Coronavirus: how to cope with shock

Waking up to a changed world adds to the brain’s already heavy workload, but there are ways to help it process developments and find a degree of calm…

Right now wherever you are, whoever you are, your brain is likely in shock.

From those with the most power to those with the least, people worldwide are reeling from impact of coronavirus (Covid-19). And as you watch the world through the internet, or look out onto empty streets, your brain will be working hard to process the swift and dramatic changes. It’s like an office manager, filing and sorting all the information that comes its way. Right now it’s on overtime, papers piled high either side – and all that work has a consequence.

Perhaps you’re feeling more tired than normal. You stare into a cupboard without being able to see what’s inside. You forget an actor’s name. You misspell simple words. You watch the TV in a daze.

That’s all OK. Your routines have changed and your brain is filing a stack of data right now, which is more important to your mental processes than remembering who starred in a movie or drama series. When the stimulus is sorted, you’ll operate as usual – it might take a while, that’s all.

In addition, your life might feel suddenly much busier. The circumstances might mean you have more work on, or more childcare, but it won’t only be everyday practical concerns making life seem more hectic. It’s also that your brain’s non-stop processing of shock will be making you feel busy. Things can also appear to take twice as long because your brain is doing 10 times more work than usual and isn’t able to operate as it normally does.

I know this – although at the moment I’m experiencing the same amount of shock as everyone else – because I’ve been here before. A few years ago I had a normal life. Then my partner became seriously ill, and no doctor was able to discover a diagnosis or solution. For months, I tried to carry on as usual, even though we were in crisis mode for more than two years. I refused to give my brain any space to process what was happening. I kept myself constantly occupied until eventually I became overwhelmed and came to a complete stop.

Eventually, the brain has to process shock. For some, it might happen years after the initial event. Nobody is immune. We’re all humans, with ancient brains. If your days right now are filled with action, then the processing is likely to come in those odd moments when you find yourself less occupied. The sensations might feel uncomfortable and unsettling, but there are ways to manage the experience and give the brain time and space to come to terms with the changes that are affecting us personally and collectively right now. Here are some tips that might help:

Ways to find a calmer brain:

  • Minimise news and social media. Your brain’s already operating at top capacity. Don’t give it more stuff to process and more chances to receive negative messages and interactions.
  • Find at least one thing in your life you can stop doing, temporarily. The stress response can send messages telling you to do something and keep active, but your brain needs space for healing.
  • Treat carefully suggestions that you must maximise your time. You don’t have to write that novel, perfect your downward dog or take up the guitar. You don’t have to do anything. Now is the time for self-care – self-improvement can come later.
  • Revel in activities that don’t require too much mental power. Read so-called trashy books, watch silly TV shows, play daft games.
  • Make a treat of everyday activities. When you wash your hair, or have a cup of tea, or feel the breeze on your face through an open window, take time to truly enjoy it. Close your eyes and savour every moment. It’s time for you – and you deserve it.

If you feel anxious about the situation now or how it might affect your future, it’s important to talk about it with those you love and trust. You can also visit mind.org.uk and Samaritans.org. For the most reliable and up-to-date information about coronavirus, visit gov.uk/coronavirus or nhs.uk/coronavirus.

Words: Stephanie Lam
Stephanie is the author of Unfrazzle: The easy way to reclaim your calm.

Illustration: via shutterstock