Most of us in the United States have been in quarantine for more than two months. While some states are beginning to open for business, 47 have cancelled the remainder of the school year and some health officials are suggesting social distancing should last through the summer.
The way we respond to stressors is a combination of how we’re wired and how we were raised. It’s both nurture and nature.
We can use the unique circumstances we find ourselves in today to train ourselves to think differently when we are faced with challenges, now and in the future.
I developed the following strategies to help my clients–professional, Division-I, and high school athletes–leverage their innate abilities to improve, enhance, and elevate their performance. These same techniques will help you overcome whatever challenges you face.
- First, if you care about something and it’s not going how you wanted, you should feel upset.
- Give yourself permission to feel upset or anxious, rather than feeling like you must always put on a happy face.
- Say out loud to yourself how you are feeling, regardless of how silly you may feel.
- Next, try saying the same thing to a trusted friend or family member. You may be surprised how similar their feelings are to yours.
- It’s a fallacy that individuals should be fearless.
You can learn to understand and accept fear, which reduces its paralyzing impact on us.
- Simply put, acknowledging the scary stuff is important to being less scared of it.
How do you break paralyzing negative thought processes?
- Start with an accurate appraisal of your current situation which begins with acknowledging your thoughts about it.
- Visualize your “worry thoughts” on board a train leaving the station to Worrytown.
Write down each thought in order of worry by using the “What if? Then what?” strategy.
“What if I get sick?”
“I won’t be able to leave the house.”
And so on.
After you’ve identified your thoughts and written them down.
- Turn the paper over and take five deep breaths.
- Turn the paper back over. Identify each step in the process, what you can do to reduce the chance of that step happening, and how you would cope if that step actually happened.
- This may make you feel a bit uncomfortable in the moment. That’s okay! The key to slowing the train to Worrytown is to realize you’re on it then slowly grab the controls!
Get comfortable with being uncomfortable. You can do this by getting in touch with a past experience when you were confronted with what seemed like an insurmountable challenge, but you were able to cope and summon the strength to persevere. This allows you to focus on abilities and successes you already have in your playbook.
In the past, I have asked clients to put themselves in challenging situations, to “role play” coping strategies.
When you purposely put yourself in challenging situations in the present you will learn either that you can overcome the challenge or you will see that you can cope with the effects of not being able to overcome it.
Once the brain learns through repetition that these outcomes are possible and survivable, it becomes less overwhelming and you can develop more resilience for the future.
Cultivate “realistic optimism” to help face challenges.
This is very close to pragmatism. It is a way to frame your thinking when pure optimism isn’t very helpful, as when things are clearly bad, like death or illness. However, that is not to say we cannot or should not be optimistic. Realizing that we can be both worried and thankful at the same time is important. We can be worried about getting sick while being thankful for what we have in our lives.
These days there is no need to imagine a stressful situation, coronavirus has already created the challenges. Identify the triggers that stress you most; it might be feeling overwhelmed with taking on the role of teacher on top of working from home, it might be the loneliness of isolation, or maybe missing a milestone event like the end of your high school sports career.
Break the Groundhog Day effect.
When you are facing the anxiety or the actual task that is causing your distress, follow these guidelines to break the “Groundhog Day” effect.
- Give yourself permission to feel anxious or upset. If you care about something and it’s not going how you would like it to go, it should make you feel anxious or upset. That’s a sign you care!
- Get out, move and breathe. As the weather gets better, plan to get outside each day. Take a walk and for at least five minutes focus on your breathing. It helps to count the seconds as you breathe (e.g., inhale for 1, 2, 3, 4, 5…hold for 1,2,3,4,5…exhale for 5,4, 3, 2, 1…pause and repeat).
- Visualization: Use that image of a past challenge you overcame to remind your brain that things that seem insurmountable can be achieved. Give yourself five minutes in the morning to close your eyes and “play back the tape” of that challenge you overcame, using all five of your senses to make it as realistic as possible.
- Define mini- or short-term goals or milestones. Reward yourself for simple accomplishments. Getting through each day is one, but they can be more specific than that. Maybe it’s completing an exercise routine, trying that new thing you’ve always wanted to do or delving into your closet for clothes to donate to a charity. If you’re stuck, break it down into even smaller tasks. For example, just put your gym clothes on without a plan to work out, or remove clothes from your closet and put them by the door without a plan on when you will drop them off. Trust me, eventually you will start working out and taking those clothes to the donation center once you’ve taken these small steps. Understanding that progress is being made and you are improving can help separate days and weeks.
Most importantly, if you feel overwhelmed or depressed, call your doctor or a mental health professional. The CDC provides valuable information and resources.
About the Author: Doug Polster, PhD, is a licensed clinical psychologist. Dr. Doug can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org