15.9.2020 Article written by Dr Tania Pietrzak Clinical Psychologist

Finding the light

We are all ordinary people. We are someone’s child, someone’s parent, someone’s lover, someone’s employee, someone’s sister or brother or someone’s boss. Some of us right now are living with great loneliness because of the lockdown due to COVID 19. Many of us have endured enormous suffering for more than 100 days now.

We can in our own small ways turn on a small light in a dark room. A light does not stand up and say, “I’m a light”, you must take responsibility to shine.

Those of you living completely alone with no-one to talk to, you are the everyday heroes. Every day that you remain inside the silent walls and the only sounds you hear are your own thoughts – wow this situation may either make you or break you. Therefore, I would like to write this piece about our thoughts and how important they are for finding our own light.

If you are joyful, naturally you will look at situations from all sides. One side is the lighter side, the other the darker side. The nature of existence is both light and dark. In every situation there is a dark, grey and a very light side. I am not saying that you need to be an eternal optimist and discard the enormous transformation, turbulence and change to our lives that we are all undergoing right now and pretend it is not there. It is not that you must polarise your thoughts and always be positive to achieve something. Likewise, if we put our depressive lens on and only look at the negative we may not achieve anything, in fact we will suffer much darkness. It is important that people have a more holistic picture of every situation. This is because the world does not work the way we expect. There will NEVER be perfect situations in our life, and yet somehow many of us expect ourselves and others to be perfect. Watch your iron-clad expectations and you will see how quickly you become angry at others when they behave in ways that disappoint our expectations.

Darkness is easy to see right now, many people are focusing their attention there and evaluating this situation as ‘terrible’ and feeling very overwhelmed, despondent and helpless. There are political dark times, racial and social injustice dark times, environmental dark times, there are restrictions on our movements and our basic civil rights, people are suffering from the loss of loved ones and the loss of our jobs, or the fact that some businesses might not make it through the pandemic.

This current global pandemic is frightening many people. There is recent research showing that the COVID-19 virus can invade the central nervous system and is capable of infecting nerve cells. However, a leading cause of suffering right now to the vast majority of people is the effects of fear and anger on the brain and body because of the COVID-19 virus.

Many of you may now be looking at other humans as ‘sources’ of potential virus transmitters and carefully striding a super wide berth when walking past others. Many of you may not have even left home at all, not even to walk or shop, instead relying on others to assist you. Some people are very angry.

Recently, I overhead a conversation between a couple waiting like me, for our regular GP appointment at a local medical centre. The man had his mask around his ears, but it was down around his chin and not covering his nose or mouth. He was boldly stating that he is “fed up” and that this is such a conspiracy and was very angry at the hypocracy of the situation. He claimed things like “if you take a deodorant spray and spray it through the mask you will see that the fumes go straight through so what is the point of wearing it?” His voice got angrier and angrier as he highlighted that people are going to the shops and meeting friends there, or in the park families are meeting other families in groups of up to 10 people. People are rummaging through the hard rubbish collection, touching items from aged care homes that have been thrown onto the nature strip. Then he saw me with my mask carefully secured over my nose and mouth and assumed I was anxious. He then allowed me to go first as the medical centre was about to close. Perhaps in his own way he felt sorry for me. I was not anxious; I was simply following government guidelines. His act of kindness despite his own fury at the situation warmed my heart.

This man may have thought his anger was justified and truly may believe that this pandemic is a conspiracy for governments to exercise greater economic and social control over its people. Perhaps he truly believes our government may even be preparing us for a cold war as he was claiming. His perception of me being anxious because of my protective gear, in combination with his bravado and courage that this disease is fabricated, may have been the most likely trigger for his kindness towards me.

However, it brings me to a very important point – people are misunderstanding their psychological situations and the way they interpret events as their reality. But existential reality is the way it is. How you interpret the things that happen to you depends on your mental filters, on how dark or light your mirror is in your mind is. Seekers of the truth are more able to look at life the way it is and accept life the way it is and NOT the way they think it is, NOR how they wish it to be in the future, NOR how they wish it was or wasn’t in the past. This is because the undisciplined mind, if left untamed, can think up anything it wants about any given situation.

Our sense of identity and self-worth, has become inextricably linked and interwoven to our thoughts and emotions. We have given too much importance to these aspects of our lives. It is as if we are actors on a stage. Our thoughts and emotions become our own psychological drama, and we get sucked into bringing certain actors onto our stage, or we play a role on others’ stage sets. What you think and feel about situations and other people are often through the lens of your own perceptual biases – and your mind will make things up. This is not reality. Humans are free to make up whatever they like in their mind, but this leads to inevitable suffering when there is a discrepancy between what one thinks they want and need, and how life is.

For people who may be struggling with mental health issues such as anxiety, depression, body dissatisfaction- getting balance back into your life is important. A psychologist can help you to identify unhelpful thinking patterns that lead to strong emotions that are overwhelming and getting in the way of you living your life according to your values. A good course of Cognitive Behaviour Therapy can assist you to obtain this balance by helping you to scrutinize information, situations, people and critically assess if this information or the way you are viewing it. This scrutiny- helps you to think more broadly about the situation and to become less entrenched in your personal view or biases.

Here are some Key Thinking Skills and Questions to promote greater insight and self-awareness:

  • CLARITY – when a statement from someone else or yourself is vague or fuzzy you cannot tell if its accurate or relevant. In this case you should ask for clarification or make your own statement clearer by first thinking it through more carefully. For example, you could say “Can you elaborate?” or “Can you tell me more or give me a specific example please?”
  • DEPTH– statements from yourself or another person lack depth when they fail to deal with the complexities of the issue. Ask yourself: “Do I, or does another person address the complexity of this issue or problem?” In the case of the man at the GP clinic, his conspiracy theory failed to consider the some 920K deaths, respiratory problems, and neural damage the COVID-19 virus is causing around the world. Just because he does not know anyone who has the virus does not mean that it does not exist.
  • ACCURACY- A statement from yourself or another person may be clear, but inaccurate, lacking in empirical evidence. Ask yourself “Where is the evidence to support my thought?” and “Where is the evidence that does not support my thought?”
  • RELEVANCE– Your statements and those of others, or your thoughts on an issue may be clear and accurate but lack relevance to the issue at hand. Ask yourself, “How is what I am thinking or saying related to this issue right now?”
  • LOGIC– When the combination of thoughts is mutually supporting and makes sense in combination, the thinking is logical. Ask yourself “How is it possible to be both X and Y? Isn’t there a contradiction here?” or “What would a friend say?”, or “Is this good logic, does it make sense to me and others?”
  • BREADTH– Your thoughts or arguments when relating to others on a topic that considers only one point on view but ignores other perspective lacks breadth. Ask yourself “What other points of view might we be missing?” AND “What’s blocking me from seeing and feeling the perspective of other people right now?”

If your thoughts pass this checklist, then you have good strong thinking, and this is likely going to lead to good emotional regulation. Your emotions will not run too hot and you will not be too impulsive. You must remain vibrant. Try not to go down rabbit holes in your own thinking. Do not go into beliefs and conclusions, for rigid adherence to biased thoughts and conclusions accelerates ageing and deterioration. Stay willing to look at everything, experience life the way it is with its ups and downs. Do not grasp to things, do not get too attached to things or people, do not allow your ego to filter your perception of reality. Use the above questions to blow the dust off your mental filters so you see clearly.

Taking time to get distance from your thinking in general is also a really good idea. Meditation, mindfulness, and yoga-based practices help enormously to quieten the mind to allow us to see the truth. The purpose of meditation is not just to make one ecstatic. It is the creation of a space between you and what is your body and mind. Once this happens, and you meditate on a regular basis, suffering begins to ease and eventually ends. The truth can be found when we bathe in the depth of the gaps between our thoughts, raising our conscious level of awareness. There is no more me and you, mine and yours, only we and us, together… atoms dancing in the sun… dissolution. When the truth hits us, it is a verb, we can not stay in an ignorant state. Be willing to look at all situations with a fresh perspective.

And remember – you still have a choice of what you can eat, how you move, how much you move, who you talk to, who you allow into your life and who you keep distance from.