Many experts are writing blogs and doing videos on how to improve your coping skills during a high-stress pandemic, such as the situation we are in. One of the most comprehensive and informative I’ve seen is by author Hillary Jacobs Hendel, and despite the title, it is not merely about how to prevent fights with your family during a quarantine.
I would like to emphasize an important concept about coping skills that is often missed in these articles: Not everyone responds the same to fear or threat. Our natural threat responses can range from angry fighting to fainting and from submissive crying to panicky escaping.
Given this wide spectrum of possible responses, I believe the lesson is that coping skills are not one-size-fits-all.
Understanding Your Brain Modes of Fear, Soothing, Drive
Check out my chart on three major modes of thinking and feeling that drive human behavior. I have expanded on a chart originally created by Dr. Paul Gilbert, the developer of Compassion Focused Therapy and Compassionate Mind Training, which I use in therapy and group workshops that I teach.
All these brain modes are healthy, primal reactions that help us survive.
Fear alerts us to danger and is our first defense for imminent physical threats, but is also used to address social threats, such as rejection. Soothing brings feelings of safety and relaxation that are essential for physical and emotional wellbeing and social caregiving. The Soothing response counteracts fear by enhancing social connection, which, in healthy relationships, equates to safety to us social creatures. Drive is our internal motivation to seek food, shelter and resources to help care for ourselves and our family or tribe.
The problem is that these responses can become unbalanced or we can have rigid ways of reacting due to acute trauma or chronic trauma, such as poor parental emotional caregiving. The most common reaction is being hyper-vigilant to real or perceived threats, then hyper-reactive, often called “anxious.” This is often coupled with an inability to soothe or calm oneself. People identified as “depressed” may be in Fold mode and have decreased Drive and Soothing responses. Some people engage in a range of responses or may alternate, for example between “Fight-or-Flight” and “Fold,” which might be labeled as Bi-Polar Disorder under the current psychiatric diagnostic system (which has a LOT of problems!).
The key to good emotional wellbeing is to have flexible responding depending on the situation using all our emotions at appropriate levels. Rigid reactions cause problems for one’s emotional wellbeing and relationships.
Fear’s Many Faces
Note in the chart the many divergent responses to threat that humans can use with the emotion of Fear. What this tells us is that we may have to use different coping tactics if we habitually rely on one of these responses.
For example, if you are stuck in Fold mode, and are lying around all day binge eating and binge watching TV, then being told to “relax and be good to yourself,” might be the wrong advice. You might need to activate your Drive mode to counterbalance the Fold response.
For those lacking Drive, it may help to develop a daily schedule and stick to it as much as possible. We have an increased need for certainty in times of uncertainty, because this brings a feeling of safety. When the world is unpredictable, it can trigger a feeling of helplessness, especially for those with a history of trauma. The structure of a daily schedule may help give us a sense of agency and certainty, which may discourage the dissociation, Fold and Freeze responses of fear. You may need to engage with some compassionate self-discipline. Good coping skills might be to set a schedule and stick to it, turn off the TV or video game, take a shower, get some exercise, reach out to a friend, and clean your house.
The feeling of helplessness and tonic immobility that can accompany fearful situations can also be counteracted by increasing feelings of empowerment in our body. Exercise can be very helpful, especially strength training of weight lifting, pushups, or even vigorous chores, such as digging in the garden or stacking firewood.
Conversely, someone who is in “fight-or-flight” and excessively driven, might be compulsively cleaning and excessively worried in response to feeling threatened by the COVID-19 virus. They might benefit from slowing down and being more relaxed.
Someone else might be angry, hostile and lashing out at others as a way to deal with their fear. Engaging in soothing and safety-focused meditations to slow the body and brain may be helpful.
If you need to increase your soothing response, look first to increase your sense of human connection (with healthy, non-abusive people!). Reach out to others, even if it is just virtually in this time of quarantine. When we are fearful, we tend to be self-centered and lose our ability to care about others, about relationships, and about being kind and thoughtful. Fight your tendency to isolate. One patient told me that after her husband died, she knew that her tendency to isolate might really kick in. So she proactively told her friends to reach out to her and press her to engage socially, even if she at first said no.
Self-compassion is also a soothing antidote to fear, notably the fear of inadequacy.
Learning About Your Emotional Responses
You need to know your own emotions and patterns of responding to threat. The following series of exercises and good ways to help yourself is to learn about your own patterns.
- Take a blank piece of paper and think about your brain mode circles for Soothing, Fear and Drive. Now draw them considering: How big is each? Which way do the arrows flow between them? Is Fear overwhelming your Soothing mode? Are you in Drive excessively, with obsessive and compulsive behaviors of striving, over-achieving and perfectionism? Do you tend to Fold in response to threats?
- In each circle list what puts you into that circle. What situations? What past or current trauma? What people or relationships? What thoughts you have about these experiences? What thoughts you have about yourself? Notice, especially, thoughts of self-judgment or self-doubt that may increase anxiety or threat.
- Then take another paper and draw how you would like your circles to look. What would you need to do to make them look like that? Design your own coping mechanisms. What do you need to manage and balance your Fear, Soothing and Drive responses? What Soothing thoughts or behaviors would be helpful?
Hillary Jacobs Hendel’s blog on coping skills also offers several good exercises for being aware of your own emotions and body that are also effective ways to learn about your emotional reactions.
As always, I recommend learning mindful self-compassion skills to slow your mind and body, be kind to yourself in times of struggle, and engage in a sense of common humanity — the idea that we all just find ourselves here in this struggle on this chaotic planet. We are all just doing the best we can to cope and could use a lot of grace right now. Let’s begin by giving some to ourselves with self-compassion — the antidote to fear.
…be kind to yourself