Yet another COVID related mental health tip – but there’s some stuff here that relates to all kinds of things too!
Are you worried right now?
That’s good news – you’re totally normal!
The fact is that no one alive right now has ever been through what we are facing as a global community as far as coping not just with a novel virus that researchers are working night and day to find both treatments and a vaccine for, but also with the supply chain issue many of us all over the world are experiencing that means we’re learning to have meatless Mondays or to cook with margarine instead of butter or to conserve toilet paper. We don’t really have an older or wiser person to look to and say, “how did you do this? Give me some tips!”
We’re all winging it.
I tell people that anxiety functions a bit like an allergy to uncertainty and during uncertain times, anxiety is a normal reaction, and for people who struggle with anxiety on a clinical level, such as with generalized anxiety disorder, that anxiety is inflamed a bit. We might have a panic attack when we haven’t had one in a while or be feeling anxiety more intensely than whatever our “normal” is.
We’re going to look at this a few ways today.
First up –
We were all pretty much feeling very secure and safe in our ability to buy what we needed at stores in plentiful supply and resting in the fact that when we’re sick, science usually has an answer for us. Our realities have been shaken up and we are all faced with having to adjust.
There are two ways to do that. We can say to ourselves that those beliefs we had were never true and will never be true again (in counseling we call this over-assimilation of a new belief) or we can adjust our present belief to accommodate the reality of the current situation.
Beliefs impact a lot of what we do, how we feel, and what we think.
If we adopt the belief that we weren’t safe, we aren’t safe now, and we’ll never be health or food safe again – how does that leave us feeling? Anxious. Worried. Scared. Panicked.
Is that a true statement? Is it factual?
Not exactly. Something a bit more factual to say or believe might be that throughout history we’ve encountered illness that takes some serious problem solving, that people were scared and purchased too much to offset that fear, but that supply chains will eventually work themselves out.
I’m not going to go too deep into that – this is a cognitive behavior therapy approach, and I think as we’re still in the midst of all of what is developing, our beliefs about this situation right now are fluid. That means the most important thing to do is to check in with yourself, with what you’re telling yourself. When you catch a thought floating through that results in more fear or that you feel like springs from fear, ask yourself:
Is this a helpful thought?
If it isn’t – do like Snoopp. Drop it like it’s hot!
Is it a factual thought?
If not – what is factual here?
When fear gets to be overwhelming, honor it!
Don’t say, “Oh, well,” and think terrible things and bottle them up and keep washing dishes or whatever you’re doing. Stop what you’re doing. Honor what you’re feeling and why: I’m afraid because my finances aren’t secure right now and there’s a global health crisis we don’t have an answer for. Or whatever is true for you.
Then normalize that feeling because it’s NORMAL. Say to yourself, “Everyone with awareness of the world is concerned just like I am.” Take one conscious breath in through your nose and exhale through your nose for a few seconds longer than you inhale – that helps your brain start to issue calm down neurotransmitters.
Then take a seat somewhere comfortable. Check in with your body. What muscles are tight? We hold tension in the body. Usually the shoulders, hands, thighs, low back, and abdomen are common places that store tension. Feel for that tension and then intentionally tense and release those areas.
Try some 478 breathing. Inhale through your nose for 4 seconds, hold that breath for 7 seconds, and release it for 8 seconds. As you do this, relax the jaw and allow your tongue to rest gently in the roof of your mouth. A note about this kind of breathing: It takes practice to see calming results, so do it often. Also, a friend recently pointed out to me that they felt tension when doing this exercise. Noticing some tension at the end of the inhale, hold, or beginning of the exhale is totally normal. In fact, we want that in a way. Don’t do this if it’s totally uncomfortable – but some tension and feeling slightly winded are normal. Give it a few rounds – maybe 3 to 5 rounds of 478 to start.
Make a playlist of your favorite songs that you find comforting or uplifting and while you’re on your breathing break, after you’ve checked in with your thoughts and relaxed your body, start it up.
Now is the perfect time to build a good self-care practice!
A few more notes – our brains are hardwired to be on the lookout for danger, and to mitigate potential harm to us. One way we do that is by planning things, by having routine and structure. At present, many of us can’t have our normal routine or structure or plans we had are out the window and we’re not sure when our normal groove will return. This causes the nervous system to panic a bit, to activate that part of us that is on alert for danger to higher levels.
This means it’s a good time to practice coming into the moment. The moment, this moment right now is the only place we really exist. The past is over, the future not here yet. This moment is it. Be fully in it or as fully as you can be. I’m going to link out to a mindfulness video by Dr. Jon Kabbat Zinn here below too. One basic strategy for being in the moment is to make some observation. Rotate your ankles, do jazz hands – some kind of physical movement. Say, “I am at home, I am doing jazz hands, I am safe. I am having coffee.” Whatever is true for you in that moment. As with all practices, repetition is key. Repeat this and it becomes habit and it becomes more and more helpful.
Name what you can and can’t control. List out what your fears and worries are. Look at that list and star the ones that you can actually control or take action on. Make a note of things you are doing that are already aimed at those items you can control. When your thoughts turn to what you can’t control, remind yourself of what you can control and what you’re doing about those.
I talked about this earlier – but how you’re thinking about the situation is important. What meaning you’re making from the situation is important, so pay attention to your thoughts. During the Holocaust, Dr. Viktor Frankl, a Jewish psychiatrist was taken prisoner and placed in a concentration camp. He realized very early into his experience that what he was thinking and how he viewed things was very important. He went on to develop a theory of therapy called logotherapy based on his experiences. His experiences and that approach are elaborated on beautifully in his book Man’s Search for Meaning, which I recommend downloading on Kindle and reading or getting on audible and listening. One of the things he mentions in the book is the contribution of art in concentration camps he was in – that there was singing, there were jokes, etc. This is something we’re seeing now – artists of all types putting their work out into the world for themselves and for us right now.
Spirituality is important to managing uncertainty too. This can be religious practice or it can be art, nature, or anything that gives you a sense of interconnection and being small within the larger picture. Think of this as leaning into and resting in something larger than yourself.
Practice gratitude – and I know this one is difficult when it feels so much is uncertain now. If all we have is this moment right now, then I want to really be in it, don’t you? Being with and honoring the difficult feelings we’re having right now is important. It is possible to honor those like I talked about earlier while also noting some things. This morning, I had my coffee outside, watched the sun come up over Texas, listened to the birds singing, and my neighbors working in their yard and consciously noted each thing with gratitude for what they are – signs that I’m in the moment, I’m safe, and many things are ok.
Lastly, some basics.
Follow the advice of your nation or location’s health authorities. Follow the guidance of trusted medical professionals. People with initials behind their names like MD or DO or PHD. Don’t go out if you don’t have to. If you have to, wash your hands when you can, use hand sanitizer. Stay home if you’re sick. Stay away from people you know are sick or elderly to avoid exposing their weakened immune systems. When you’re out, stay 6 ft away from others and if someone else steps into your 6 ft bubble back up – that’s your bubble! Limit your news intake to once a day for 5 to 10 minutes of headlines. Delete your facebook app if you need to for a bit.
If you need more in depth explanation or guidance on any of the tips or processes I’ve listed here, you can connect with me at https://www.betterhelp.com/whitney-white/
A video from Dr. Jon Kabbat Zinn on mindfulness, and this one is directly related to COVID.