One of the few things we can truly rely on is the constant presence of change. There is nothing quite as certain. As human beings, we understand the need to be flexible and responsive to changing circumstances in order for us to thrive and grow.
We recognise the necessity of balancing this with our need for security and safety. However, what we have experienced during the Covid-19 pandemic is change on an unprecedented scale. Most of the things which have meaning for us have been altered in some way and will continue to change as we move forward.
This unusual level of uncertainty and change has created understandable anxiety and fear. We all have a need for a certain level of predictability. It allows us to plan and envisage a hopeful future, in which we have some sense of autonomy and control. We’re also biologically wired to identify patterns, connections, cause and effect in order to try and make sense of our lives. In other words, we tell ourselves stories on which we base our view of the world, giving us a sense of autonomy and control. When we experience catastrophic changes which distort our internally created story, it can leave us feeling powerless, helpless, stuck and alone.
As lockdown measures continue to ease, there will be another period of transition. One which may lead to increased anxiety as we feel the pressure of expectations. Although some people will feel excited and positive about restrictions easing, others may feel overwhelmed at the thought of managing the competing demands of going back to work, getting children back to school, meeting up with family and friends, getting back into a regular routine or resuming studies.
So much of what’s happening in the world is beyond our control, even though it directly affects us. But there are things you can do to regain a sense of calm, autonomy and a more hopeful outlook.
Know it’s ok to not be ok
It’s important to accept that however you’re feeling, it’s a completely normal and understandable response to change and transition. Allow yourself to ease into this new configuration. Give yourself time to process how you feel about the changes. Anxiety may be pushing you to rush back into the world, but try to go at your own pace. Dealing with change is mentally and physically tiring.
When almost every aspect of our life is being rewritten in some way it takes huge amounts of psychological and physical energy to constantly re-orientate ourselves to new realities.
Make time for periods of rest and replenishment. A rested mind and nourished body will make better decisions moving forward.
Take it day by day, even hour by hour
Uncertainty on this scale means we’re less likely to be able to plan effectively, especially for anything beyond a few weeks. The most effective use of your time and energy is to focus on what you can control right now. Focusing on short term outcomes will help you navigate each day with a sense of control, and ensure you have enough energy and motivation to keep going.
Although there are some things you may be able to plan for, the best thing you can do is ensure that you are emotionally ready for tomorrow. This means creating a balance between fixing today’s problems with managing our emotional energy to deal with tomorrows. Try to break problems into manageable pieces. Then, prioritise what is most meaningful and important to you right now and develop an action plan to move forward.
You may also find it comforting to know that neuroscientists believe we actually aren’t that good at predicting our future. Research shows that we often overestimate both how good or bad we will feel, which suggests that the future is rarely as we anticipate. The brain works on a ‘better safe than sorry’ principle. This means it would much rather warn you about 10 impending threats, even if only 1 of them is real. Of course, this helps us to mobilise our resources quickly and has enabled us to survive as a species. But it also means that we can quickly become overwhelmed by imagined and anticipated threat. Remember that your brain is tricky to manage especially when it feels under threat. Always try to pull your focus back to what you are dealing with right now and watch out for signs that your brain is over-estimating levels of danger.
Ask yourself: What’s in my control right now?
Helpful thought: I won’t feel like this forever.
Try to look at things differently
Reframing is a skill that can change the way we view things and their emotional impact. For example, instead of saying, ‘I’m stuck at home’, try saying ‘I’m safe at home’. Similarly, you can shift your attention to the resources that you do have available to you, as opposed to those that may be temporarily missing. When we’re experiencing a significant amount of loss it’s understandable that we might focus solely on what is missing from our life. However, this narrows our perceptual field and means we might miss out on what we do have, and what is possible.
Ask yourself: Is there another way of looking at this?
Helpful thought: I may not like this, I may not want or have chosen this, but it is here. What can I focus on right now that is helpful?
Know what helps you feel calm and positive (and what doesn’t!)
There will be things that boost your mood and help you remain calm and focused. These will be different for everyone. It’s about knowing what works for you and then actively committing to weaving those activities into your life on a regular basis.
Also pay attention to the unhelpful habits that can sneak back into your life when you feel stressed, and take steps to limit their influence. Ruminating and over-thinking are common responses during difficult times, but they can leave us feeling helpless and stuck. Be aware of your thinking patterns and remember that your thoughts are not always true or helpful. When you recognise an unhelpful thought, try to re-focus your attention back to the present moment by concentrating on your breath or a helpful mantra.
Ask yourself: What activities make me feel calm and positive and how can I plan to do more of them?
Helpful thought: Whatever the future holds there will be a way through and forward.
Stay connected and ask for help
Many people find it difficult to talk to others about how they’re feeling. And during this time we may have less opportunity to be with others whom we trust enough to be open with. We may also feel like we’re being a burden, especially as so many are experiencing difficulties. Try to embrace the fact that life is often messy and difficult. It’s OK to share our problems with each other without comparing our suffering or judging whose problems are worse or easier than others.
When we feel sad and overwhelmed our instinct might be to withdraw and try to deal with our problems alone. But this usually only makes things worse. Talking to others helps lighten the load and can bring some much-needed clarity and perspective. While it may be hard, especially when we are dealing with a variety of losses, try to resist the temptation to withdraw. Make a conscious effort to connect with others when you can.
Ask yourself: Who haven’t I checked in on in a while?
Helpful thought: Life is often complicated and difficult, I’m not alone in feeling this.
Be led by your values
During uncertain times, with lots of things outside of your control, one of the few things we can manage is the way we behave. And we often feel better about ourselves when our behaviour is congruent with the values we hold dear. Choosing how you respond to any given situation will help you maintain a sense of agency, calm and control.
Your values might be around working collaboratively, being honest, showing kindness and compassion to yourself and others or being empathetic. Look for ways to be led by those values. For example, each morning set an intention to behave in ways that are authentic for you and align with your chosen values.
Difficult times can bring out the best and worst in people. Consider how you would like to remember yourself behaving during this period.
Ask yourself: What values am I going to live by each day?
Helpful thought: I have a say in how I behave during these times.
Focus on the positive
It’s human nature to focus on the negative, especially during stressful times. Consciously noting the things you’re grateful for can help bring some balance to our thoughts and give us a different frame of reference. Make practicing gratitude a regular habit to help train your mind to focus on the things that make you happy. That doesn’t mean ignoring or dismissing the challenges you face. The trick is to acknowledge the difficulties while holding on to the positives.
Start by making a list of all the things you value about life. That could include anything from the people you love to simple acts of kindness that you witness.
Ask yourself: What’s good about this? How can I use this? What can I learn from this to help me in the future?
Helpful thought: This feels difficult right now, but what else is true? What feels positive?
Know and understand your personal response to change
Develop a sense of self-awareness about how you respond to challenge or uncertainty. Remember that emotions are contagious. This pandemic is as much a psychological phenomenon as a physical one. The way that we respond and behave during this time will not only affect ourselves but those around us. Our calmness relies on and influences other peoples’ ability to be calm. We need each other to get through this.
We all have habitual ways of managing anxiety; patterned ways of being, thinking and responding which were shaped by our experiences as we grew up. We developed certain ways of coping with whatever circumstances we found ourselves in, and they become our stock way of responding during times of crisis. Be curious about how you typically respond and ask yourself if it’s helpful during this time. There are always opportunities to reflect on our behaviour and to do things differently.
However, try to avoid judging yourself, or others. Judgements bring about emotions such as anger and shame and these can influence how you behave and feel about yourself. Aim to catch yourself when you are becoming overly judgemental about other people and keep any self-criticism from escalating to an unhelpful level. We’re all doing our best in very difficult circumstances. In addition, we often don’t have all the information needed to make wise appraisals about the things that other people do. As much as possible, be generous in your interpretation of others behaviour and pull your focus back to your own choices.
Ask yourself: How do I usually respond when things are stressful and is it helpful?
Helpful thought: There are always opportunities to learn, grow and do things differently.
Prioritise managing your emotions and energy
Look after your basic needs. Ensure you get some rest, eat well, exercise as much as possible and allow yourself time for things you enjoy. We often feel guilty about looking after ourselves when things are difficult, and others are struggling. But we need to conserve our energy to get through the challenges ahead and to be there for others. Try to find a balance between self-care and looking out for the needs of others.
Ask yourself: What can I do to boost my energy right now?
Helpful thought: To help others effectively, I first need to preserve my own wellbeing.
Written by: Kirsty Lilley
Kirsty has delivered mindfulness and self-compassion courses to a wide variety of workplaces during her career and is also a trained psychotherapist and coach. She has worked at a strategic level within organisations developing wellbeing policies and been responsible for developing training courses on improving mental health and wellbeing, as well as courses designed to help line managers support people with mental health difficulties effectively and continually works towards the reduction of stigma within workplace settings. Kirsty is committed to an integrated and compassionate approach when helping others to fulfil their potential.
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