Tips on Coping With the Unknown (Part 1)

A Reflection on the Psychological Effects of COVID-19 and Social Distancing


Understanding Why It Is So Hard

I wanted to take a moment to offer some encouragement. Whatever you are going through right now, please remember:

1. There is nothing wrong with you if you are having a hard time.

It is a normal emotional response. Your brain is being flooded with stress hormones. This happens whenever any living creature is faced with a threat. Whether or not COVID-19 is a threat to you or your family, it may be that you perceive it as such.

2. You are not alone, though it certainly might feel that way.

Even if you live alone, your T1D community is here with you. Being embedded in and feeling that you belong in your community is crucial to healing. Perhaps you also have other communities to lean on. If you don’t have support, or you if you are not sure how to seek support from others, please consider starting by reaching out to one of TCOYD’s Facebook groups for people with type 1, type 2, or friends and family.

3. When everything seems out of control, remember there are also many things in your control.

Like what? What you eat, when you eat, if you brush your teeth. Hey, no judgements. Brushing or not brushing your teeth is a personal choice. How you organize your day. These are basic examples. All of these are choices. Choices imply control.

4. If you tend to repress or avoid your feelings, now is an excellent time to embrace them lovingly.

This step is the key to disengaging the reptile brain. Psychologists often refer to the more primitive parts of the brain as the reptile brain. These parts constantly check on the inputs from your senses (sight, smell, hearing, etc.), access memories of similar situations, and generate emotions. All of this happens outside of your awareness. With time and practice, you might be able to know what is happening behind the scenes. In the next section, I’ll show you some skills that can help.

I have no idea how this current situation will play out, but I do know that drawing upon your strengths and your supports will make a difference. We will discuss how to draw upon strengths and supports throughout the Coping with the Unknown tips sheets. Next up I’ll give some tips on specific emotional and behavioral changes you may be experiencing and why.

Stress vs. Distress: Caring for Your Inner Reptile

Let’s pause for a moment of reflection. What do you notice about the building in the picture above? How do you imagine that it once was? How do you think it came to be in the state it is now? What do you imagine the building might need?

As we learned in the first section, the reptile brain is activated as part of the “stress response.” The reptile brain is in fact always working. Thanks to these older parts of your brain, you can breathe, and your heart can beat without any conscious effort on your part. Thanks reptile brain!

The downside is that when our actions are based entirely from the reptile brain’s information, we act purely on instinct and impulse. (AKA- we buy ALL of the toilet paper.)

The upside is that if you are an adult, you already have skills to manage the inner reptile. In times of crisis, we just need more time and reflection to get back to making wise decisions.

Important tips for understanding and caring for your reptile brain:

1. You need it to survive. You literally could not live without it.

2. It is not the enemy.

3. Stress is NOT bad.

We are regaled with messages about managing our stress. Without stress, we would all behave like toddlers sticking our fingers into light sockets and wandering into traffic. The stress response is necessary to warn us when action is needed to protect us physically, or direct us to meet a basic need, such as eating, fulfilling a work deadline, and knowing when someone or something has violated your boundaries.

 4. Distress is actually the challenge.

Distress occurs when you have conflicting needs or feelings, or there is no immediate way to/or you don’t know how to address your feelings. This is where things in your life can spiral into chaos and you experience distress. As you see in the photo of the distressed building above. It probably got this way, because at some point someone chose to stop maintaining it. All things, even people, need maintenance.

5. Emotions are information.

They have no more power than you give them. Emotions can guide you to make more informed decisions. What we work toward is incorporating, emotions, thoughts, and bodily sensations into actionable information – information that guides our decision-making in a thoughtful and reasoned manner.

6. Daily maintenance is essential.

By practicing focused attention and awareness, you have a better chance of being able to recognize when the reptile is taking over, and how to work with it to help you have a more intentional approach to your actions. Daily maintenance is what buffers you from distress and chaos.

In Part 2 of Coping with the Unknown next month, we’ll talk about the power of non-judgmental observation. I’ll give you some tips on how to develop awareness about what is going on behind the scenes (yes, you guessed it, in your reptile brain).


By Faith C. Cook, Psy.D., Clinical Psychologist, specializing in treating people with diabetes

© Faith C. Cook, Psy.D., PLLC

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