It's odd, right?

That feeling your whole concept of reality has been torn up.

Like you're in the thick of a bad dream about missing a flight, or turning up at the office in your pyjamas.

What's happening is strange and uncomfortable. And when the world becomes unpredictable, how do our brains cope with uncertainty? Not easily, science says.


Over recent days I've seen some reach for that line Franklin D Roosevelt immortalised, around about the same time as his country was emerging from an economic disaster this pandemic is now being compared to.

The one about having nothing to fear but fear itself.

The quote I've been pondering more was an old motto of the late Hunter Thompson: "When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro."

Things have been pretty weird for my family since August 2018, when our 2-year-old, Harry, was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder. At the severe end.

We never saw it coming.

We had our certain hopes and dreams for him and it was a brutal and sudden shift in those expectations that probably hit us hardest.

It felt like that strange dream we couldn't wake from. But the most worrying thing was that uncertainty about the future. Were we up to the challenge of caring for this kid?

It's the same kind of anxiety we're all probably grappling with right now.


"Uncertainty is difficult to a certain extent because we live in a society that likes to plan and know what's coming," clinical psychologist Sarb Johal tells me.

"Uncertainty and change can make us feel vulnerable. Potentially huge and unpredictable disruptions can make us feel anxious and on edge."

We'd all like to turn the clock back to a month ago, back when the Black Caps were beating India at the Basin Reserve and our nightly news bulletins were free of terms like global recession and community transmission.

Harry and Meghan, anyone?

But Johal says it's worth considering why we don't get so anxious about influenza to understand this better.

We know that influenza can be deadly for some - that's why doctors recommend vaccination for those most at risk of potential harm from the flu.

Yet the flu is familiar and has some predictability. It happens every year, and we can prepare for it.

"But because the coronavirus came seemingly out of nowhere, the unfamiliarity combines with the uncertainty to increase our anxiety," he says.

"And that's likely to be an evolutionary legacy of how our brains respond. In the face of an unfamiliar risk, erring on the side of caution may have proved a better way to survive, rather than just assuming everything will be fine."

Indeed, we can see this in the buying patterns of some people in recent weeks. When presented with uncertainty and unfamiliarity, we look to see how others behave to take our cue.

If we see on social media that stocks are running low on supermarket shelves, we assume that there is a shortage because people have bought them, and they must be buying it for a reason.

Our brains err on the side of caution, Johal says, so we also go out and buy the items we think might be in short supply in the future.

"Because we are not sure how to behave, we take our cue from others, and we assume that they might have vital information that is driving that behaviour."

Our emotions communicate messages to ourselves, and motivate us to action.

But sometimes they work against us, and instead of motivating us to act, they can be paralysing and lead us to shut down and feel overwhelmed.

Or they can lead us to make knee-jerk decisions that we may later regret.

So if you're now feeling a little silly and selfish about all those extra packs of pasta and loo paper you're hoarding, that was simply a result of anxiety doing the job human evolution has taught it to.

Reckoning with that anxiety that Harry's diagnosis caused us also took time.

Eventually, we came to realise Harry had always been Harry – a monkey of a kid with a mess of blonde hair, a sweet grin and mad giggle.

We just hadn't really met him yet. He's going to be fine.

It turned out to be that shifting of the ground beneath our feet that had thrown us.

And we were able to adapt to our new normal by anchoring ourselves to those things that hadn't and weren't going to change.

Mental stability could be found in a pile of unread paperbacks. In a dishwasher in need of emptying or a lawn in need of mowing. In re-watches of The Sopranos and Parks and Recreation. In Friday night Thai and Saturday morning short blacks.

I've turned back to some of these trusty helpers over the past few weeks that I've been writing about this fast-unfolding situation. The garden has never looked better.

The key here, Johal says, is that sometimes, when feeling uncertain in unfamiliar contests, we can feel out of control, both emotionally, and with the flood of information that we feel we can't take in.

There are biological mechanisms that control our attention that are responsible for this.

When fearful, our capacity to process new information and integrate that with what we already know reduces greatly.

Herald science reporter Jamie Morton, with son Harry. Photo / Jamie Morton
Herald science reporter Jamie Morton, with son Harry. Photo / Jamie Morton

So, we need to be able to process our emotions and regain a sense of control.

Like me, people can do something practical. Even just writing in a journal or notebook.

"Allow yourself to worry, put it down in writing in a notebook, and then put that away," he says.

"Once you've written it down, let it go. Rather than having it go round and round in their heads, a lot of people find that writing it down allows them to move on to think about and do other things."

You can also try drawing two circles – a circle of control and a circle of no influence – and fill them with things in your life that you worry about.

This helps you to remember what things you can impact and those that, no matter how much you worry, you can do nothing about.

And importantly, choose to only consume what you can handle.

If you're struggling to cope, you don't have to keep watching live news, have notifications turned on or use social media.

Instead, limit your exposure to the new information. You can be strict with yourself, by deciding to only watch the news and read an update on the virus once a day.

Limit the amount of time you spend reading or watching things which aren't making you feel better.

Make use of your social networks. Time and time again, it's been found that the biggest protective factor when people are going through a crisis is their access to social support - the people and communities that they already know.

"So, when people are going through tough times and they are not able to be physically close to each other - for example, grandparents and their grandchildren in this context, it's doubly important to make sure that we find ways for that social connection to continue on," Johal says.

"It's not only good for the children, but it's incredibly important for those grandparents too, and indeed all the family as they see these relationships continue to blossom, even in the most trying of times."

We all need to remember that this is most likely going to be something that we'll be dealing with for quite some time, not just a matter of a few weeks.

So pace yourself, be scrupulous with your hygiene, and gentle with yourself and others.

You probably won't see people as much as you're used to, and if you're not careful, that will take a toll.

Find ways to connect with others. Keep eating well, find ways to exercise use and get out into nature.

Remember, if you get sick, you're very likely to recover. And when you do, keep washing your hands, because that way you continue to reduce the risk of the virus to those who have not yet been infected.

Most importantly – and as our editor told us all this morning before another hectic day of pandemic coverage at the Herald – stay cool.

I only had to look at a happy, beaming Harry as I dropped him off at kindy today to know that I would be.

When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro.