Professor Brendan Kelly, Consultant Psychiatrist, Tallaght University Hospital, Professor of Psychiatry, Trinity College Dublin
Dealing with Feelings
Coronavirus, or Covid-19, generates anxiety and panic in the minds of virtually everyone who hears about it. This extract from my new book, “Coping with Coronavirus” (Merrion Press), focuses on managing our feelings, with a view to helping us to become more aware of our emotions and recognising when feelings rather than logic are governing our behaviour. There is nothing wrong with emotions shaping what we do, but it is useful to recognise when this is happening and to be more aware of the interplay between logic and emotion in our thoughts and actions. This matters, now more than ever.
Don’t forget that emotions can disguise themselves as behaviours or facts – and can therefore mislead us
The problem with much of the advice about managing our emotions is that our emotions do not always present themselves as emotions. Often, they manifest as behaviours that we poorly understand (even in ourselves), ‘facts’ that upset us (and likely are not true) or a general sense of confusion about what is going on (and how we are feeling). This is especially true when someone is diagnosed as ill or is asked to do something that suggests that, while they are not yet ill, they might soon be (e.g. self-isolation or limited social interaction). These situations feel mid-way between wellness and illness. You are well, but you are being treated as if you are ill. So, how, exactly, are you supposed to feel? Well or ill?
The first step in dealing with these peculiar and distressing situations is to recognise that we can have several conflicting emotions at the same time or in quick succession. The rules of logic apply loosely, if at all. Much of what we feel might not make sense, at least at first glance. Recognising this is important. We like to think that our emotions and inner lives have a certain reason to them, but sometimes we need to acknowledge the existence of a tangle of emotions that we simply cannot figure out. There they are. So be it.
The second step in this situation is to practice simply sitting with uncomfortable emotional states – tolerating distress without trying to understand it fully. An activity like meditation helps greatly with this. To try this, find a quiet spot where you are unlikely to be disturbed. You will never find a place that is entirely secluded but do try to find one that minimises disturbances and distractions. Having calmed your body gently and centred your thoughts in the moment, focus on your breath. To begin, silently count ten breaths on the in-breath. Then count ten breaths on the out-breath. Then count ten breaths on the turning of the breath. And then start again.
As you try to do this, a variety of thoughts will inevitably enter your head. Emotions will come to the surface and you will get distracted. The work of meditation lies in observing these thoughts, emotions and distractions but not engaging with them. So, try not to explore these distractions in your head. Simply try to sit with them and observe how quickly such passing thoughts and emotions disappear once we deny them the oxygen of our attention.
This is not easy to achieve, so do not be dismayed if you get distracted. Simply try again. Commit to trying this for ten minutes. Do not berate yourself each time you get distracted. Practice self-compassion. Gently direct your thoughts back to your breathing. This is a skill that takes time. If it does not work out today, try again tomorrow. If it does not work out tomorrow, try the next day. And so on.
Meditation is often described as ‘a practice’. This is very true. Even the meditation masters, after decades of contemplation, are still ‘practicing’.
Do talk to others about your feelings (but label them clearly as feelings rather than facts)
It is helpful to talk to other people about how you are feeling. It is equally helpful to listen to others who are often experiencing the same emotions as you are but might express them differently. Take time to let them explain. Once you listen properly, you will see how similar we all are.
When expressing your emotions, be sure to label them as feelings rather than facts. It can help to write down how you feel beforehand. It is not helpful for you or others to express feelings through anonymous, hysterical speculation on social media. The Buddhist concept of ‘right speech’ is relevant here. This is one of the key tenets of the ‘Noble Eightfold Path’ of Buddhism. It centres on avoiding harsh words against others, only saying what is true, speaking in a way that promotes understanding, using a reasonable tone of voice and ensuring that our speech is honest and truthful. This is also known as ‘mindful speech’.
It is sometimes difficult to adhere to right speech, particularly when we are upset. But right speech is especially important when we are distressed and at times of threat, illness or personal loss. These issues are clearly relevant in the context of coronavirus. For some people, personal losses might include loss of hope or loss of health and, for others, bereavement. Direct, truthful communication is vital in these circumstances. We need to remember that discussing emotions is central to honest communication, once we are just as willing to listen as we are to speak.
In other words, if you want to be heard, listen.
Brendan Kelly is Professor of Psychiatry at Trinity College Dublin and author of “Coping with Coronavirus. How to Stay Calm and Protect your Mental Health: A Psychological Toolkit” (Merrion Press). The e-book costs €1 and royalties will go to charities assisting with the global response to coronavirus: