Many of us have been apart from loved ones. We have not hugged our family or friends in months. Maybe you haven’t been to the office since March; you are working from home alone day after day, or on top of your roommate(s), family, or partner in a cramped space. My heart goes out to the healthcare professionals who have been wearing multiple masks for entire shifts for many months; it aches for the individuals grieving the loss of people who have made a great impact on their lives, jobs and financial security, the canceled engagements and weddings, and rushed lifestyle changes from NYC to the suburbs. Our lives as we knew them are… different now.
I hope you’ve come to the understanding that it is only natural if you aren’t feeling “normal” or like “yourself.”
Because much of this time has been spent processing our grief and living in survival mode, the days just hit differently. We’re getting by. Week by week, day by day and sometimes hour by hour.
We are facing the following:
- Perceived (and real) threats on our physical and mental health
- Tons of uncertainty (e.g. how long will this last? when can I stop wearing a mask? what if life never returns to normal?)
- An inherent lack of control in some cases (e.g. the behavior and decisions made by others that impact when we can go back to work or school, or celebrate a special occasion).
- Conversations, decisions to make, and streams of news updates that can exacerbate the impact of all of the above.
All of this contributes to an increase in worry, and worry and fear are contagious.
Worrying unproductively, that is, about all of the things we actually can’t control, creates feelings of frustration, fear, sadness, helplessness, as well as chronic stress and a decreased ability to effectively problem solve and think clearly. It also increases our predictions of negative and sometimes catastrophic outcomes.
When we worry, we are thinking excessively about a troubling or difficult situation. Oftentimes, we feel like we’re doing something useful, like problem solving, when instead we are actually creating a deeper sense of anxiety for ourselves. This disrupts our ability to be present with loved ones and gets in the way of our routines, self care, sleep and work productivity. I like the comparison of worry to sitting in a rocking chair, something to do that does not get you anywhere. Similarly, revving the engine on a parked car.
SO… what do we do with all of this worry?
1. Stay informed without becoming obsessed by coping ahead
This means looking up from your phone. Set times to check the news. How many times a day do you check and for how long? What are your top 3 sources? Can you turn OFF news notifications? Set limits for yourself, based on your limits, as you know yourself better than anyone else.
2. Worry productively
Problem solve all of the things that are actually within your control! Start by acknowledging all of your worries and get very specific. Challenge these worried thoughts with evidence. Notice which undesirable outcomes are absolutely impossible to predict and control due to lack of evidence or certainty about the future – acknowledge these thoughts as unproductive worry. Replace unproductive worry with a more productive approach to worrying by determining what is actually within your control. From here, engage in problem solving (e.g. make a to do list or action plan of what you CAN do to address the worry at hand). You can even take immediate action in some cases!
3. Set aside worry time
Some worry is okay! It’s important to make room for fear, uncertainty, and apprehension to move through you. Can you set aside 10-15 minutes a day strictly for worry? When worried thoughts arise during the day, use mindfulness to stay present and engaged in the moment, as there will be time to think about them later during their designated time.
4. Practice mindfulness
Mindfulness is the practice of intentional awareness without judgement. It anchors us to the present moment and to reality and creates a calm sense of focus and alertness. Set reminders to take mini-mindful moments throughout the day. Recognize when you are caught in the worried process and gently redirect your attention to the task at hand, the present moment, your breath.
5. Access your “wise mind”
When we approach situations strictly with intellect, we are just looking at the facts and may not honor what’s inside our heart. When we lead solely with emotion we may act impulsively with little regard for the consequences. Recognizing and respecting feelings while responding to them in a rational manner guides us toward responding, behaving, and interacting with intentionality. This prevents us from making impulsive decisions and ensures that we lead with our core values in mind.
6. Regulate your nervous system
Rest, hydrate, exercise, nourish your body, stretch, spend time in nature, play with animals, meditate and practice mindfulness. These are all acts of kindness and self care that are within our control. When the nervous system is regulated, the body can remain calm and the mind at ease – we are prepared to respond mindfully and intentionally, as opposed to reacting, to perceived threats.
In general, please remember to be extra gentle with yourself. Spoil yourself with self care. Know that some days will be better than others and that’s perfectly okay given the context. Release judgement. And take good care of yourself and your worried mind!