Although there are many acts of kindness, generosity and empathy during difficult times, there will also be many extra acts of nastiness, anger, hatred or their less harmful cousins, irritation and snappiness. I don’t want to condone any of those, especially the nastier examples, but I do want us to be aware that all those things are fed and watered by stress and anxiety, and even more by despair, hopelessness or feelings of having no control.
And we’re all suffering some of those things. Even people whose lockdown is relatively benign will feel anxiety about the future, and, if not despair, then fear of how everything will pan out. How will our jobs, families, income and ability to aim for our dreams be affected over the coming months and years? How badly will our country be hit economically, which affects us all and some more horribly than others? How much unrest, civil disobedience, violence, aggression will there be? Will someone I’m close to die? Will the virus come back and when and how badly?
No thinking, feeling person can be immune to those fears. And fear is a version of stress: it alerts the body’s fighting systems, makes us ready for action.
Put simply: stress occupies brain bandwidth, as we have to focus attention on the threat(s); but self-control and resisting impulse also occupy significant brain bandwidth. It’s difficult, and sometimes impossible, to do those things at the same time, because brain bandwidth is finite: you can’t summon more of it. It’s not like a muscle that you can exercise in order to be able to push it a bit further. Brain bandwidth, like wifi, is all used up when it’s all used up.
So, when we are under stress we find it harder – or impossible – to rein in our angry responses
There’s a lot of anger around right now. Some of it is justified and much of it is understandable on an empathetic level.
Here are some things that are harder to do when we are under stress:
- See someone else’s point of view when it differs from ours
- Say or think: “Let’s agree to disagree” or “I see your point and understand why you think that but it’s not how I feel”
- Not snap back
- Not fire off an angry or aggressive tweet, text or email – or anything
- Realise that someone’s angry behaviour to us might be fed by their own stress and not something we did (though it might be)
- Remember to breathe and think before speaking or acting
- Be kind to people who are hurting, even when they tell us they are
- Have empathy for people who don’t already share our emotions and views
If you’re angry about something, I don’t judge whether the level of anger is justified or not. I’m not referring to any one issue in particular, just all the hate and fear flying around on so many topics. But could we all stop and breathe and understand what’s going on in other minds? Could we remember that we are all, in one way or another, under stress and behaving accordingly? We can’t alter the over-riding fact that we’re under stress and we can’t (I’d venture shouldn’t) try to remove emotion from the picture but we can, as adults with fully-formed prefrontal cortices, try to be the best that human beings can be.
That means getting our stress under control. Which begins with recognising it for what it is: a biological mechanism that makes us very good at fighting and winning but not very good at loving and being kind.
It also means making some extra effort to do whichever of the following seem possible or appropriate:
- Forgive (including yourself)
- Tolerate disagreement
- Embrace difference
- Find space every day to breathe
- Distract yourself
- Listen more
Listening is hard when we’re under stress but we become better citizens when we do it. And it feels good, too, to pause, stop and properly listen, whether to the birdsong or the thoughts of another person’s mind.
Don’t let the virus kill kindness.
For lots of advice on stress management, see many other places on my website and in my books. It’s what I’m all about! Schools could use Stress Well for Schools, a simple but comprehensive course for all secondary school students, which teachers love for its ease of use and the huge array of ideas and activities. The purchase price gives you unlimited use (copying, printing and sharing etc within school) forever – every year group, every student, forever.
Buy Stress Well before the end of July as the price is likely to rise before September. (Because I’ve been told it’s far too cheap for what it is!)