We all woke up one day in a global crisis. COVID-19 continues to spread, leaving us fearful of going outside, spending time with the people we love, or socializing in the ways we used to. We turn on the TV to hear that people are dying, the economy is crashing, and the world is still trying to figure out how to end this global pandemic.
What do most of us do in this uncomfortable, aversive situation? We problem-solve how to make the situation better.
“I need to stock up on things, should I go to the grocery store now or try to order it online?”
“Should I stay in my current home or go stay inside with other family members? Is that wrong? Will I put them in danger?”
“I’ll set up a workstation at home, make a family schedule…”
Before we take any action, our brains start to think and plan. This verbal problem solving ability is an amazing aspect of being human. It’s what makes many of us successful in our competitive workspaces. Every day at our jobs, we are often faced with meeting deadlines, managing conflicting interests and trying to add value to our company.
Unfortunately, verbal problem solving doesn’t help our mental health in the same way. It can actually cause more suffering.
Imagine you wake up one day and you’re experiencing discomfort, heaviness, dread?
Again, we try to problem-solve to escape, avoid and get rid of that feeling. That might mean exercising, diving into work or reorganizing your closet. It also might mean drinking, binging Netflix, popping a pill or overeating. We try to think and (re)act our way into feeling better.
What’s the problem? Our psychological and emotional well being doesn’t work that way. Our emotions can not be problem solved. They demand to be felt.
When we push our emotional experiences away, they grow and metastasize in our body. Then, we wonder, “why am I feeling depressed?” or “why can’t I just get myself together?” In an effort to meet the growing demands of our external world, we fail to attend to our inner experience and allow our psychological health to deteriorate.
Then, how do we take care of our mental health?
Instead of problem-solving, we need to name our emotions and make space for them. Research shows that when we name what we are feeling, brain activity in the amygdala (your fear center) decreases. When the amygdala calms down, cortisol and adrenaline levels go down. Our body starts to recuperate, and we are better able to make values-based choices, instead of fear-driven ones.
Right now, many people are feeling anxiety and grief. Humans are allergic to uncertainty, some more than others. We are in a purgatory of uncertainty right now. Our fight or flight system is constantly drumming in the background, throwing us into a state of anxiety and adrenaline-fueled thinking. Not only are we scared, but we are grieving the collective loss of normal. The loss of gathering, community and stability. The losses are endless right now. As Scott Berinato says, “That discomfort you’re feeling is grief. If we can name it, perhaps we can manage it.”
Take a moment to pause, notice your body and current state of mind, and name what you are feeling. A daily mantra to try. “In this moment, I am feeling______. I am not alone. How would I treat a loved one right now? What do I need?”
Once we make space for it, then what?
Give it time. All emotions will eventually pass. Let the storm clouds pass through.
Connect with others and share your experiences. When we talk about what we are going through with others, it helps us to process and de-stigmatize our experience. Instead of virtual happy hours, companies may want to consider virtual mental health chats. When you Zoom chat with your friends, ask them what has been challenging for them and how they are coping.
Practice Uncertainty Tolerance. Remember, the thought that we actually have any control in our daily lives is a bit of a myth. Research tells us that humans are really poor at predicting the future. The greater your ability to tolerate uncertainty, the more equipped you are to deal with the pandemic and our ever changing world. Focus on what’s in your control and practice letting go of what is not. More thinking won’t help here. Try using an app like Calm or Headspace to develop a daily practice of mindfulness that brings you out of your mind and into the present.
Act from values, instead fear. When I take a step back and notice my mind right now, it looks like it has regressed to my 19 year-old, perfectionistic, self-destructive self. Why? Because when we experience ongoing stress or trauma, we revert to the times in our life when we were last having an experience of ongoing stress. Our brain is wired to resort to the (mal)adaptive coping mechanisms we used to get through them. I have found myself acting from fear and thinking, “I should be_________________.” Fill in the blank: more productive, a better friend, a better parent, more grateful, functioning better than I am, able to make better use of this time. These ‘shoulds’ are often fear-fueled and guilt-creating.
Take out a pen and paper and answer these questions.
“What is important to me right now?”
“What actions or behaviors would make this time feel meaningful for me?
“What is actually realistic right now and would allow for grace and kindness for myself?”
Take a moment each day to make small promises to yourself that align with your values. When we commit to small things that are achievable and that align with what is important to us, we build trust with ourselves. We start to align with our intuition and detach from the external ‘shoulds’ placed upon us. To build confidence in your ability to get through this, make compassionate, realistic promises to yourself and keep them.
The truth is that life will always include uncomfortable experiences like anxiety and grief, because that’s what it is to be human. We have a tremendous opportunity to develop the resilience and emotional intelligence to lean in and move through it.