In these anxious times, psychotherapist and School academic Dr Naomi Moller offers advice on coping with coronavirus – and sharks.
Over 25 years ago now I met a man in a ramshackle bar in Tokyo who was an expert on sharks. ‘Excellent!’ thought I, time to get an authoritative answer to one of my many (many) worries.
Me: If you find yourself in the water with a shark, what is the best thing to do?
Him: Get out of the water.
Me: Well yes, but this is for if you can’t. You’re stuck in the water and you see a shark fin… I’ve read somewhere that you should try to just float as it’s the splashing that attracts them.
Him: No, you just need to get out of the water.
Me: Yeah but that’s what I am saying. You are out at sea, in the middle of nowhere and the shark is circulating closer and closer… Someone told me once that what you need to do is dive and swim as fast as you can right at the shark.
Him: Yeah, I hear you, but still what you need to do is just get out of the water.
Me: The boat bloody sank! I can’t get out of the water! The shark has already bumped me and the next time I know he’s going to take a huge chunk out of me! I don’t want to be shark chum! So – do I punch the shark hard as I can right in the nose? Is that the best thing to do? Come on – you’re the expert!
Him: You’re not getting it are you? The only 100% sure way to avoid a shark attack is to get out of the water.
Okay, the reason I am telling you this story is that for me coronavirus is like a shark. I really (really, really, really) want to know what I can do to keep myself and all the people I care about safe. But this is a global crisis where no one has definitive answers, and no one can guarantee safety. Which can feel unbearable.
In this place of threat (adrift in the ocean, no land in sight, sharks in the water), I am finding myself doing some weird things, and then trying to make sense of them. Luckily as a Psychologist and therapist I can draw on theory – here the psychotherapy concept of ‘defence mechanisms’ – and I thought I’d share some of my reflections in the hope that they might resonate with some of you.
First though what are defence mechanisms?Defence mechanisms are an idea that started with Freud but have been discussed and researched by lots of other folk (e.g. see refs). In simple terms defence mechanisms are things that your unconscious does when it is trying to manage otherwise unbearable anxiety. They differ from coping in that coping is a conscious, deliberate effort to manage in difficult circumstances. With defence mechanisms no one is driving the bus. One core idea is that some defence mechanisms are more ‘mature’ (read healthy or adaptive) while others are more primitive.
On the more ‘immature’ end there is acting out. For me this has always included what is termed flight into action– the anxiety is so bad you just have to be up and doing. Panic buying is an example of this – and yeah, we now have 28 tins of baked beans in the house because I read once you can (at a pinch) live on them. Luckily we also have quite a lot of loo roll – which is extra good as everyone knows toilet paper is now magic, offering protection against coronavirus (why else would people be fighting over it?). I am relieved though not to be living in the United States where it is guns that are magic.
The opposite of flight into action is apathetic withdrawal. I am at the best of times someone who copes by going to bed and staying there but I don’t usually feel apathetic about work. We are hearing a lot right now about how to adjust to home working but what I need to know is, how do I make that huge work to-do list seem important when the global infection and death count keeps ticking up?
Other ‘immature’ defence mechanisms include denial and distortion(think Trump’s response to the corona virus) as well as projectionwhich involves ascribing our own negative qualities or feelings to someone else (consider the labelling of the virus as American or Chinese by those countries). There is also something termed schizoid fantasy, a retreat into fantasy characterised by immersive daydreaming. I have always been a daydreamer and I am not doing that more right now, but I have noticed a shift in my engagement with books/TV. Yes to dragons, orcs and other things from a galaxy far, far away and yes to staying up to 3:30am on a work night watching South Korean romcom miniseries.
In the neurotic (mid-range) of defence mechanisms there is repression(expelling disturbing thoughts and feelings from conscious awareness – Yup, I am a fan), and intellectualizationwhich involves hard-core thinking to avoid feeling (duh – why else do you think I am writing this?). There is also displacementin which the difficult feeling is pushed onto someone/something less threatening. This happens with anger (your manager shouted at you, so you go home and shout at the cat) but fear can also be displaced. The answer to ‘how many times can you get your teenage children to take their temperature in one day?’ is lower than this parent was hoping for. I know rationally that teenagers without underlying health conditions are a low risk group and that ‘psycho mum’ is driven in part by anxiety about my own health.
More adaptive/’mature’ defence mechanisms include:
- Suppression – this is consciously avoiding thinking about coronavirus. Helped I find by mindless eating (displacement behaviour) but also restricting access to coronavirus news.
- Sublimation – or channelling anxiety into socially approved outlets. I aspire to be doing yoga, meditation, home baking, regular exercise and lots of sex. What I am doing is knitting.
- Altruism – psychotherapists have long understood that you help yourself by helping others
- And of course – Humour
Cramer, P., 2000. Defense mechanisms in psychology today: Further processes for adaptation. American Psychologist, 55(6), p.637.
Di Giuseppe, M., Ciacchini, R., Micheloni, T., Bertolucci, I., Marchi, L. and Conversano, C., 2018. Defense mechanisms in cancer patients: A systematic review. Journal of psychosomatic research, 115, pp.76-86.
Tapp, J., Cottle, L., Christmas, M., Stratton, R., Gannon, T.A. and Moore, E., 2018. A psychometric evaluation of the Defence Style Questionnaire-40 in a UK forensic patient population. The Journal of Forensic Psychiatry & Psychology, 29(2), pp.288-307.
You can read more about Naomi Moller and her research here