We’re living through uniquely challenging times, both physically and psychologically. I’ve been specializing in stress management for over 35 years. In this article, I’m presenting some ideas for coping with the mental health aspect of the crisis, a difficult time for us both individually and as a society.
The two major factors operating at times like these are fear and uncertainty. What they have in common is a feeling of loss of control. We can’t see the virus, we don’t know what or who is safe to touch or how long this crisis will go on. Along with the physical distancing, isolation and financial effects of the pandemic, our lives have been profoundly upended. So how can we reduce the stress that most of us are feeling?
Stress and Control are like two elevators on one cable: when one is up, the other is almost always down. Think of being unable to find a parking spot or trying to get a two-year-old to go to bed: low control, high stress. If you want to reduce your stress, find ways to increase your feelings of control. And the good news is: You Have More Control Than You Think. Although you can’t control the weather, the economy, other people’s behaviour – or this coronavirus, you can control the way you behave, the way you think and the lifestyle choices you make. And if you take more control in these three areas, you will almost certainly reduce your stress to more manageable levels.
Let’s start with Action Strategies: Things you can DO.
First, the basic advice from Government and Public Health officials:
Physical distancing. I prefer this term to “social” distancing. We’re social beings. We need and crave social connection and interaction. We’re wired for it. It leads to the secretion of Oxytocin, the bonding hormone, which also reduces stress.
- Keep at least 6 feet away from other people. Better yet, STAY HOME unless you have no choice.
- Work remotely as much as possible.
- Wash your hands frequently with soap and water.
- Use disinfectant wipes on all surfaces if you have to go out (e.g. to buy groceries)
- Cough or sneeze into your sleeve or a tissue.
Two: Use technology to stay connected with family and friends. We live in an age of email, text, Skype, Facetime, ZOOM and social media, as well as the good old-fashioned telephone.
Three: Be a good neighbour. Check-in on the elderly and people living alone – preferably by phone or at a safe distance in person. Ask what they need and offer to run errands for them: buy groceries, fill medical prescriptions, etc. Leave them on their doorsteps, ring the bell and step away. Helping others not only feels good but raises oxytocin levels as well.
Four: Avoid News Overload. Keep informed through radio, TV and print media but don’t binge-watch news channels and saturate yourself with negativity.
Do Avail yourself of Information. Read or Tune into Q & A programs to learn more from experts about how to do deal with specific issues during the crisis
Five: Maintain daily routines and rhythms. Get up at a reasonable hour, get dressed and establish some structure to your daily activities. It will help you feel more organized and in control.
Six: Eat regular meals, get the sleep you need and keep active as much as possible. These are all things you can control. They will also enhance your immune system and keep you healthy.
Seven: Do Relaxation Breathing, Meditation or Yoga. Find instructions on the internet or find guided imagery programs to help you relax.
Eight: Use this forced downtime to slow down a bit, to relax as best you can. Catch up on chores you’ve been putting off (like decluttering.) Make time for forgotten or neglected pleasures (your old “I wish I had more time to ….” List.) Pleasant diversions such as puzzles, cards or board games, projects, reading, playing or listening to music, TV sitcoms or movies, funny YouTube videos. If you’re at home with family members, use the opportunity to spend more quality time with them.
Nine: Support others if you can: e.g. walk their dogs if they can’t get out; buy takeout to support favourite restaurants; donate to local food banks; give money to your gym or the local stores you frequent – for workers whose hours have been cut; send notes of thanks to your local health care workers and first responders.
Ten: Write a Gratitude List. Write down all the good things in your life, large and small. Then notice things throughout each day and keep adding to the list. Focus on all the things you have, not on what’s missing.
Now let’s look at Cognitive Strategies: Changing the way you THINK.
We can’t always change what happens. But we can always change how we think about what happens. Easier said than done, but it’s a skill that can be developed through practice. it’s called Reframing: changing your perspective, changing the way you look at things. It’s a remarkably valuable technique for reducing stress.
Looking for positives isn’t always easy. This isn’t about being insensitive or being a Pollyanna where everything is wonderful. It’s about mobilizing your resilience and resourcefulness in a crisis – looking at things with a new set of eyes, through a different lens. There’s a proverb that says “It’s better to light a candle than to curse the darkness” Reframing is about looking for that candle.
The word “crisis” in English has an ominous connotation. But in Chinese it’s written with two characters: one stands for Danger, the other for Opportunity. It acknowledges the negative side of a situation, but then it invites you to look for something positive. It’s important not to gloss over the fear and pain too quickly. But to dwell on that for too long is not helpful.
Betty Rollin wrote a book about her experience with breast cancer. It’s titled “First You Cry.” That’s a normal reaction. Then, at some point, people mobilize themselves and start to find ways to cope. Reframing is one of those coping strategies.
So what are some of the bright spots you can notice? The Positives, the Glimmers of Hope? On an individual level, ask: How else can I look at this situation? What opportunities does it present? Is there anything I can learn from this? What would I advise a friend in the same situation?
My own observations include the following:
- We’re starting to think collectively rather than individually. There’s an emerging spirit of community and pulling together. Adversity often brings people together, even if mostly virtually at the moment.
- People are stepping up and reaching out in all sorts of ways. Resilience and resourcefulness in action: Italians singing on their balconies, industrial companies retooling to make masks and respirators; small local sewing groups making masks from patterns on the internet; banging pots and pans with neighbours to thank health care workers. Musicians performing free “concerts” on the internet.
- We’re seeing courage and sacrifice from health care workers, hospital cleaners, lab techs, first responders, grocery store employees, and other vital service providers.
- Political parties are working together, joining collaboratively to pass urgent legislation.
- We’re learning how dependent we are on one another and the importance of cooperation and collective action. There are some things we can’t do alone.
- People are paying more attention to the elderly
- At least the virus isn’t airborne, so we can go for walks and bike rides – at a distance from other people
- Spring is here, bringing longer daylight hours and warmer weather to sit outside on balconies and back porches. Also, with warmer weather, it’s predicted there will be fewer and milder cases.
- Most people recover or have milder cases. If/when it resurfaces in the fall, it’ll probably be less virulent
- Less pollution with fewer cars on the road
- We’re lucky to have modes of communication that we never had before. Technology allows people to connect, work from home, have virtual meetings, ask questions and get advice from experts.
- Technology allows vast choices for home entertainment: buying books on-line, movies and series on TV (with theatres having to close) playing Bridge or Scrabble on-line.
- Overwhelming outpouring of humour and cleverness – and wide sharing of both: memes, cartoons, jokes, old TV clips on YouTube. Humour reduces stress but also reflects resilience and resourcefulness.
- An opportunity and a challenge to explore our ingenuity and resourcefulness. (Necessity is the Mother of Invention)
- Creative public health measures, such as drive-through testing sites and tents outside hospitals to keep potentially infected people out of ERs. Making face shields with 3D printers
- Seeing the importance of Prevention and Public Health measures, so often ignored in normal times. We’re learning more about hygiene – importance, and methods.
- Redefining your values: seeing how little we really need materially to make our lives meaningful and pleasant (A reality check) A chance to slow down, catch our breath and reassess our priorities and the busy-ness of our lives. Looking at what really matters. Simplifying.
- Time to declutter and work on projects
- Time and opportunity to catch up on reading, hobbies, TV shows, movies
- Stock markets will eventually rebound and recover. They always do.
- Some banks are extending a moratorium on mortgage payments.
- Government extending the tax filing deadline.
Not all of these ideas will resonate with you. But the ones that do can be helpful.
We can’t always choose what happens. But we can always choose how we look at what happens. Negative thoughts will drain you – and so will negative people. Conversely, positive thoughts (and people) will energize you. And you have a choice. So look for and focus on the positives as much as you can.
Control the things you can control.
You have more control than you think.
Now you have to use it!
Keep Well and Stay Safe
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