Updated: Mar 21, 2020
Your hands are clean, you’re practicing social distancing, and you have food and water. Physical needs are covered. How about your mental and emotional health though?
It’s easy to fall victim to fearful thoughts of failure and lack on a normal day. However, in the midst of a global pandemic it’s almost guaranteed that if you do not have routines in place, depression, anxiety, and panic will easily take hold.
So how do we combat those thoughts?
First, it’s important to acknowledge that it’s normal to feel overwhelmed right now. A lot of surreal things are happening. There’s disinformation mixed with truth and no one is certain what tomorrow will bring—yet we all attempt to predict it anyway.
It’s not just the virus and loss of life that scares us. It’s the lost productivity and wages, our jobs and bills and families. When we encounter these fears, our body goes into fight-or-flight mode. Adrenaline and other hormones are pumping, energy is diverted from digestion, and a slew of other physiological changes are occurring. Humans are not supposed to live in this mode for long though; it’s damaging to the body. So when your mental health is under constant attack for a month or more worrying about the consequences of Covid-19, it is unlikely you will be able to manage your physical health for long.
Each person can handle a different level of stress. You may have noticed that what constitutes a bad day for you, would likely kill your friend who can’t seem to process a single shred of bad news. Try not to judge them. Stress management is a skill, and some people are naturally better at it than others. The good news: since stress management is a skill, then you can practice and improve at it.
Telling a person who struggles with stress to “Think Positively” or “Just Have Faith” is not an actionable step nor helpful to them. I'm sure they'd love to do that, but they can’t. They’re minds simply won’t let them. If you think about human evolution, it makes perfect sense. We’re designed to focus and hold on to negative experiences more than positive ones. It’s not a flaw per se. It’s to keep us alive and thriving. A million years ago, it would be a bad day if you forgot whether the red berries or blue berries were poisonous. Hence, the tribe remembered when caveman Todd died horribly from the red berries so that the rest never made the same mistake he did.
Now adays, our minds hold on to bad relationships, crappy jobs, and mean comments from bullies. Our brain replays all these negative events to us in the hope that it will keep us alive. The brain is well-meaning, but this negative loop often does more harm than good. We avoid all relationships because we remember the pain of one. We stay at a shit job because it’s better to be with the devil you know than risk getting an even worse job. We don’t believe in ourselves because we focus on the mean comments someone else said about us. We basically lose out on great opportunities because our brains are stuck on the negatives.
Everyone is guilty of this mindset to different degrees. Just like some people are born better at one skill than another, some people can focus more on positives than negatives naturally. However, if your struggle in this area, you can rewire your brain's evolutionary default.
All your habits, from brushing teeth to the way you think, are results of how your neurons fire and connect. Every time you take an action, thought or physical, it strengthens those connections in your brain. One of the reasons learning a new language or skill is easier for children than adults is because they do not have years of deeply-connected neurons to override. Try brushing your teeth with the opposite hand after four decades of the same routine. It’ll feel awkward! And it may take three months of daily practice with the new hand before it begins to register as ‘normal’. But with enough time and practice, you can eventually turn anything 'new' into a habit. Remember, practice doesn’t make perfect. It makes permanent.
For those of us who have a habit of worrying, let’s see if we can’t rewrite those circuits so that positive and productive thinking becomes normal behavior in times of crisis.
We'll start with an easy three-minute exercise done twice a day. First thing in the morning or just before going off to work, make a list of three things you’re grateful for. This doesn’t have to take long. You can write them down if you want or just mentally evaluate them. I have a Panda Planner which is great for guiding me through this practice. Whether your exercise is written or mental, make sure that when you create the list, you take a moment to appreciate each item. Even if it’s just for a few seconds, mentally thank that person, place, or circumstance that is in your life and making you a happier person. It’s vital that you connect a positive emotional state to the object.
Then at night, before you go to bed, take three minutes to list the successes of the day. If you can’t find any huge wins, remember that winning little battles are just as important. If you’re stuck, shake it off and go back to your thankful list from breakfast. Same thing, when you review the wins at night, connect a powerful emotion to it. Adding positive emotion helps strengthen the neural pathway and memory. It may feel fake at first, but that’s okay. Over time, your brain rewires and it feels so real, you can’t believe it took you this long to start.
Although this practice may seem simple, it can have amazing results. Don’t worry, it will not eradicate your self-preservation genes. You will not become a grinning idiot who believes the world is wonderful all the time even when life is burning down around you. Instead, your brain will begin to more accurately and logically assess situations. You will not act impulsively out of fear or other emotions. Because while emotions are powerful, they are not always accurate. You will still prepare for life and be cautious, but you will not be paralyzed by fear or act foolishly. You will see opportunities in disaster and the positives in dark situations. It's the start of developing that confident, positive mindset that others seem to naturally have.
Once this becomes your daily routine, it will lead to other practices that will eventually develop you into a person who can create and sustain their own happiness regardless of the external terrors of the world. Remember, when there is no enemy within, the enemy without can do you no harm.
I hope you use this pandemic as a time for personal development and strengthening your relationships with family, so that you not just survive this crisis, but flourish afterward.
Blood Bound Books is dedicated to spreading hope through dark fiction. Now, more than ever in our ten-year history, the world could use some extra hope. Over the next several weeks, barring any catastrophe we’ll be sharing some tips and techniques that help get us through the hard times.