It has been months since almost the entire globe has been locked down to curb the spread of COVID-19. A huge chunk of our population is struggling to survive due to loss of livelihood. For many, work has started but the fear of getting infected at work or outside their homes always looms over their heads. For those having the privilege of working from home, the challenge is to be able to demarcate between work and home, combined with the confinement within four walls for an extended period.
In this blog, we will look at some strategies that can help you handle the stress during a pandemic like COVID-19.
The White Bear Problem
Lockdowns are supposed to ensure you stay at home. Yet, the more you think about staying indoors the more you will find it difficult to stay indoors. The more you think of not stressing yourself out, the more you stress yourself out. Don’t worry. You are not the only one facing this challenge. In his 1863 essay titled “Winter Notes on Summer Impressions”, Fyodor Dostoevsky observed:
“Try to pose for yourself this task: not to think of a polar bear, and you will see that the cursed thing will come to mind every minute.”
This is known as the white bear problem. Though the origin of the white bear problem dates back to 1863, it was proven to be true around a century later and developed into the ‘ironic process theory’ by social psychologist Daniel Wegner. He found that people who are stressed or depressed are more likely to experience this phenomenon. In simple words, the more we determine or are told not to think about something, the more likely are we to think about it, over and over again.
What to Do?
After having developed his theory, Wegner was often confronted by people questioning him about how to get rid of the white bear problem from their thoughts. He later wrote about strategies that he found helpful. Out of those, two strategies – focused distraction and acceptance – were found to be the most effective. Some of his strategies are explained briefly below.
Focused Distraction: When told to think of a distracting thought, people usually think of multiple distracters. This results in a rebound of the suppressed thought. According to Wegner, focusing on just one distracter is far more effective. So, rather than randomly thinking about a hundred different things, focus on one distracter and think about it.
Acceptance: Trying to suppress your thoughts may drive you into doing something about the thoughts and lead to distress. People who are more accepting of these intrusive thoughts are less likely to be stressed or anxious. Even though the frequency of occurrence of the intrusive thoughts does not change, the comfort level with having them increases.
Thought Postponement: Putting off thinking about something is easier to do than trying not to think about it. Wegner does not recommend postponing thinking about the thought forever, but for a manageable time frame. So, focus on postponing your intrusive thoughts maybe until the lockdown is lifted.
Exposure: This might be painful for those thoughts that stem from sensitive or traumatic experiences, but thinking of the root cause of thoughts can work if you can think about them in a controlled manner.
Other widely practiced stress busters are meditation and cutting down on multitasking.
Getting back to ‘normal’ soon seems highly unlikely, if at all. It is this disbelief that is driving people paranoid. All the negativity that is spread around on various media does not help either. The world has changed, and so has the way we interact with it. This is hard to digest for a lot of people. A good start in this new world would be to focus on, in Wegner’s words, “setting free the bears”.
Wegner, D. M. (2011). Setting free the bears: Escape from thought suppression. American Psychologist, 66(8), 671–680.
American Psychological Association. (2011, October). Suppressing the ‘white bears’. Monitor on Psychology, 42(9). http://www.apa.org/monitor/2011/10/unwanted-thoughts