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FACE COVID: practical steps to cope with uncertainty and promote your wellbeing during the pandemic

The coronavirus pandemic has plunged us into a world of uncertainty. Anxieties surrounding the virus can be frightening but we are also having to navigate monumental changes to our day-to-day lives in the measures we’ve taken to contain it.

If you’re struggling at the moment, know that you’re not alone. Fear and anxiety are normal and healthy responses to the situation we are living through. We are all likely to be feeling the emotional impact of adjusting to a new daily reality. 

Depending on your situation, you may be feeling this in a myriad of different ways: anxiety, low mood, grief, stress about your own and loved ones’ health and wellbeing, financial uncertainties, educational obstacles, barriers to socialising, employment uncertainties, and so on.

‘FACE COVID’ is a set of practical steps developed by Dr Russ Harris (2020) using principles from Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) that can help you better manage and cope with the impact of the pandemic. 

We’re going to explore these steps in more detail here.

F = focus on what you can control

A = acknowledge your thoughts and feelings

C = come back into your body

E = engage in what you’re doing

C = committed action

O = open up

V = values

I = identity resources

D = disinfect and distance physically, not socially

1. Focus on what you can control

There are many thoughts, feelings, and experiences in the COVID-19 pandemic that are far beyond our control. Questions such as, “will I lose my job?…will I get unwell?…will any of my loved ones end up in hospital?…when is this all going to end?!…” are arguably completely unanswerable and the uncertainty this causes can be unbearable. 

It’s really easy to get caught up in thinking and ruminating about all these uncertainties, worries, and concerns. We are programmed to think about and problem solve challenges. It’s how we’ve survived.  

But how can we problem-solve a global pandemic by thinking, especially if we’re ruminating about experiences that are completely out of our control? 

Although it is completely natural and understandable to get caught up in such worries, we negatively affect our mental health when we focus on what we cannot control, and allow our ruminations to run away with us. 

The more we focus on what we cannot control, the more we’re going to feel hopeless, anxious, and generally worse all around. 

None of us can control what happens in the future, no one knows when this will end. No one knows what the future of the pandemic is going to bring socially, economically, or the full effect it’s going to have on our lives. Similarly, we cannot control our emotions and feelings about all of this. 

But we can control what we do in the here and now

And what we do in the here and now can make a huge difference in how we feel. We arguably have a lot more control over our actions, than we do our thoughts and feelings. Russ Harris (2020) uses a great analogy to describe this:

“When a big storm blows up, the boats in the harbour drop anchor – because if they don’t, they’ll get swept out to sea. And of course, dropping anchor doesn’t make the storm go away (anchors can’t control the weather) – but it can hold a boat steady in the harbour, until the storm passes in its own good time”.

To drop anchor during our ‘emotional storm’ we must use the ACE formula:

A = Acknowledge your thoughts and feelings

C – Come back into your body

E = Engage in what you’re doing

2. Acknowledge your thoughts and feelings

Your thoughts and feelings are likely to be very normal and understandable given the current situation, however painful those thoughts and feelings may be.  

Gently explore these inner experiences. Label your thoughts using phrases like, “I’m noticing that I’m having a thought that…” and add whatever your thought is at the end of that sentence. 

You could try writing these down to observe them further. Label your emotions as they come up (“Here’s my anxiety…I can feel it in my chest”). 

While observing your thoughts and feelings, come back into your body…

3. Come back into your body

Connect with your physical body in a way you find helpful. There are a lot of ways of doing this, some ways to do this include:

  • Stretching your body
  • Notice your body temperature
  • Feel where your skin makes contact with your clothes
  • Push your feet into the floor or scrunch your toes
  • Breathe deeply

It is important to remember you are not trying to escape from your feelings or avoid them. Instead you are just trying to be aware of the emotional storm happening within you. 

Whilst doing this, you should also engage in what you are doing.

4. Engage in what you’re doing

Focus on the present moment and on what you’re doing. There are a lot of ways of doing this, some ways to do this include:

  • Notice 5 things you can see
  • Notice 5 things you can hear
  • Notice the smell and temperature of the room you’re in
  • Notice what you’re doing and give your full attention to it.

You can go through the ‘ACE’ cycle as many times as you need to, turning it into an exercise to ground yourself in the moment.

It can be used to ‘drop anchor’ to help you work with and experience difficult thoughts and feelings, memories, urges, and sensations in a more helpful manner. 

It will help you to engage more with what you’re doing, to prevent unhelpful, stressful ruminations. The ‘COVID’ cycle below can be used to make this easier. 

C = Committed action

O = Opening up

V = Values

I = Identity resources

D = Disinfect and Distance physically, not socially

5. Committed Action

Committed action is when you engage in behaviours and activities that are important to you, and guided by your core values – even if these behaviours bring up uncomfortable thoughts and feelings. After ‘dropping anchor’ using the ACT formula described previously, it will hopefully make it more bearable to engage with meaningful, important activities. 

Do activities that make you feel good, activities that soothe your soul. Care for yourself and for others: help others you love and those in need, be kind to yourself and others with words and actions, spend adequate time doing enjoyable activities, relax when you need to, exercise and eat well. 

A helpful way of doing this could be to write down a list of activities you can do and commit to doing them, even if you don’t feel in the right frame of mind or mood. 

By looking after ourselves, we can look after others. 

If you’ve ever flown before, you will be familiar with the advice to put on your own oxygen mask before helping others. Self-care is your own oxygen mask. If you can effectively care for yourself with committed action, you’ll be much better at helping others. 

6. Opening up

Allow uncomfortable emotions to show up and be present with them when they do. Once you accept that challenging emotional experiences are a normal part of the pandemic, you might fight them less. 

We have no control over when they come up or why they will come up, but we can open up to them and make room for them when they do by using the ‘ACE’ formula. Allow them to be there, even though they hurt, and treat yourself with kindness and compassion when they do surface.

7. Values

Committed action should be guided by what truly matters to you; your core values. There are many different values, such as love, compassion, humour, bravery, kindness, hard work and so on. 

Let your behaviours be guided by your own values. 

As the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic unfold, there will be many challenges to our lives. However, this should not prevent us from living in line with our values and what matters most to us. 

For example, if you value love and kindness, think about the actions you can do for yourself and others that show your love and compassion (such as speaking to a friend in need, doing a good deed for a neighbour who is isolating such as doing their food shopping, and so on). 

8. Identify resources

Identify resources and find ways of helping yourself and others during the crisis. This includes support and advice from health professionals, emergency services, and from charities and organisations. Be aware of all the helpful phone numbers, including mental health services if required. 

Make sure you keep connected with your social network and lean on those you love (and if you feel you can, allow them to lean on you). Our social network can be an incredible resource for our wellbeing.

Importantly, limit your use of the news and social media as appropriate if you find this causes additional stress and anxiety. 

9. Disinfect and distance physically, not socially

Disinfect your hands regularly, practise good cleaning habits to stay as safe as possible from contracting COVID-19 or accidentally spreading it.  

Practise social distancing in line with government guidance. However, remember you can be physically apart from people but remain socially connected through available technology. 

We can be together again physically in the future, but for now we must remain together socially where we can by using the amazing technology available to us. 

In summary…

Challenging times are ahead of us, and challenging emotions are a normal part of this. But by using the cycle of ‘FACE COVID’, we can promote our wellbeing and ensure we ride the storm until it passes. 

F = focus on what you can control

A = acknowledge your thoughts and feelings

C = come back into your body

E = engage in what you’re doing

C = committed action

O = opening up

V = values

I = identity resources

D = disinfect and distance