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Opinion: Why labelling your emotions can help you cope with coronavirus anxiety

Psychologist Brendan Kelly shares an extract from his new book, which is about coping with the coronavirus.

Professor Brendan Kelly

CORONAVIRUS PRESENTS THE world with two problems. The first problem is the illness caused by the new coronavirus itself, Covid-19.

The second problem is the anxiety and panic that the virus triggers in the minds of virtually everyone who hears about it.

Both problems are very real and both can be solved.

My new e-book, Coping with Coronavirus, concerns the second problem which is far more widespread and which will likely persist long after this particular virus has passed. This adapted extract from the book focuses on managing our feelings during the pandemic.

Rational animal

The Greek philosopher Aristotle reportedly said that a human being is a ‘rational animal’.

If Aristotle truly said this, then he was both right and wrong. Aristotle was right to the extent that humans have enormously complex brains, comprising over 86 billion nerve cells along with many more supporting structures, brain chemicals and various other cells.

And, for the most part, we use our brains to good effect: understanding the world, solving problems and communicating with each other in astonishingly subtle ways. Our brains are truly extraordinary.

But Aristotle was wrong if he thought that human beings are entirely rational. There is growing evidence that many of the decisions that we believe to be logical and rational are deeply influenced by emotion and profoundly shaped by irrational beliefs.

We are not the logical thinking machines that we sometimes imagine ourselves to be. This means that we need to devote greater attention to emotions in our day-to-day lives, especially at times when feelings run high, such as now, during the current outbreak of coronavirus.

The first step is to identify your emotions as you feel them. Clearly labelling each emotion will help you to recognise how you feel and how strong your current emotions really are.

Second, work hard to accept your emotions, regardless of what they are. You cannot negotiate directly with emotions, so you need to accept your anger, your frustration, your fear or your happiness. You should, however, remain confident that you can handle any emotion: these are all transient feelings and they all will pass.

Third, try to figure out why you feel this way right now. Is there a trigger? Sometimes there is a clear trigger and sometimes there is not.

It is especially useful to identify when negative emotions have no clear focus. This helps them to dissipate.

The coronavirus outbreak has triggered strong emotions in many people. These are commonly centered on anxiety, anger, fear and sadness. It is important to recognise these feelings.


Unfamiliar situations

It is also important to recognise that coronavirus has placed many people in unfamiliar situations which will provoke unfamiliar emotions. For example, many countries ask people who have symptoms of coronavirus to ‘self-isolate’.

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This means avoiding contact with other people. In some countries, limited social interaction is advised, while general ‘social distancing’ is in effect in others.

While all of these steps are effective public health measures, they create unusual social and emotional situations with which most people are unfamiliar. Quarantine has similar effects, often resulting in fear of infection, frustration, boredom and annoyance at lack of information.

There can also be problems with stigma, finances and tensions in relationships, as well as anger towards people from epicentres of the outbreak and towards governments for perceived inaction.

These problems can be mitigated by terminating these public health measures when they are no longer necessary, providing adequate information and supplies to those affected, improving communication (using technology where possible) and, for children, continuing schooling and education as best as feasible.

Emotional awareness is vital. These are unusual circumstances at a time of unique emotional intensity.

Labelling our emotions and checking in on how we feel can help greatly as we navigate the challenges ahead.

Brendan Kelly is Professor of Psychiatry at Trinity College Dublin and author of Coping with Coronavirus. How to Stay Calm and Protect your Mental Health: A Psychological Toolkit (Merrion Press).

About the author:

Professor Brendan Kelly

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