Una Mullally: To cope with Covid we must turn down the heat

Rage and frustration will not work. Positivity and emotional intelligence are best tools

High on Ireland’s rugby victory over England at the weekend, I listened to Shane Horgan analyse the game, following Robbie Henshaw’s post-game man of the match interview. Players talking in the immediate aftermath of a game they’ve just finished rarely offer any great insights, and their answers are often pat and canned, a magnetic poetry of cliches.

Yet Henshaw foregrounded one of the main emotional and psychological drivers of the Irish team’s performance, the fact that it was CJ Stander’s final game, and that the team found something within themselves as a collective to express their gratitude and love for their colleague and friend. They were determined that he would go out on a high, and that they would embody his characteristics to elevate themselves to a level that, realistically, no one really believed could be achieved before the match.

Horgan is an excellent analyst, not least because of his own playing experience, but also because of his emotional intelligence. In digesting Henshaw’s assessment of the match, Horgan spoke about how there was clearly a lot of emotion circulating around the game, but it’s what the Irish team did with that emotion, how they used it in a sophisticated way, that was interesting.

There is a tremendous amount of heightened emotion circulating at the moment. People's tempers are frayed

In the end, Ireland played the way they did because they could. But the extra boost was definitely psychological. They found a deeper purpose rooted in the aspirations for a dream ending to Stander’s playing career, dug into that, and achieved the outcome. This offers a lesson in what we do with emotion, how we control it, corral it and use it to our advantage.


Ground down and depressed

There is a tremendous amount of heightened emotion circulating at the moment. People’s tempers are frayed, they are despondent, frustrated, ground down, depressed, and all of that is very understandable. We’re all feeling it, although there is no doubt that it is not an equal playing field. But these are feelings, and feelings are malleable and changeable. We can succumb to them, or learn to recognise them, regulate them and move through them. The main tool we need now to mentally survive the coming months is that emotional intelligence. We are not in control of the situation, but we are in control of how we react to it. If we are going to get through this moment without cracking, without turning on each other, without working ourselves up into even greater states of outrage and despondency, we will have to learn to take pause and turn down the heat.

If we are not able to maintain ourselves, we will be no good to anyone else – our partners, friends, neighbours, families, colleagues – and our power as elements of a societal effort will also be hugely depleted. This is where social cohesion breaks down, and quick-fix proxies such as those seeking to capitalise from social despondency, frustration, anger and a desire to identify spectres of blame enter the fray and end up taking advantage of our own very real feelings without our emotional health in mind.

This is not about blithely staying positive, but it is about a degree of acceptance. We know that Government leadership is inadequate. We know that they’ve botched multiple stages of this emergency, and also that they have done some things correctly. We know that Micheál Martin is limping through his stint as Taoiseach, and the only person in government who thinks Stephen Donnelly is the right person to be leading the entire health system is Stephen Donnelly himself.

Emotional transference

We know that the Tánaiste is under investigation for leaking a confidential document and should stand aside if only to stop distracting from the work that needs to be done and the cohesion of government. His presence in government erodes public trust and is fuelling a particular venom that is compounded by people’s own personal frustrations and the emotional transference that is occurring around that.

The Government can't tell us it's okay to do certain things when it's not safe to do so. They foolishly did that in December and over a thousand people died

We also understand the deep, foreboding feeling of opportunities missed, the lack of resilience in our public health system, and the shortcomings and stuttering around massively staffing-up and resourcing a regional public health system so that outbreaks and clusters can be identified and dealt with closer to their source. We know that an advanced and sophisticated contract-tracing system is still not in place, that we still seem to know far too little about where, when and how community transmission is occurring, and that messaging around the importance of ventilation seems bizarrely absent. But at the same time, the Government can’t tell us it’s okay to do certain things when it’s not safe to do so. They foolishly did that in December and over a thousand people died in January. That’s the reality.

The heat and rage and frustration spilling out on social media is ultimately unhelpful. Gravitating towards social media to spill one’s feelings is not a good idea, and it’s not something people who work through their feelings in a healthy way do. Dumping one’s rage on social media may provide a momentary relief, but it is not taking action and it is not going to alleviate or change those feelings. It’s emotional littering, the equivalent of chucking a bottle out of car window when you’re done with it. Other people have to look at that mess. It is not a coping mechanism. Try, as hard as it is, to find something that is.