Learning to cope in the midst of crisis and uncertainty can understandably take its toll on your brain, body, and being. These feelings can become all the more heightened in a situation like the COVID-19 crisis when trying to manage stress and anxiety over your health, work, family, finances, and the future.
As I highlight in my first piece Be Adaptive, Not Reactive to Change, we’re actually dealing with two simultaneous contagions—the threat from the actual virus and the spreading psychological trauma it generates.
I’m finding my university students, those in my personal life, and even myself are experiencing what I call “coping fatigue”—we’re simply overwhelmed trying to cope with feelings of fear, grief, and hopelessness.
I find the following phrases are becoming all too common:
“I wake up in the middle of the night with my thoughts racing.”
“It’s hard not to feel hopeless and scared for myself and my family.”
“How can I manage my exhaustion and overwhelm?”
Most of you know that stress does more than just create anxiety and worry. Left unchecked, chronic stress undermines your ability to focus, sleep, work, and persist.
“Coping fatigue” can occur when the demand on your cognitive capacity surpasses what you’re normally able to manage and regulate. When this cognitive overload becomes unrelenting and feels out of your control, is it any wonder we’re dealing with “coping fatigue” at the moment? What can you do?
As revealed in my new book “Science of a Happy Brain“, both brain science and timeless spiritual wisdom provide strategies for us to cope and not to lose hope.
From the perspective of brain science, we humans can only retain a finite amount of cognitive information in any given moment. As a strategy for survival, the human brain evolved primarily to “focus on the bad, forget the good” in moments of crisis or trauma.
It’s a concept sometimes referred to as your brain’s negativity bias. Your “Survival Brain” evolved to focus on negative experiences and register stressful situations more strongly than remembering positive ones.
Here’s how you can understand it. I’ve often heard your brain’s negativity bias as best explained by the following phrase: “Your brain is like Velcro for negative experiences and like Teflon for positive ones.”
What that means is your brain excels at making the bad experiences stick, while making the good ones slip away. This concept is the essence behind your brain’s negativity bias—your brain is biased to remember more effectively the stressful and negative experiences than the joyful, happy ones.
Your brain’s built-in negativity bias can be one reason behind “coping fatigue” that can lead us to lose hope and drop into despair.
Borrowing wisdom from Buddhist psychology, it reveals that one primary source of suffering originates in the failure to accept the nature of change.
Putting this idea into the context of the current crisis, here’s a Buddhist riddle: How do you make a happy person become sad, and a sad person become happy? Just say, “What you’re feeling will soon pass.”
What this punch line implies is how the Buddha realized nothing lasts forever—both good times and bad times are temporary experiences. Both pain and pleasure are fleeting sensations in your fluctuating mind, but in the moment your mind deceives you into thinking these states are permanent.
In the case of pain, you suffer when you forget painful experiences are only temporary. We suffer when we forget that everything in life is never permanent.
The Buddhist notion of impermanence is not unique, as it is equally reflected among the world’s spiritual traditions by the common phrase: This, too, shall pass. It is exactly this universal concept of embracing the temporary nature of suffering is what we first need to remember as a strategy to combat “coping fatigue”.
Although you may find it even more challenging right now to stay calm and centered, please don’t lose hope. By applying spiritual wisdom and discoveries from brain science, you can develop practices and skills to promote “calm is the cure” into your life.
Stay Calm. Stay Safe. Stay Healthy.
Your Happiness Professor
Author of “Science of a Happy Brain”
Follow me @docjaykumar (FB, IG, LI, TW)