Update: Medicare has introduced special items to enable access to treatment via telehealth for people who may be required to self-isolate, or who are in high-risk groups. Please contact us via the links at the bottom of this page if you feel this might be applicable to your situation.
We’ve now produced a video introducing similar concepts to this post. If you prefer a video format, check it out here: How to cope and thrive in the face of COVID-19
We’ve all no doubt heard the advice by now to not panic in the face of the arrival of COVID-19 in Australia and the beginnings of its spread within our communities. But what is the purpose of this advice – “don’t panic”?
As a situation that carries danger unfolds – like the bushfires Australia faced a few months ago, and now the outbreak of this virus globally – there are certain natural, self-protective human instincts that spring into action. These are instincts that have helped our species to weather many crises, over many thousands of years, before now. But tied up with these instincts that have allowed us to become what we are today is a strange paradox – these same instincts that help us can cause us harm. Those instincts that drive us to keep ourselves and our loved ones safe can wind up with us fighting in the aisle of a supermarket over a packet of toilet paper!
As a psychologist, I get to work with people daily who are battling with the harmful side of these protective instincts, and try to pass on to them some strategies and skills that can help them regain balance, so their instincts are once again working for them.
So I wanted to offer a few simple, practical pieces of advice to anyone who might be finding themselves feeling uneasy about the outbreak of COVID-19, and uncertain what to do with that recommendation: “don’t panic.”
Tip 1: understand there are two sides to your response to danger
Imagine your response to danger as involves two different pieces of machinery: one primitive and imprecise, but reasonably effective; the other more intricate and advanced. Imagine, too, that the more advanced piece of machinery actually requires the primitive one to be operating in order to function properly.
When we are confronted with a potential danger or threat, our “primitive” machine is our emotional fear response. It is something that we feel. That feeling is an extremely powerful motivator of action.
When our fear response is triggered it sets of a chain reaction of events in our body: release of adrenaline; increased heart rate; faster breathing; changes in the operation of our digestive system; … and so-on. These events in the body are all orchestrated to help us either fight the danger, run away from it, or freeze (in the hope the danger passes without “catching” us).
The “advanced” machinery of our danger response is our problem-solving ability. This is appropriate to dangers that are urgent, but not immediate: such as listening to news reports warning that bush fires are approaching your area. In such a situation our problem-solving responses help us to make a rational assessment of the options before taking action. This problem-solving process can, potentially, be the difference between a life-saving decision and a life-ending one: just checking what roads are safe to travel before leaving, for example, might save your life.
In the right balance, the primitive machinery of our fear emotions gives us the motivation and urgency to put to work the advanced machinery of problem-solving without delay.
However, there is a kind of “safety-mechanism” built-in to this. This mechanism is meant to prevent us from pausing to solve a problem in circumstances where immediate action is critical. For example, if you are being chased by something and running to safety, the last thing you want is to be slowed down by your problem-solving mechanism having you hesitate between two paths you could take, trying to pick the “better” path! So, when the primitive system assesses the level of danger to be sufficiently high and immediate, it starts to take the other system off-line. This means that there is a literal change in the blood-flow in our brains, shutting down the areas responsible for more complex planning and decision-making!
This is why you might have experienced occasions where under high pressure and high stress you made decisions that on later reflection did not seem very wise or rational.
The balance between the primitive and advanced systems of danger response can be directly experienced by playing a modified game of chase: the person who is “it” calls out a simple maths sum, like 8+4. They can immediately start chasing the other players – but the other players aren’t allowed to run away until they’ve called out the correct answer!
Because even a game of chase partially activates our primitive danger responses, we suddenly find it a bit harder to solve a simple maths problem! And the closer the person who is “it” gets to us, the more the solution eludes us!
Tip 2: get informed, and make a simple plan
Gather the right information from reliable, trustworthy sources. In this process, try to limit the load on your problem-solving to free up the resources of your advanced machinery for doing the real job of keeping you safe. Don’t try to understand the whole situation from first principles. Don’t go asking questions like “where did this come from?” and “why is this happening?” that can lead you down an unhelpful path into irrelevant information, or even conspiracy theories. None of that will help you address your immediate threat. However, understand your brain will want to go there because the primitive system is driving you with the feelings of urgency.
The useful questions to ask are these:
- What do I need to know to stay safe?
- What do I need to do to be prepared?
In answering the questions, try to remember that usually, even for really major crises, the steps to preparedness are relatively simple. It is easy to try to know everything and do everything to be prepared – but this quickly becomes more costly to us than it is beneficial (and ends up fueling our fear instead of quelling it). Luckily for us humans, we are by nature social and altruistic (believe it or not), so most people will instinctively team up to help each other out: meaning you don’t need to be perfectly prepared and resourced.
Trust the doctors, scientists and officials who are studying the situation and offering advice genuinely want to help you be safe, and if they are advising against certain strategies (such as limiting use of face masks to protect supplies), there are good reasons for that.
Because this step is reasonably simple, keep your plan to the well-established advice and stop there. Going further will actually make things worse – which brings us to tip 3.
Tip 3: soothe the fear response (unless your house is actually on fire)
The final tip, and the key to execution of the advice “don’t panic”, is to understand that once you have taken those simple steps of preparation you still won’t feel like everything is going to be okay … and that’s okay.
At this point our instincts are continuing to motivate us to either find more solutions, fight, or run. But once you are prepared, every one of those is going to make your situation worse! We seek to find more solutions by staying glued to the news, and searching the internet for the latest details on the situation. Unfortunately, though, this only makes the crisis continue to feel ever bigger, further triggering our fear response, further compelling us to search for more solutions, spiralling around until we break – into a fist-fight in Woolworths!
… or we seek to run, or freeze. We stay home from work even though the virus isn’t yet in our community; we wear face-masks wherever we go; we try to fight the pathogen: taking the advice to wash our hands well beyond sensibility to where our skin red, cracked and bleeding from excessive washing. All the while, instead of feeling better like we are trying to do, we are feeling progressively worse.
To soothe your fear response, the following strategies are known to be effective:
- first and foremost: accept your fear, tell yourself it is okay to have this feeling – that you don’t need to make it go away;
- practice slowing down your breathing – this counteracts your fear response and signals to your brain “we’re all okay down here in the body” (but be aware for the first 30+ seconds slowing down your breathing will feel a bit wrong and uncomfortable);
- prove to yourself that the world is not falling apart by continuing to engage in your normal activities – within the guidelines of the recommendations established in tip 2, do everything you can to maintain normality, as this soothes your brain!
- take up mindfulness – try out the Smiling Mind app. Accept that your mind will resist this and keep pushing you to jump back into problem-solving, fighting or running – just observe all of those urges, and accept that trying to be “mindful” will seem strange and frustrating at a time like this – yet that is the very thing that makes it worth doing;
- limit your exposure to news and information to what is strictly necessary to getting informed and making a plan – the continuous news cycle unnecessarily fuels unhelpful fear responses.
I wish you all the best in putting these strategies into practice.
If you’re in the Launceston, Tasmania region and would like an opportunity to discuss any of these concepts further, please contact the Prospect Medical Centre to make a booking to see me in person. For those in other areas, Skype appointments may be able to be arranged by contacting us through our Toowoomba office, or you may like to book in person with one of our psychologists in Toowoomba.
A new study has found that changes to diet (using the “Modified Mediterranean Diet“) can lead to significant improvement in moderate to severe clinical depression. At the end of a 12 week program, close to a third of participants were classified as being in remission, compared to less than one-tenth of the control group.
You can read the full publication of the research project here:
A randomised controlled trial of dietary improvement for adults with major depression (the ‘SMILES’ trial)
For a plain-language description of the research and findings, follow the link below:
Food & Mood Centre – SMILES Trial.
Sometimes there just aren’t enough hours in the day.
Everyone seems to notice how busy our lives have become — and how hard it is to allocate time to all the important things we want to get done.
You’d think, by now, in the year 2017, something would have been done about it. Where are our leaders on this issue? Why hasn’t our government done something and added at least two, maybe three hours to each day? With that bit of extra time, maybe we could all do those things we just can’t find the time for!
Of course, I jest. But while lengthening the day is not possible, some people try a close alternative: reduce the hours spent sleeping. For some people this seems to work … but most of us just end up tired, grumpy, and even less able to use those precious minutes and hours productively.
But what if there was another option — to take less time on each task?
For many people this is a very real option — an untapped boost to productivity just waiting for you to take advantage of it. The good news is it is also very simple.
Here’s the key to getting more done in the time you have:
Don’t go away! This isn’t a trick. Read on …
Below is a puzzle that will soon be 50 years old. It was developed in 1966 by Peter Wason, a cognitive psychologist interested in the often illogical nature of human reasoning. The puzzle is a very simple logic puzzle and involves no tricks. Yet, across multiple studies less than 10% of people give the correct answer. See how you do:
Logic puzzle 1
There are four cards with a number on one side and a colour on the other. If the number is even, the card must be red on the other side.
Which cards need to be turned over to check if the above rule is followed?
Keen for the answer? Well… just wait a moment. Let’s try another puzzle:
Logic puzzle 2
You work at a licensed restaurant. Your boss asks you to make sure all patrons who are served alcoholic drinks are over 18.
Which patrons do you need to check?
Okay. Now let’s check how you did.
- The correct answer to logic puzzle 1 is the first card (number 4) and the last card (green).
- The correct answer to logic puzzle 2 is patron 2 and patron 4
Chances are, if you are like most of us, you had the answer to puzzle 1 wrong but were correct for puzzle 2. If you got both right then, congratulations! You are an unusually logical thinker.
But here’s the really interesting thing: From a logic point of view, these are both the exact same puzzle. Both puzzles involve testing a rule of the form “If P then Q”. The most common answer to puzzle one is to select the cards named in the rule — the 4 and the red. This would be logically equivalent to a bottleshop owner asking for ID from anyone buying alcohol who looks older than 18.
Often there is some degree of misinterpretation of the rule as if it read “all even cards, and only even cards, will be red on the other side”. However, the answer most commonly provided is incorrect even for that interpretation: for that rule you would need to turn over every card to confirm the rule.
Somehow the nature of the content of the second puzzle makes the correct answer “pop out”, while the first puzzle exposes limitations of our human reasoning. There are several theories about why we are so much better at the second variation of the same puzzle.
One theory is that our brains are optimised to detect violations of social rules — in this case the rules prohibiting underage drinking. Being good at detecting and enforcing social rule violations may have significant survival value — whereas being able to detect violations of arbitrary logical rules may have very few implications for survival. Another theory is that the effect is a feature of how we process information by relevance while minimising cognitive effort.
Whatever the explanation, here is what I would see as the important take-home lesson: Humans aren’t logical. We can be absolutely convinced we are right while being at the same time obviously wrong. We jump to conclusions. We ignore information that contradicts what we already think. We are messy creatures, and we can’t change that. However, by understanding our nature, and limitations, we can be a little less vulnerable to some of their consequences — perhaps a little less hurt by assuming, when our friend says “You’re five minutes late”, that it means “I’m angry with you”, for example.
Wanting to eat better, lose weight or improve fitness is one thing … for many of us, actually achieving these goals can prove elusive. Common sense is not always enough to achieve lasting change, and there is such diverse and too often contradictory information out there on health, fitness and dieting.
ABC’s All in the Mind aired a story in late October exploring some lines of research that may shed some light on some of the challenges of dieting – and how we might overcome them.
You can listen to the full program, or read the transcript here: Diet on the Brain
Particularly interesting in this program is reference to some research on how the brain might be “trained” to prefer certain types of food, depending what you typically eat when you are most hungry. More information on that research can be found here:
It’s likely that by now you have at least heard the term “neuroplasticity”. Our understanding of the human brain’s capacity to rewire itself has grown dramatically over the past few decades. We have written about it previously in our blog post Rewire your brain: neuroplasticity FTW!.
It’s one thing to hear about neuroplasticity. But it is something else altogether to see it in action. Today I stumbled across this youtube video:
There are lots of skills that are complex and difficult to master, for which the development of new neurological wiring through continual practice will be essential to mastery. But rarely do we see such a <em>dramatic</em> challenge to achieving the most rudimentary level of competence. Why is this bike so difficult to ride? If we reversed the steering in a car people would very quickly be able to adjust. Anyone who has played a reasonable number of flight-simulating computer games will know how quickly that adjustment can occur, because a proportion of those games reverse the vertical control axis. Adjusting to that can be accomplished in hours. It took <em>eight months</em> for the presenter of this video to be able to ride this bike.
The challenge with reversed steering on a bike is that steering is not <em>only</em> used to control your direction, but constant small adjustments are made to maintain balance on the bike. With the steering reversed there is almost <em>no room for error</em> that would allow the brain to try an option, realise it is producing the wrong result and adjust accordingly. It is worse than learning to ride the <em>first</em> time because the brain is predisposed by existing wiring to select a set of motor responses that are the precise <em>opposite</em> of what are needed, amplifying any imbalance instead of correcting it.
…so the thing that amazes me most, watching this video, is that even under circumstances that are tremendously prejudiced to failure, the neuroplasticity of the brain makes success possible. What might your brain be capable of that may seem impossible to you today?