Shelter in place, self-quarantine, a hostage situation (if you have kids): whatever you call it – I’m assuming by now all this being at home has started to really suck.
Yes, in the beginning my kids felt like it was a dream come true. No school?!?! It’s vacation! I can sleep in, wear my pajamas all day, and spend hours opening and closing the refrigerator as I forage for food and the chocolate I know mom is hiding around here somewhere (I moved my stash into my bedroom, by the way, since dire times call for more stealthy measures).
Yes, it was all fun and games….. for about five minutes. Now it’s complaints of boredom, begging to go outside and be with friends and trying to self-motivate around school (if you have a teenage boy you know how utterly laughable that thought is).
This has likely happened for you too. Initially, there might have been a moment of this feeling of freedom, but soon it was followed by the discomfort (and possibly even terror) of all these forced constraints.
Maybe you’ve got kids home all day or you’ve sheltered in place with relatives. Maybe you’re alone or maybe your spouse is right there, 24/7, and you can’t even go get yourself a latte. I mean, I never would’ve thought I’d miss going to the gym!
And now you’ve got more time to worry about the economy (please stop looking at your 401k!), or whether you’ll have a job, or how you’ll pay bills. It can start to feel suffocating and like you’re trapped.
The brain hates uncertainty and rapid change. Remember, you’re running on ancient hard wiring so your brain equates all this with avoiding death (like your water source drying up or a natural disaster forcing you to leave the safety of your cave). Your sympathetic nervous system (the fight/flight/freeze) response stays activated in a chronic loop as your brain sees danger everywhere.
How do you stop this when you truly can’t control what’s happening in the outside world? You focus on what you can control.
First Big Thing to Focus On: Your Inputs:
Input #1: What You See
According to the American Psychological Association’s Stress in America survey, over 50% of Americans want to stay informed on current events but say following the news is a source of stress. Even more frightening, 55% of Americans say they experience stress during a large portion of their day, making Americans one of the most stressed populations in the world!
Is this you? Are you reading the news non-stop? Are you scrolling through your Facebook feed and looking at post after post about how to stop Covid-19 or all the ineptness of our administration?
Think about checking in with the news once, twice per day tops, and keep it as minimal as possible while still staying informed.
Then I want you to think about what you’re spending your time watching in general. Is it uplifting and positive, or are you binge watching Tiger King? (Yes, I watched it – I’m full of shame and felt like I needed a shower after each episode). Are you going down long rabbit holes of shows where there’s backstabbing, egos on parade, violence, entitlement or general negativity?
Maybe you’re looking around your house and focusing on the dog door that’s been broken forever or the mess your kids are constantly making (really? I just cleaned the kitchen 2 minutes ago).
What are you reading? It’s great to lose yourself in some great fiction novel but be mindful of the content and how it’s affecting your overall mood and disposition.
Input #2: What You Hear
Are you consuming your news by listening to radio shows? Do you have it on in the background all day long? What podcasts or radio shows are you listening to? Are they uplifting and positive? Do they give you hope or tips you find effective and helpful?
Are you listening to your kids bicker all day? Are you bickering all day? Are you listening to parents or friends guilt you for not calling enough? Are you allowing your own voice inside your head to spout constant negativity and doomsday reports?
Be mindful of everything you’re listening to – your brain is processing all this, even if you’re not aware and think “it’s just in the background.”
Input #3: What You Taste
What are you putting in your mouth all day? (That can be taken a lot of ways, and good for you if your dirty mind took you somewhere fun). However, I’m talking about what you’re eating and drinking.
This is a great time to try out new healthy recipes or pull out that slow cooker. If you’ve got kids, what an opportunity to teach them to cook or to cook side-by-side you’re your mom and finally figure out that family recipe you haven’t been able to master.
Are you living on coffee or consuming a ton of sugary drinks? These kinds of drinks can make you more anxious so be aware.
Make sure you’re eating when you’re hungry and not out of boredom or anxiety. Be mindful about what comes into your system because it absolutely affects your mood and thoughts.
Input #4: Who You Touch
Who do you keep in touch with? Who are you connecting with on a daily or consistent basis and does that interaction support you?
Schedule time to be on the phone with friends. I’ve seen virtual happy hours, board games and 12-step meetings. We live in a time when it’s easy to be connected to others (if not in the room with them) but I want you to be mindful of who you’re in touch with.
Are you keeping healthy boundaries with friends and family members? Are you getting off a call or a zoom and feeling inspired, motivated, comforted, connected, calm or happy? Think about how each interaction affects you and choose wisely.
Then I’d like you to think about how you’re connecting with yourself. Are you stopping and “being” at all? What’s the soundtrack in your mind right now? Are you being kind, compassionate and patient with yourself?
And, of course, physical touch and connection is wonderful too. If you’ve got others in the house, remember to touch, make eye contact and get some hugs in. When someone is there all the time, it can be easy to forget to connect. Go on a “date night” with your partner after the kids are asleep. Do something special together to connect and reboot, right there at home.
I want you to think of all these inputs as nourishment. Each morning, before you start your day, identify how you’re going to nourish yourself that day. And each night, before bed, do a quick review. If you had a good day, make a commitment to keep that momentum going. If you didn’t do a great job, then get some sleep and know that tomorrow is another day.
Second Big Thing to Focus On: Stop Catastrophizing
After you focus on those inputs it’s time to stop catastrophizing.
Catastrophizing is a way of thinking called a ‘cognitive distortion.’ If you catastrophize, you basically think of a bad outcome and then extrapolate that bad outcome to have an even worse outcome in your entire life.
For example, you might say things to yourself like:
- “If my son fails this math test, he’ll never get through high school, and he’ll be living in my basement for the rest of his life.”
- “If my wife leaves me, I will never find anyone else, and I’ll be alone and miserable the rest of my life.”
- “If I say the wrong thing in this meeting, everyone will think I’m an idiot and I’ll never be able to get ahead at this job.”
When you catastrophize you’re basically magnifying something and making a situation seem much worse or severe than it actually is. You’re jumping to a worst-case scenario and you don’t need to be there.
Imagining the worst case possibility is actually an evolutionary trait that most animals don’t have and it’s put us on top of the food chain. Planning ahead helped us survive when we weren’t sure when our water would dry up or buffalo would stop running. However, this ability has very little to do with current reality-based issues that you need to solve in your life today. Recognize that this is outdated hardwiring.
To stop catastrophizing you want to do the following:
- Acknowledge the thing: Pretending something isn’t there is called denial and we don’t want to go there either. Acknowledge what’s happening but keep it in the here and now. Do not go to future anxiety of what it could mean and don’t go to past regrets or depression about the fact that you’re here now. Stick to the facts of what’s happening right now.
- What else could be true? Now think about what else could be true that’s in a positive direction (it could be true that your son could fail this math test but then also be true that you could get him a tutor so he’ll pass the next one).
- Name it: If the thoughts persist, give them a name. “Oh, there’s Mr. World is Ending showing up again.” Then talk to this alter ego as you would to a good friend. “Now, now. You don’t have any evidence that X is going to happen. This is just a bump in the road, we’ll get through it.”
At the end of the day, it all comes down to this:
Things can be upsetting, but it doesn’t mean you have to be upset.