It feels as though we have entered a new phase in this COVID-19 pandemic and much of it is wrought with fear, anger, blame, shame and worry. Not the easiest of thoughts and emotions to be experiencing on a continuous basis. We remain in much uncertainty about the future and the information we are absorbing is full of bad predictions. It is only natural that we would all revert back to survival mode and perhaps behave in ways that are not typical or that are typical but much more extreme. Just trying to survive day to day means that you might be captured by negative feelings much more easily and your good habits will be left aside as you try to simply make it through tough days. Here are three tips to help you shift your thinking:
- Turn off your internal alarm
When I am lucky to enough to catch myself in a spiral of worry, fear and anger, I remember information about how all brains function. Paul Gilbert, Dan Siegel and many others talk about the Fight/Flight/Freeze system we have inside our brain that alerts us to problems. These days, stress will put our amygdala into overdrive and cause a spike in stress hormones. When you think about, not knowing what will happen 3 months from now, being worried about Christmas holidays or wondering if elderly family members will make it through the winter will cause this internal alarm system to go off. And the on button can get jammed quite easily. Once that happens, it is hard for any of us to be rational and non-reactive. This is not a you thing, it is because we are human but we often odd an unnecessary layer of self-blame because we aren’t ‘handling things right’. We personalize it when we shouldn’t. You are not broken, weak or flawed, you are functioning with a brain that will automatically react to stress.
There are ways we can turn off the alarm once it goes off and the most simplest method to use is the breath. We can take 5-6 breaths (longer inhales and slow exhales), plant our feet on the ground and remember that in this exact moment, we are okay. The first step is getting that alarm button to the off position. You don’t have to worry about changing your thinking or forgetting your problems, that can come once you get past this first step.
- Small gestures
Once you recognize that your alarm is on and you attempt to turn it off with breathing and grounding, you can think of a few small gestures that would be good for you. What is something small that you know would be good for you to do when you are trying to get out of a mental struggle? I know for myself I can list the things that typically make things worse and those that make things better. I recognize the behaviours that will give me temporary relief but will likely lead to long-term regret. Good for me stuff will likely get me out of a head space that does not reflect who I really am or how I want to be. Some examples of what I need when I am stressed are a quick nap if possible, a hallway conversation with someone I really enjoy talking to or a walk outside. When my internal alarm is turned on, the good for me things are very small and appear insignificant but they pack a big punch. I know that half the battle is figuring out what actually works for you. If you sit quietly for a few moments and ask “what things help me feel better?”. You can jot down a list to use down the road.
- Remember you are not alone
This is something that self-compassion researcher Kristin Neff has validated through her studies. In our bad moments that can sometimes last for hours and days, if we can remember that we are not alone in the struggle, it can make a world of difference. That single sentiment can relieve pressure and feelings of isolation and failure. When we are set off, we tend to believe we are the only one who thinks this way and we ultimately flawed. We can feel like we have bad luck or that nothing works out. This is simply not true. Every person goes through their own battles, the same worries and fears. In some ways, the pandemic has brought people together because everyone gets the experience. How does this translate into real life? When you are down on yourself and you feel like you are spinning out of control, coach yourself with statements like “this sucks but I am know that I am not alone” or “people have felt this exact way too”. Some of these techniques would appear insignificant but trying them causes zero side effects. You are not alone, we have all been where you are in this moment. Bring that idea up in your mind and see how it works!