Anger, disappointment, uncertainty and anxiety. When we find out about unexpected events that break our sense of predictability and certainty – what we thought was supposed to be happening to protect us and keep us secure actually looks like it wasn’t actually happening at all, it can bring up all kinds of difficult emotions. And worries too. This article is about those emotions and worries, what’s happening that’s perhaps making you feel like this, and what you can do.
When we go about our everyday lives we are, for most of the time, able to stay on a pretty even keel. This stability in our mental state, this freedom from anxiety about what might happen next, or what might be around the next corner in life, this stable sense of continuity and order helps us to give meaning to our lives that the world is a safe and stable place: that it is predictable and generally positive, or at least not out to cause us harm.
All this was thrown up in the air when coronavirus came along. But with the Alert Level System, and many weeks of lockdown to protect public health in an attempt to eliminate the virus from New Zealand, and similar measures around the world, perhaps some places reached a place where many aspects of normal life could start again. And in New Zealand, we had a run of 25 days without a case in New Zealand.
What we have been experiencing in Alert Level 1 has been there extension of a cocoon of security that we built in our own homes when we were asked to stay home during lockdown. This extension of the cocoon of security in Alert Level 1, stretches across the whole country in New Zealand, where we have been assured that we did not have any cases in New Zealand that we needed to be immediately concerned about, and that we could go about our everyday lives again.
All the things that we needed to stop and think about, how to get food, how to navigate the supermarket, what happens if we feel sick, how do we work, how do I school my children – all these things that we had to grapple with were gone.
The bubble of our homes extended to the bubble covering the entire country.
But yesterday, that bubble popped, and we felt it.
Because what that bubble needs to stay inflated, to stay intact and act as a protective layer around us is confidence and trust in the world, and a sense of continuity that this will carry on – that in this case, the conditions that allow us to stay at Alert Level 1 will carry on.
So, for most of the time over the past few weeks, we haven’t been thinking about it so much – we carry on reasonably happily because we were confident that systems were working and that we were, to all events and purposes, COVID-19 free, and that we could trust the systems in place to protect us if the threat emerged again.
And because many – but not all of us – were able to let go of much of that anxiety, it meant that we could let go of thinking of every little thing in our lives and concentrate on what we have to do each day. If we were not in our little bubble but checking and rechecking everything that happened in our life for risk – as if we were back in Alert Level 3 or 4, we would never get anything done. So, to a certain extent, being in the bubble frees us.
So what do we need for this cocoon, this bubble to stay intact?
Well, philosophers call this cocoon our sense of ontological security. And to have this, we seem to need three things:
• a stable sense of home,
• to feel that nature is at least benign and not out to get us,
• and a sense that our contract with society and our fellow citizens is also at least not harmful, and preferably positive.
And that contract includes with those who we task to lead us and who we enfranchise to make decisions on our behalf – think of the Government for example, and border control and quarantine. These are institutions or arrangements in our society who we expect to function as we have been lead to believe they will. And when they fail – which might be for lots of different reasons which we may not know – then the threat that they are designed to protect us from suddenly looms large again and is experienced as a real and present danger, even though the risk may remain small.
And its this last point that might have triggered feelings of (1) being less safe than we thought we were and (2) an activation of our threat system which governs our flight, flight or freeze response. And in this case, you might experience you fight response as anger, your flight response as feeling like you want to retreat back to the relative security of your home, and freeze might be a feeling of shock and bewilderment that this is happening.
Now, if the trust in the contract that we have when we contract out our security and safety to systems that are designed to protect us can be fixed – and that means good quarantine and border protection processes that work, then there’s a chance that we can feel better again.
Let me give you the examples of what happened when you see a car accident when you’re driving. For a moment, the risk of driving is brought to life – not in an abstract way – but in a vivid, tangible and terrible way.
What do we do? We might slow down and take a long look at what happened. We might then drive on, but much more slowly than we were driving before. But how long does that new behaviour last? I’ve asked many people this in workshops I run, and the general answer is a few minutes. For a few short minutes it pierces our protective bubble – it threatens our ontological security. But very quickly, our perceptions of invulnerability return – and the chances are high that the driver will speed up again soon.
So, we are engaged in a constant balancing act – to recognise a risk, but to avoid obsessing about it. To take stock of the possibilities without allowing awareness of possibilities to stop us from doing what we are doing. So, we re-inflate our bubble to get on with things, or else life completely paralyses us as we check each small detail and happening for risk.
So what can we do?
Personally, we can take control of our calming system to disengage our threat detection system in the short term, just to give ourselves some breathing room and to be able to make good decisions and judgements – even though our brain is telling us that this is a real and imminent danger, the risk is still very small especially if we keep doing the things like basic hygiene protocols.
But the bigger picture is assuring people of their safety by fixing what seems to not be working when we task others to look after issues that we can’t do realistically ourselves – in this case, border control and quarantine procedures. Once we have confidence that this is working again, we can then stop testing that as a problem that threatens our safety and are more likely to be able to return to our usual activities. Or, we get caught up in our daily lives again until the next time our attention is drawn to something that triggers our threat detection system.
It’s not good when it happens, but mistakes do occur. And unfortunately, these can have consequences that mean the world suddenly feels a lot more unpredictable and uncertain again. It’s important that can be assured that mistakes are being addressed, and that we can get good information about the size and the nature of the actual risk, rather than this being stoked by our threat-detecting brains reaction to events as if they are life-threatening and can provoke big emotional reactions.
Get control over your threat detecting system by engaging your calming system – watch this video to find out how.
Thanks for watching and reading, and please comment below to let me know what you think.