Globally, we are in unprecedented and uncertain times and we humans are NOT fans of uncertainty. To care for our physical health during this time there are some simple, yet effective precautions we have all come to know: practicing social distancing, washing hands often, avoiding touching your face/eyes/mouth, and getting adequate rest and fluids. But what about our mental health?
Many of us are feeling scared about the invisible looming threat of pandemic, angry at the injustice of having to uproot our routines and sad because we miss connecting with our loved ones and we are mourning our sense of normal. The following are some effective strategies for working through these feelings in the midst of these uncertain times.
1) Normalize your feelings
This sounds almost too simple. Surely saying that it’s okay to feel anxious can’t help me feel better, right?
Big problems are often times made up of many little decisions. I don’t speak up to my boss when he says something that offends me, I feel badly about not speaking up, I question my assertiveness, I avoid him to avoid the feelings of uneasiness, I start dreading work because of the possibility of confrontation, I begin to resent my boss for being offensive, I begin to resent my coworkers for not standing up to him, I begin to resent myself for not having the guts to say something, I begin to resent my job for exposing me to this situation in the first place.
I feel unheard when talking with my partner so I keep my complaints to myself, I bite my tongue more and more and feel less and less heard, I feel distance growing in my relationship, attempts at being heard result in fights, keeping my concerns to myself results in contempt, I feel without options, I resent the person I’ve loved, I resent myself for not speaking up, I fear for my marriage’s future, I fear for my own future.
Sounds familiar? I hope so. It’s very human of you.
Our complex brains and introspective ability can be as much a blessing as a curse. Accepting that we’re allowed to feel scared, sad, angry, hurt and that this doesn’t made us weak, incompetent, or less-than can be a very healthy step towards reconnecting to power in our own lives. Consider the quote attributed to Terence from his play The Self-Tormentor,
“If I am human then nothing human is alien to me”
as a reminder that your feelings have been shared by others in the past, present and will be felt by those in the future. We only tell ourselves we’re the only ones that feel this way or to this extent.
2) Focus on what you CAN control; let go of what you CAN’T
Consider the bullseye (or the Target logo): a small circle inside of a larger circle.
Let’s say that the large circle contains our broad worries (about the world, our future, or the futures of those around us) and the smaller circle contains our more local worries (about current needs, or the present). There’s so much in that larger circle that we can get lost in! What if there aren’t enough ventilators? How will my nurse friend fare throughout this pandemic? Will my parents be okay? Will I be okay? When will this end?
I know, for many of us, we’ve had these questions play in a loop inside of our minds. They’ll continue to play because we don’t have an answer to them and can’t have an answer to them.
Now let’s consider the smaller circle. This is your point of control. This is where you ask questions like Does my family have what we need right now? Have I called my parents today and genuinely connected with them? How can I support my nurse friend from afar? How can I keep myself mentally and physically healthy? What opportunities can I take advantage of during this time? This last question is especially interesting as a condition of life is that our next moment is never promised and this realization offers us a chance to be deliberate about how we spend our time and our energy.
IF you are faced with any of the larger circle questions, worrying about them now will not impact their outcome. In fact, worry will weaken your immune system, deter your healthy habits and leave you more susceptible to that which your anxiety is trying to help you avoid! On the other hand, focusing on the smaller circle that you do have control over can lead to a more satisfying present and more optimistic future.
3) Maintain some structure
Many of us are working from home. Those of us with kids have been thrust into a premature start to Summer break. We’re missing co-workers. We’re missing family members. We’re missing close friends. We’re missing going to the grocery store without a coffee filter sewn into a handkerchief covering out faces!
I’ve enjoyed the memes online about today being the “49th Day of March” or “Time to change from my daytime pajamas into my nighttime pajamas!” though there is a sadness to them that we’re all feelings. These days have a formlessness to them and it’s easy for us to let one lazily blur into another. If I can go from my bed to my kitchen to my work-space to my kitchen to my bed without changing clothes, this can feel like a paradise for a couple of days and a punishment thereafter.
WorkplaceMentalHealth.org has some great recommendations for maintaining your sanity while adjusting to these changes like:
Maintain your morning ritual – just because you can wear pjs and work doesn’t mean it’s good for you. Shower, shave, grab some coffee, some breakfast and remind yourself that today’s commute is going to be clear and easy! Maintaining a morning routine give us a mental and physical jumpstart and helps us to commit to the day ahead.
Clear a space – it doesn’t have the be the office of your dreams and doesn’t need to be! Make a designated space for work to be done (preferably not a space that you use for sleeping or winddown time) so that you can mentally and physically remove yourself from “work mode”.
Set limits – you could conceivably work around the clock or work a little throughout the day and night but there are some hazards associated with not switching gears from “work” to “relaxation”. As much as your work allows, set limits to when you will stop checking emails and answering calls during the day and when you will resume the next day.
Stay Connected – this means to people AND to the world around you. We’re in Springtime (most days) and even a 10-15 walk can boost our mood. If walking is out of the equation, sit outside or even gaze out the window and get some fresh air. It’s important that we make some time to get out of our rooms and we can do this while maintaining the safety or ourselves and others. Additionally, make time for video calls to friends and family members. It’s not the same as face-to-face contact but it’s a good deterrent to loneliness and gets in the way of total isolation, which we humans are not built for.
The full list is worth checking out whether you’re a seasoned remote worker or new to the work-from-home world.
Additionally, for those of us with kids, there are some great resources out there for kids to stay engaged (in things other than Fortnite and YouTube). Some schools have released guidance on using various online learning platforms and if yours hasn’t, a quick Google or Facebook search will yield several suggestions for keeping youngsters meaningfully occupied. Also, remember that structure that we talked about for adults? Kids need that as well, though they’ll assure you they don’t. One can only watch so much YouTube. The American Academy of Pediatrics has a webpage that can be very helpful if you’re a parent looking for guidance during this uncertain time of homeschooling.
Uncertain times can feel like powerless times but it’s important to remind ourselves that not having power over everything is not the same as having power over nothing. We have a unique opportunity during this time to recenter on what’s important in our lives, to take advantage of the time we have with the people and things in our lives that we can so easily take for granted or, at the very least, to come away with a “I Survived the Pandemic of 2020” story and t-shirt (not provided by QC Counselor).
We’re all feeling scared, angry, sad and a little lost—therapists too! Knowing that you’re not alone is important in this time and hope can get us through tremendous hurdles. You’ll get through this the best way you can and that may mean more crying sessions, more hours of guilty pleasure TV and more boredom and uncertainty. It will also mean resilience building as you take steps to find your new normal, to protect yourself and your neighbors and as you weather this storm that’s soaking us all. You’re entitled to feel crummy at times and you’re entitled to take steps to feel better.
We’ll get through this as a global community of people and, maybe, even be better for it.