Engage: Factfulness can protect your mental health in a crisis – Danger to opportunity

Since the outbreak of COVID-19, we have been experiencing challenging times. Previous research into the psychological impacts of pandemics such as SARS reported that people experienced increased levels of anxiety and stress, and stigma associated with being infected by it, leading to a sense of fear.

When we feel fearful, which is one of the most primitive emotions relating to a brain part called amygdala, our fight-or-flight response kicks in. Historically speaking, this part of the brain, and this response, were created a long time ago when our lives were constantly exposed to high risks (e.g. being eaten by a dinosaur or other animals). The ultimate purpose of amygdala is to save our lives. If we saw a dinosaur, amygdala would send a message to our body to increase blood flow and tighten muscles. As this is a life-saving function, it is relatively easy to access.

Anxiety is a good example. Say, for example, you feel very anxious about making a presentation, your body reacts to the thought of giving a presentation in the fight-or-flight manner. Your heartbeat gets faster, muscles get tense, and you sweat. You know that even if your presentation ends up going wrong, you will be alive and carry on your life, but you still feel like you wouldn’t. When fear kicks in, we can sometimes overreact (thanks to our brain’s life-saving function) and cannot think as clearly as we would normally.

This applies to what is happening now, during this pandemic. Panic shopping and acts of discrimination towards people are examples. Pandemics can make people feel fearful, which is sometimes expressed as anger. A pandemic by itself is already a big problem, but these types of mental distress can make it feel even worse. We need to use our brain for the better, not the other way.

One way to prevent this is factfulness. Factfulness is a concept introduced in the book, ‘Factfulness: Ten Reasons We’re Wrong About the World – and Why Things Are Better Than You Think, written by Swedish statistician Hans Rosling and his son and daughter in 2018. Bill Gates highly recommended this book, and gave a free copy to all American university graduates of the year 2018 on request.

As the title notes, this book points out ten typical mistakes people make when swayed by what is not factual. One key message, though, is to make a judgement based on facts, not opinions or rumours. Frequent news and social media checking can be bad for your wellbeing, but getting information from a reliable source and limiting the number of times you check news may be helpful. Our students at the University of Derby Online Learning learn how to assess the quality of information (research findings), which is really useful in a time like now. We can access so much information, but accessing fact-based quality information is crucial. Reliable sources will give you facts, and recommend appropriate actions based on those facts.

Another piece of useful knowledge may be how to deal with anxiety. As discussed earlier, when we feel anxious, we often feel like we cannot think straight. Our mind is busy with a variety of possible future scenarios, some of which are unrealistic. One easy and practical way to approach this would be to be present “here and now”, as practiced in Zen Buddhism. Breathing slowly can often be a first step towards it. By breathing slowly, you will notice your physical sensation and the length of each second passing by. Once you feel comfortable breathing slowly, you can start recognising what you see, hear, feel, smell and taste on that spot. Experience these stimuli as if you saw, heard, felt, smelled or tasted it for the first time. This often increases your awareness of “here and now”, which reduces anxiety and panic.

Needless to say, we are social animals, and I believe many of us are experiencing some degree of loneliness/isolation, which can be a debilitating factor for our mental health. Connecting with others in some ways would be especially useful. This is an example of where social media can be good for us. For example, at the University of Derby Online Learning , staff get together on a video conference platform every morning to check in and see how everyone is doing. This is what we call “huddle”, and although it is only a very short catch up, the effects are beneficial.

As recent ikigai (a Japanese concept roughly translated as “meaning of life”) studies (eg 1, 2) report, a higher level of wellbeing is associated with a sense of community. My four-year-old son talks to his friends on FaceTime these days, and that seems to have been helpful for his mental health (and I’m sure it will be also helpful when he is back to school reuniting with his friends). Finding ways to be in touch with others can help your mental health too.

It is a difficult time for many of us. In fact, in addition to the four-year-old, I am a father of nine-month old prematurely-born triplets. My four-year-old had chicken pox, and now it seems to have infected the triplets. I asked myself “why now?” and felt overwhelmed at first, but that question was not useful. My wife and I got factual information from medical professionals and took actions accordingly. After all, that is all you can do.

As John F Kennedy said: “crisis” in Japanese and Chinese (“危機”) is written as “danger” and “opportunity”. The news that many people in the UK have volunteered to help the NHS fight against COVID-19 shows such enormous caring hearts, and with actions like this, I hope this crisis will turn from danger to opportunity.

About The Author

Yasuhiro Kotera is Academic Lead for Counselling and Psychotherapy courses at the University of Derby Online Learning. In 2018 he gained the Accredited Counsellor/Psychotherapist status with the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy.

Picture (c) UDOL.