How are you feeling right now? Anxious? Distressed? Sad? Lazy? Angry? Worried? Lonely? In this confusing, unprecedented Corona hurricane, many of us are experiencing emotions that we’ve never felt before in our lives, or have never felt them so intensely. These feelings can often overwhelm us, and if left unchecked can potentially spiral out of control especially if we are at home with little to distract us. However we can also take control and with a little guidance, we can help ourselves change the way we feel.
Mara Klemich is a Psychologist and Clinical Neuropsychologist and can help us to understand why we act the way we do. She is an expert in how our minds and hearts affect human behaviour and how to change for the better. Having worked within hospitals, within murder trials and leading trauma teams in natural disasters, she also brings neuroscience into the areas of leadership development, consulting, coaching and counselling, and as an executive coach, helps to develop leaders at CEO and senior executive level to bring about change both personally and professionally. Her recent book, which she has co-written with her husband Stephen (a Leadership and Culture Development Consultant,) ‘Above the Line – Living and leading with Heart’, is based on their model Heartstyles, a hugely successful indicator used by businesses that helps us to recognize the deep fundamental drivers of human behaviour (the indicator has been translated into 25 languages).
We spoke to Mara to find out how we can bring ourselves out of a negative emotional state. Here she gives us tips, both physiological (our brain and body) and psychological (our thoughts, emotions and behaviours) that can help all of us navigate these difficult times.
If you are feeling unfocussed
Strategy: Create physical spaces at home
With so many of us WFH at the moment, it’s inevitable that the lines can get blurred between home and work life. It’s easy to find yourself working from an armchair whilst watching the news for example, or even from bed in the mornings. However Mara says that it’s incredibly important to create places of work that gives us structure and certainty. “What’s happened is that we have been enclosed in a single space for quite a long time, and our neurological makeup doesn’t know what to do with that.”
Mara’s advice is to create a mental space for yourself by physically devoting an area to work. “The Coronavirus and its far-reaching effects has happened to us,” she says, “Which can leave us feeling out of control. It’s very important, as human beings, that we feel in control.”
She also suggests creating a ‘space’ for other areas of our lives, such as a place where you can exercise or keep your exercise equipment, “Creating spaces devoted to particular purposes can give us a sense of “different” places at home (like we’re normally used to when we have a free ability to get about.”
If you’re feeling worried
Strategy: Let go of trying to gain certainty (by worry) and try to gain clarity (by concern)
If Google search is anything to go by, searches for the word ‘anxiety’ globally are currently at an all time high. “Mentally,” says Mara, “We are pretty much in a constant state of uncertainty about every aspect of our lives right now.” Whether we are concerned about our wellbeing, our children’s schooling (or lack of it in some cases), financial security, our job, or our friends and family, this whirlpool of worry can hugely impact our sleep patterns and our mood.
“Uncertainty makes our brain search for answers,” explains Mara, “When we can’t find them, our minds will create scenarios going around and around trying to create a picture of certainty. That’s called worry.”
Of course, as we know, worrying doesn’t solve things. As long as we’re focusing on trying to solve questions with unknowable answers and circumstances outside of our personal control, this strategy will get us nowhere—apart from make us feel drained, anxious, and overwhelmed. Worry doesn’t actually change our circumstances. BUT it can change us, and not in a good way – it can spiral us into anxiety. This causes our brain’s usual blood flow in the frontal areas (where our mechanisms like insight, objectivity, analysis, logic are) to get pushed into the back part of the brain where our Fight/Flight areas are. This means that not only will our emotions be heightened by anxiety but our brain and body will also be on high alert. We will become psychologically and physiologically anxious, and will keep running scenarios around and around in our minds – trying to get certainty.” A bit like a hamster on a wheel, no matter how fast, or how hard it goes, it won’t get you anywhere.
So what is the solution? Mara says it’s very important to differentiate between worry and concern. Worry, she says, creates endless scenarios which are not normally grounded in facts, whilst concern allows us to be a little more objective. Concern, she explains, lets us discern facts and as a result, some good judgement to make decisions. Mara says that being concerned, can lead to a balanced assessment, whilst worry just leads to a messy vortex of anxiety. The more we can operate on facts instead of assumptions, the calmer we will be.
Problem: You are feeling anxious
Unless we can somehow manage our worries or fears then it can escalate into anxiety where you can feel a perpetual state of fear. Mara explains that anxiety is often not about what is happening to us in the present moment but more about things that may happen in the future. Fixating too much on these fears can send us into an anxiety spiral, which she says actually has a physical effect on our brains. She explains that it’s important to stay present, remember to breathe properly to re-oxygenate our brain blood flow back to those important parts right in the front of the brain, and to use mindfulness to help anchor us both physically and psychologically.’
Strategy 1 – Take low, slow breaths
A simple breathing technique can slow the heart rate and mitigate your body’s anxiety response. Mara says, ‘Sometimes the way we take deep breaths isn’t actually very helpful. If we take a really big breath in and then blow it out very fast, it can de-regulate our respiratory physiology. So instead take low and slow breaths, slowing down your breathing.”
Step 1 – Taking a normal size, comfortable breath in – as if you’re smelling a flower.
Step 2 – Then a long, slow complete exhale – as if you’re blowing out a candle.
If you’re feeling anxious or having a panic attack, Mara also has a helpful grounding technique to get out of your head and into your body using the five senses. Keep taking those breaths and:
- name one thing you can see
- one thing you can touch
- one thing you can hear
- one thing you can smell, and
- one thing you can taste
Strategy 2 – Disengage from your emotions
The problem with unwanted emotions such as anger, anxiety or feeling depressed is that they can often feel so powerful that we feel helpless in their wake. But don’t be fooled says Mara, “Be aware that you can infect yourself, or others, with negative emotions” she says. “You have the ability to control how you behave and what you think. That means disciplining ourselves to recognise when our emotions are negative and we’re getting into that fear, the negative spiral.”
“If your emotions are starting to go crazy,” she says, “The best thing we can do is give ourselves permission to disengage. You just interrupt the emotion/s immediately by moving from experiencing to observing it. Saying “Oh, that’s that uncomfortable feeling of…(name it if you know what it is)”. If you can’t name it, just say “My body is feeling uncomfortable”. Ask yourself: “What’s happening for me right now?” Allow yourself to get an answer. If you get “I don’t know”, then ask yourself “What if I did know? What would it be?”
The aim is to get yourself out of feeling the emotion, to observing the emotion. Then the brain will calm down physically and psychologically.
If you are feeling lonely
For many people, their newfound working from home life may not be the idyllic set-up that they had imagined, especially for those that are naturally quiet. Mara explains that whilst these people not may not be gregarious in character, it may be important for them to feel part of a friendly environment, whether that be through their work or their friends. Some people quietly thrive in an office environment so it may be particularly difficult at this time as they may descend into loneliness. “You may not know what you want or need until you don’t have it any more,” says Mara, “This could descend into helplessness, anger, anxiety and loneliness .” If this is you, you tend to be a ‘glass half empty’ person, then Mara has the following advice:
Strategy 1: Connect with others – getting support and giving support
“Don’t underestimate the need for human contact,” says Mara, “I think the most important thing is to reach out to people,” she says. “Connecting with others – either people you’re already with or virtually – can help, even if it’s just for ten minutes. Talking to other people can you help you to focus attention away from yourself and the social connection will make you feel re-energised.”
It is also worth remembering that we are all in this together she explains, “Even though there are a lot of very different circumstances for people, we are a community – “common unity” – all trying our best to navigate these untravelled waters. Doing it together will bring us all to a better place in our lives for the future. Start that process now, and you’ll start to feel that sense of purpose.”
If you are feeling negative
With the unknown and devastating effects of the Coronavirus globally and its implications on our health, wealth and work life, it can be very hard for some people to see the positives. Its important, says Mara, to recognise your thoughts and behaviour because negativity is about as infectious and the Coronavirus.
Strategy 1: Reach out
Mara suggests acknowledging how you feel and reaching out to people that you trust because two heads are better than one. However she states that it’s important that you are careful who you reach out to. “If you are prone to being negative, you may need to find someone who is not going to get into any negative talk. You should look for someone who can bring a bit of joy and gratitude.”
Strategy 2: Practice gratitude or journaling
Mara explains that it’s important to practise gratitude for all the things in your life that allow you to be who you are, no matter how small they are. “Make yourself a gratitude jar or get a journal if you prefer. For the jar, get some lovely paper and make a note for each thing you’re grateful for every day. At the end of each week (or on those less than good days in the evenings), take out a handful of notes and read through them. Allow yourself to recall the information on that note. Feel those good emotions flow through you. Life is made up of so many moments, that may seem less-than-extraordinary, but which, when you appreciate them, are magical.”
Note: You can also do this for someone else who may be feeling low. Mara suggests putting down on some pieces of paper the things you love/appreciate about that person. Give them the folded little pieces of paper, so they can put them into a jar/bowl and take them out when they want to. Sometimes when you don’t feel so good about yourself, it can be lovely to see what someone else sees in you.
Hold on to your values – live your top three daily
When the world feels overwhelming and all you can see are immediate worries, thinking about your core values will help you to see the bigger picture. Mara suggests that you come up with your list of your core values, then pick your top three, “No matter how bad things around you seem,” she says, “Find the values that you can hold on to, and remind yourself every day that you’re going to behave in accordance with those three values, not in accordance with your level of anxiety/anger/frustration/fear today.”
Like a sunbeam through dark clouds it can serve as a brilliant reminder that there are blue skies beyond the storm. Always remember, ’This too shall pass.”
Find out more about Heartstyles here