What Your Mind Does With Covid-19 Uncertainty

So today the Government is due to announce face coverings being mandatory in shops from 24th July. It’s the latest in a long line of often confusing and contradictory advice the British public have been given on how to protect themselves. So I wanted to explore with you what happens when we encounter contradiction, uncertainty and instances when people say one thing and do another.

We should probably start by saying this experience has a name, we call it cognitive dissonance. Cognitive dissonance is where we encounter or hold contradictory beliefs, ideas or values or engage in an action that contradicts one of those deeply held beliefs, ideas or values. This experience causes us psychological stress.

What is fascinating, is how we cope with that stress, and what we do when the contradiction is pointed out to us (you may have seen this kind of thing played out in the news).

This kind of stress can cause us to fall into black and white thinking where it is, or it isn’t and things are never experienced as being on a spectrum, for instance, someone is right or wrong, they either have vaild points or they don’t rather than they may have some good points but others are vague.

Often when we think this way you find your self experiencing just one of the beliefs or ideas you hold being true and the other contradictory one is almost forgotten, then you switch. It’s as if your mind blanks one of the beliefs or ideas, to avoid experiencing the dissonance, and living with the contradiction.

You may find yourself researching and researching to find out what’s true. When you experience this you want certainty and become drawn to people with strong ideas who seem very sure of themselves, even if their ideas don’t hold water. This seeking of an authority to feel safe and to leave the decision to someone else can cause harm, as people who come across as very certain can have very extreme beliefs. Scientific reasearch, by contrast, tends to use probabilities and statistics which often give a more nuanced, or uncertain view. This is why at times like these we see a rise in conspiracy theorists, and people purporting to have the answer.


Lastly there is what we humans love to do the most, we tell stories and make jokes. Stories help us to reason why the contradiction exists, some of the most common ones are ‘There’s one rule for us, and one rule for them’, ‘They didn’t mean it’, ‘It was an accident’, ‘They only broke the rules because’. It’s a tactic we use often when someone says one thing and behaves in a contradictory way, we find a reason for this exception.

When we live with uncertainty about the advice we are given or what will happen next, we do the same. The story fills the gap ‘It’ll be alright because…’ or conversely ‘It’s really terrible anyway, what did we expect?’ The story brings comfort and instead of avoiding the cognitive dissonance it tries to explain it away.

We can also use stories to minimise the importance of the uncertainty or contradiction ‘Well it’s all rubbish anyway’, ‘It won’t matter in ten years time’. This strategy is used to reduce to psychological stress by making the belief, idea or value unimportant. So trivial it’s not surprising there is a contradiction.

To work through cognitive dissonance we need to start by acknowledging the contradictory beliefs, ideas or values whether in society or in ourselves, and look at why they exist. Is it like the Coronavirus pandemic where we don’t have enough information to be certain, and as we learn we need to implement what we believe to be the current best practice; Or is it hypocrisy where we or others are claiming to hold to one thing whilst doing the opposite?

Living with uncertainty and contradiction is part of being human and living in a society, sometime we have to accept there are things we just don’t know and that our strategies for dealing with it may or may not be helpful. Other times it may be important to call out the hypocrisy or to do something about it, like when you are in a relationship where someone says they love you but they ignore you, belittle you, gaslight you or hurt you.

If you’d like to discuss this further or need to talk with someone about your own conflicting feelings do get in touch.

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Boundaries In A Post Lockdown World

Boundaries are a marker, rule or guideline whose purpose is to say you can go this far and no further. Boundaries can be applied to our physical environment, physical self, mental self and emotional self. These can manifest as laws, physical boundaries, good working practices, guidelines or rules for particular settings, values, principles and determining what we will and won’t put up with from other people.

Boundaries help us to create spaces whether physically, mentally or emotionally where we feel safe. That feeling of safety arises from people acting in particular agreed ways, and when we, or they don’t, one or both of us can feel hurt. For instance on a physical level take the Highway Code, it sets out how all road users from pedestrians to truck drivers should behave. When we all follow the same guidelines it helps to prevent accidents, because it allows us to confidently predict the other’s behaviour even though we can’t communicate verbally. When we choose to not follow it and our behaviour becomes unpredictable it often ends with people getting hurt.

This happens on an emotional level too. If as a child or adult we experience a trauma caused by a person or situation, that experience of the event is usually painful because it has broken an internal or external boundary. That pain either physical or mental will cause us to adjust our behaviour, and sometimes in unexpected ways.

It might seem obvious that if you experience a car accident you may avoid or feel anxious about driving or being a passenger in a vehicle and it may take time to feel safe again. However in instances of childhood trauma and abuse, particularly when the person hurting you is your care-giver or parent, you will find ways to push down that fear and unease as your survival depends on your parent and maintaining a relationship with them. This can lead to behaviours such as denial, acting as if everyting is ok, minimising yourself and the trauma, self-blame etc.

Boundaries are vitally important for our health and wellbeing, so what does this have to do with lockdown easing?

Social-distancing in a cityscape
Social Distancing

We have been following guidelines and laws that have helped to keep people safe, and now that they are easing, some of us do not feel confident about the restricitons lifting. The 1 metre plus rule is vague, and inconsitency when introducing or applying boundaries can lead to anxiety and not feeling safe. In short some people are ok with a 1 metre distance others prefer 2 meters or more.

When we inhabit public spaces such as supermarkets, cityscapes or beauty spots we have to rely not just on ourselves following the boundaries, but also on the others that are co-habiting the space with us. Much like with the Highway Code the more predictable we are to each other the safer we are, and the safer we feel.

It was only a week ago I watched in the supermarket as someone reached over another customer to get a pack of cheese, the person whose spatial and mental boundaries had be broken, exclaimed angrily causing an arguement. This response was clearly driven by the fear of what could happen if the boundary of social-distancing is broken.

It is probable that this incident will cause a change in behaviour for one or both parties. The person whose boundaries were broken is likely to act in ways that are more defensive and have a greater feeling of anxiety about being in a similar situation. It is hoped the other party may be more mindful in future.

All healthy relationships need good boundaries whether they are with work colleagues, family, friends or people we inhabit space with at the supermarket. In this post lockdown world I would recommend following the largest distance possible unless you are invited to do otherwise by the setting, or people involved. It all comes down to respect, and kindness. Imposing yourself on others boundaries whether you agree or disagree with them, is a lack of courtesy and care that causes harm.

If you would like to think more about boundaries or need help feeling safe and calm in these anxious times, do get in touch.

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Leaving Lockdown

With the UK Government’s decision to begin to move us out of lockdown, by easing some restrictions, there has been an outcry about the affects of lockdown on our mental health. I’d like to explore with you what this mean for us on a personal level.

I think it’s worth starting with some simple premises:

Our society pre-lockdown was not a mental health eutopia. People beforehand suffered with mental health issues, mental health and wellbeing were not taken seriously, stigma caused people to not seek help, and NHS services struggled with those who did reach out.

Work based Employee Assistance Programs, counselling and CBT are underfunded and people often get a set number of 6-12 sessions, which is often not long enough (I typically work with clients for around a year). Despite the fact that the biggest predictor of a good outcome in therapy being how well you get on with your therapist, most people accessing these services have no choice in who they see.

We know from research and anecdotal evidence that people experiencing the same event will have vastly differing feelings, memories and responses to those events. Check out this selection of articles from the BBC about those who are struggling and thriving in lockdown.

So what do these premises mean?

Well, we all came into lockdown from a different starting point, some of us were mentally healthy, some of us had mental health issues, some of us didn’t consider our mental health and wellbeing at all. We have all come from different socio-economic backgrounds which have profoundly affected our experience of lockdown, whether you were un-employed, disabled, unable to work, shielding, an essential or keyworker, able to work from home, furloughed or still attending your place of work. Looking after children or vulnerable family members and neighbours also has had an effect on what lockdown has felt and looked like for each of us.

A picture of a street sign saying lockdown, to show we are leaving lockdown in the UK
Leaving Lockdown

Some of us have been directly affected by being unwell with Covid-19, or losing a friend or family member to it. You may have also experienced anxiety or worry over contracting it, or a feeling of unreality about it or even ‘it won’t happen to me’. Some of us may have put aside our health concerns to participape in The Black Lives Matter protests, others may have found other ways to support the movement through petitions, social media and Blackout Tuesday.

The point is whether you worry we are moving out of lockdown too fast, can’t wait for the world to reopen or are somewhat on the fence. Whether you have had a big revelation about your life during lockdown or you are finding your depression and/or anxiety is worse. What I want you to know is your experience is valued and valid.

There is no right answer or way to feel, and anyone who tells you there is is lying. What I would say is that if you are feeling low, and your mental health has suffered, or you have been unable to access your usual sources of support, REACH OUT. Talk to someone, a friend, a therapist, DO NOT SUFFER IN SILENCE.

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