 

E = Engage in what you’re doing 

Get a sense of where you are and refocus your attention on the activity you are doing. 

Find your own way of doing this. You could try some or all of the following suggestions, or find your own methods: 

• Look around the room and notice 5 things you can see. 

• Notice 3 or 4 things you can hear. 

• Notice what you can smell or taste or sense in your nose and mouth 

• Notice what you are doing 

• End the exercise by giving your full attention to the task or activity at hand. No matter how big or small that activity is, acknowledge that you are now doing it.

Ideally, run through the ACE cycle slowly 3 or 4 times, to turn it into a 2- 3 minute exercise. 

Dropping anchor is a very useful skill. You can use it for handling difficult thoughts, feelings, emotions, memories, urges and sensations more effectively; switching off auto-pilot and engaging in life; grounding and steadying yourself in difficult situations; disrupting rumination, obsessing and worrying; and focusing your attention on the task or activity you are doing. The better you anchor yourself in the here and now, the more control you have over your actions – which makes it a lot easier to do the next steps: COVID

C = Committed Action 

Committed action means effective action, guided by your core values; action you take because it’s truly important to you; action you take even if it brings up difficult thoughts and feelings. Once you have dropped anchor, using the ACE formula, you will have a lot of control over your actions – so this makes it easier to do the things that truly matter.
Now obviously that includes all those protective measures against Corona – frequent handwashing, social distancing, and so on. But in addition to those fundamentals of effective action, consider:
What are simple ways to look after yourself, those you live with, and those you can realistically help? What kind, caring, supportive deeds you can do?
Can you say some kind words to someone in distress – in person or via a phone call or text message?
Can you help someone out with a task or a chore, or cook a meal, or hold someone’s hand, or play a game with a young child?
Can you comfort and soothe someone who is sick? Or in the most serious of cases, nurse them and access whatever medical assistance is available? 

And if you’re spending a lot more time at home, through self-isolation or forced quarantine, or social distancing, what are the most effective ways to spend that time?
You may want to consider physical exercise to stay fit, cooking (as) healthy food (as possible, given restrictions), and doing meaningful activities by yourself or with others. 

And if you’re familiar with acceptance and commitment therapy or other mindfulness-based approaches, how can you actively practice some of those mindfulness skills? 

Repeatedly throughout the day, ask yourself ‘What can I do right now – no matter how small it may be – that improves life for myself or others I live with, or people in my community?’ And whatever the answer is – do it and engage in it fully. 

O = Opening up 

Opening up means making room for difficult feelings and being kind to yourself. Difficult feelings are guaranteed to keep on showing up as this crisis unfolds: fear, anxiety, anger, sadness, guilt, loneliness, frustration, confusion, and many more.
We can’t stop them from arising; they’re normal reactions. But we can open up and make room for them: acknowledge they are normal, allow them to be there (even though they hurt), and treat ourselves kindly. 

Remember, self-kindness is essential if you want to cope well with this crisis – especially if you are in a caregiver role. If you’ve ever flown on a plane, you’ve heard this message: ‘In event of an emergency, put on your own oxygen mask before assisting others.’ Well, self- kindness is your own oxygen mask; if you need to look after others, you’ll do it a whole lot better if you’re also taking good care of yourself. 

So ask yourself, ‘If someone I loved was going through this experience, feeling what I am feeling – if I wanted to be kind and caring towards them, how would I treat them? How would I behave towards them? What might I say or do?’ Then try treating yourself the same way.

V = Values 

Committed action should be guided by your core values: What do you want to stand for in the face of this crisis? What sort of person do you want to be, as you go through this? How do you want to treat yourself and others? 

Your values might include love, respect, humour, patience, courage, honesty, caring, openness, kindness …. or numerous others. Look for ways to ‘sprinkle’ these values into your day. Let them guide and motivate your committed action. 

Of course, as this crisis unfolds, there will be all sorts of obstacles in your life; goals you can’t achieve, things you can’t do, problems for which there are no simple solutions. But you can still live your values in a myriad of different ways, even in the face of all those challenges. Especially come back to your values of kindness and caring. Consider: 

What are kind, caring ways you can treat yourself as you go through this?
What are kind words you can say to yourself, kind deeds you can do for yourself?
What are kind ways you can treat others who are suffering?
What are kind, caring ways of contributing to the wellbeing of your community?
What can you say and do that will enable you to look back in years to come and feel proud of your response? 

I = Identify resources 

Identify resources for help, assistance, support, and advice. This includes friends, family, neighbours, health professionals, emergency services. And make sure you know the emergency helpline phone numbers, including psychological help if required.
Also reach out to your social networks. And if you are able to offer support to others, let them know; you can be a resource for other people, just as they can for you. 

One very important aspect of this process involves finding a reliable and trustworthy source of information for updates on the crisis and guidelines for responding to it. In Australia, the ABC, TV show the 7.30 Report has expressed a dedication to offering reliable, credible daily updates. Or if you are looking online, The World Health Organisation website is the leading source of such information:

Also check the website of your country’s government health department.
Use this information to develop your own resources: action plans to protect yourself and others, and to prepare in advance for quarantine or emergency. In Australia, th8is can be found here:

D = Disinfect & distance physically 

I’m sure you already know this, but it’s worth repeating: disinfect your hands regularly and practice as much social distancing as realistically possible, for the greater good of your community. And remember, we’re talking about physical distancing – not cutting off emotionally. (If you aren’t quite sure about what this means, read this:

This is an important aspect of committed action, so align it deeply with your values; recognise that these are truly caring actions. 

In Summary 

So again and again and again, as problems pile up in the world around you, and emotional storms rage in the world within you, come back to the steps of FACE COVID: 

F = Focus on what’s in your control
A = Acknowledge your thoughts and feelings
C = Come back into your body
E = Engage in what you’re doing 

C = Committed action
O = Opening up
V = Values
I = Identify resources
D = Disinfect & distance 

Well, I do hope there’s something useful in here for you; feel free to share this with others if you think may find it helpful. These are crazy, difficult, scary times, so please treat yourself kindly. On a personal note, please don’t hesitate to get in touch if you would like support and want to discuss some or all of these strategies further.

Introduction by Joanna Joustra

FACE COVID strategies by Russ Harris

Informed by the collective works of Steven C. Hayes




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