Re-Establishing Normalcy in the Age of Coronavirus
This past month brought a great deal of uncertainty into our lives. With the effects of job loss (for the less fortunate among us), social distancing, working from home (for the more fortunate among us), being inundated with information on our news feed, stock market crashes, economic chaos and fear of what our world will look like in the future, it's easy to slip into a downward spiral of fear, confusion, paranoia, depression, and anxiety. Here are some recommendations that can help us regain a sense of normalcy.
Abandon the need for certainty
This was my recommendation before the global pandemic, it's still sound advice during it. Difficulty dealing with uncertainty is common in our society. People want to know what's around the corner, this need has been exacerbated by the pandemic. This need to know and failure to obtain it gives rise to anxiety, but even when we do receive some bit of information that helps us feel a little more certain about the future, it is oftentimes short-lived. This constant seeking out certainty creates a problematic pattern of behavior, relying upon external sources of short-lived relief that often has diminishing returns. The recommendation is simple: start exposing yourself little by little to uncertainty and work on tolerating the not knowing. Goals should be SMART (Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, and Time-Bound). Next time you feel urge to check the news, don't. Tell yourself to delay the need to look for 5 minutes, then 10 minutes, etc. Eventually, you will build on your ability to tolerate uncertainty, and the small increases in tolerance will amount to large, cumulative effect on overall anxiety. Finally, it's important to remember that our fear of uncertainty does not mean that we have a need to know. Knowing is not a need, it is a desire. Desires that are not met are disappointing, but needs that are unmet are intolerable. Make sure you are not confusing a desire for a need.
Roll with the resistance
"Rolling with Resistance" is a key technique in Motivational Interviewing, which recognizes that simply attacking or confronting someone directly does not always work - it may drive people deeper into their shell or lead them to be highly defensive or confrontational. The numerous distractions in our lives (TV, video games, consumption of media, emotional eating) are attempts to fight back against thoughts, sensations, and negative feelings that we have judged as bad, unpleasant, and worthy of avoidance. This avoidance doesn't work because the sensations, feelings, experiences, and thoughts that we have interpreted as something worth avoiding never really go away. The cycle goes on and on without end. Next time you feel anxious, bored, or frustrated, consider how you are evaluating the present moment. Rather than judging things as boring or scary, or intolerable, try acknowledging them in more neutral terms. The next time you start worrying about COVID-19, rather than saying to yourself how awful this is, examine what you are feeling in your body, acknowledge the thoughts popping into your mind, notice your feelings. Accept them for what they are and watch them go. Usually, when we experience negative thoughts and emotions, they stick to us like velcro. Using distractions is our way of trying to shake them off. In Dialectical Behavior Therapy, there is a term called "the teflon mind". It is used to describe experience as something transitory in nature. By acknowledging a thought as a thought, an emotion as just an emotion, or physical sensation as just a physical sensation, you giving yourself permission to experience things without judgment and without resistance.
Embrace possibility by creating meaning
In Chinese, the word "crisis" means a point where things happen or change. It is commonly and incorrectly invoked in western society as a word consisting of the words "danger" and "opportunity". Regardless of the translation, there is no doubt that we are currently experiencing an unprecedented crisis. During these times, it is wise to invoke the spirit of crisis, as it was so brilliantly described by the Chinese. We are at a crossroads and crossroads imply choice. We have choices during this time. As difficult as this time is, we can choose to create meaning from this experience. Perhaps this is the moment where we decide to take up that hobby we have always wanted to start, or find the time to grow professionally through continuing education, find a niche market, volunteer, or develop a new skill. The point is that it is easy to get sucked into the doom and gloom, but it's important to remember that no matter what is being said about the crisis and the explanations about what it all means for us, in the end we are the ones who are solely responsible for creating meaning in our lives.
Look beyond the scariest part of your narrative
As we continue to monitor the events in this developing crisis, it is easy to turn our minds towards the future, and what it has in store for us. We may begin to think about what will happen to our parents, our society, our children, our bank accounts, our jobs. When we start fantasizing about these possibilities, we reach a point in our narrative that is so terrible, so distressing, that we decide to abandon the thought experiment (for a time). That catastrophic moment reflects a moment in the story, but through our avoidance, becomes the disastrous end of the story. It's like reading a book, and just when things get really interesting, we slam the book shut and call it the end! In doing so, we perpetuate the cycle of anxiety by now considering what lies beyond the catastrophe. Next time you start thinking about the future, rather than stopping at the worse moment in the story, keep going. Play it out to the end. Exhaust yourself with the possibilities that the future holds. Eventually, you will come to find that if you peer past the worst of it, there's more to the story. There is hope, there is uncertainty, there is anger, there is sorrow, there is recovery. Disasters eventually end, and when we can see past them, we can start healthfully coping with what the future may hold.
Put the phone down
I know. The phone has become an integral part of our lives. It has practically become an extension of ourselves, upon which our reliance has only increased through 24/7 news coverage of COVID-19, quarantine and social distancing measures. I understand how staying up to date can feel like a necessity, but let's take a moment to be completely honest with each other. We don't need THAT much information. You can probably get more than what you need by the time you finish your morning coffee. Which is why I have personally committed to reading for 30 minutes each day with my morning coffee. Whatever information I can get in within that time frame is OK. After that, it's off limits until tomorrow. I invite you to do the same.
Be pickier with your sources
Not to get political, but there is a whole lot of disreputable news sources. Some of which may be sites you are already reading without questioning how accurate, non-biased, reliable, or impartial they are in their reporting. It's very easy to get yourself anxious and adding to that by reading news sources that exploit our worries is a recipe for disaster. This incessant barrage is significantly contributing to our sense of danger, and this in turn increases our fear and further escalation of perceived danger. So let's not sugarcoat things and get to the point: Lay off the CNN, Fox, Breitbart, and NBC. Instead, try taking a look at NPR, WSJ, AP and PBS.
Take Care of Yourself
With the barrage of bad news, fear of the unknown, and social isolation this crisis has caused, it has never been more important to focus on self-care. Focus on maintaining a consistent 8 hour sleep schedule, find time 3 times a week to exercise for at least 30 minutes, go outside and practice some forest bathing or shinrin-yoku, schedule a zoom meeting with family once a week to stay connected with those that matter most, cook regularly/eat healthier, clean your living space, keep caring for your appearance and look presentable, take time each day to unplug from technology and just be with yourself. These strategies can have a powerful cumulative effect on your well-being long after this pandemic is behind us.