Three Simple Steps To Finding Peace In The Midst Of A Pandemic
Updated: Mar 26, 2020
Spring is here. And the only thing heavier in the air than the thick cloud of pollen everywhere, is the palpable sense of unrest that has come along with the Coronavirus pandemic.
Our individual situations vary widely — some are quarantined and working from home, others are still required to show up in person at their job sites, and some are completely out of work. One thing that is true for all of us, is that things have changed in the past few weeks. A lot.
The emotional distress that people are feeling is especially evident on social media. My previously lighthearted Facebook and Instagram feeds full of funny memes and candid moments from my friends lives have been replaced with a near constant barrage of posts on the Coronavirus. Some are hopeful, but most are full of angst, as people share their struggles during this trying time.
Admittedly, I have not been immune to the emotional turmoil. I am in the camp of folks who still go to work each day, putting on a brave face, as I try to balance helping patients while still protecting myself and my family. There are moments when my own gloomy thoughts go haywire and fill me emotions of dread and fear.
It is easy to feel like a victim of the extraordinary circumstances of the pandemic. After all, there is much that we cannot control. However, it is possible to feel empowered and at peace despite the current state of affairs by realizing this truth:
Coronavirus (or any other uncontrollable life situation) does not have the power to make us feel upset/angry/powerless/anxious/afraid or any other undesired emotion; it is our thoughts about the Coronavirus situation that create our feelings.
Being angry, anxious and depressed are NOT mandatory, despite what is happening around us. As I discussed in a previous post (linked here), one of the central tenets of cognitive behavioral therapy is that events in our lives trigger our thoughts, and our thoughts about those events, cause our emotions. This is good news because it means we don’t have to change a single thing about the Coronavirus pandemic in order to feel better; all we must do is change our minds.
I have broken down my method for managing one’s mental health during a crisis, using the power of our thoughts, into three phases (Prevention, Action, and Maintenance) , and a few easy steps that you can start implementing to feel better today.
Phase 1 is PREVENTION:
It sounds cliche`, but it really is true that “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure”. Prevention, when it comes to our mental health during this pandemic is all about protecting our minds by being selective about what we allow ourselves to focus on in the first place. When we allow the news, social media and even our conversations with others to constantly point out all the scary things happening around us, we will undoubtedly start to feel emotions of anxiety and despair.
Limit your consumption of news, social media and conversation about the negative aspects of the Coronavirus.
While it is important to stay informed, plan on checking the news and/or social media 1-2 times per day max, for a short, limited amount of time. Commit to spending the rest of your day focusing your attention on things that uplift and empower you. Two practical steps I have taken to implement this strategy are:
- Deleting my Facebook app from my phone, so that I am only able to check it while I am physically at my computer (which is much less often than I am near my phone), and,
- Disabling notifications from my news outlet apps so that I view them at designated times instead of being bombarded all day with every update. These simple strategies go a long way in preventing anxiety and depression about the pandemic, and helps us focus on better things.
Phase 2 is ACTION.
Say you’ve already started to feel stressed out about what is going on around you. Now is the time to take action to change those thoughts and start feeling better.
Start by noticing how you are feeling. Give that unwanted emotion a name — is Fear? Worry? Sadness? Overwhelm? Take a pen and paper and write it down.
Next, do a brain dump. Write down all the thoughts going through your mind. Remember, the emotions you just identified are the direct cause of what you are thinking. Some thoughts you may be thinking if you are upset about what is going in the world are, “I’m going to get sick”, “This will never end”, “Everything sucks”, “I’m going to go broke”. Writing down your thoughts exposes them and allows you take the next action steps of challenging them and changing them.
Now, read each thought and ask yourself, is this even true? Is this an immutable fact that everyone in the world would agree on? If your thought is not something that everyone would agree on like, “The temperature reads 80 degrees in Charleston SC today”, then it is not a fact. Instead, it is a disputable thought running through your brain, which means it can be changed to something that better serves you. The thoughts that lead to anxiety, depression and other intense unwanted emotion are always distorted in some way. I will cover thought errors in a later post, but for the example thoughts above, some of the errors are:
- Predicting The Future (which none of us can accurately do) by thinking you’re going to get sick or go broke in the future, and
- Discounting The Positives (thinking “everything sucks” totally ignores the good things such as the fact that if you’re reading this post, then you are alive, likely healthy and have your basic and not-so-basic needs met, including power and internet access).
Being able to recognize the errors in the way we think about things makes it much easier to discount the thoughts that lead to unwanted emotions, and change them.
The last action step is to come up with new thoughts that you 100% believe and that replace the negative erroneous thoughts you had before. This is where you can put to use faith, positive thinking, optimism, and gratitude into action. For the example thought, “Everything sucks”, you can come up with a list of things which are actually going well right now and choose to think for example, “Some things are challenging right now, but there are many things that I can be grateful for”. Thinking like this immediately lifts your mood. Find your own new, believable, mood boosting thoughts and write them down.
Phase 3 is MAINTENANCE.
It is inevitable that those old, erroneous thoughts will come back to your mind at some point. That is okay, and does not mean that anything is going wrong.
Now that you have your new, mood boosting thoughts you must make a habit of intentionally thinking them.
Write them down, and review them daily. Whenever one of your old negative thoughts comes up, gently remind yourself of your new thought. Doing this repeatedly will become automatic with time, so that you are better able to sustain your improved mood.
You’ve got this,
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