Updated: Oct 12, 2020
The world around us seems to be changing hour by hour and day by day. The news ranges from mildly concerning to absolutely terrifying. Every morning I wake up and for just a moment I forget that life has become drastically different and uncertain, then the realization hits and I have to get up, have a cup of coffee while I answer emails and texts, and then go run off some of my anxiety so that I can focus on other things. As an American I have been watching the Corona virus spread to country after country, the uncertainty and dread of watching this process play out has been very difficult. It's very ironic, we humans just don't do uncertainty and ambiguity very well, at least most of us don't, but the reality is that we actually have very little control over the world around us and crises bring home this fact. Something that I like to tell clients is that we all carry on with life, most of the time, under the illusion of control, particularly if we have been lucky enough to not have yet experienced catastrophic loss. This is a comforting delusion, but a delusion nonetheless. Even when we KNOW that this isn't true we still keep it tucked away in our back pocket. In this post I will describe some coping strategies and ways of thinking that might help if you're feeling lost and disoriented due to world events.
In the past week I've watched while schools and businesses close, grocery store shelves empty, and people I know fall sick. My adult children and I are currently quarantined, as my husband was exposed to the virus through coworkers. We are expecting restrictions on movement to be put in place soon. We have no control whatsoever over any of this, if you are in the same boat just know that it's really normal to be distressed when we come face to face with how little control we have. Here is the good news though, if you choose to let go of a sense of control, you're not actually letting go of control because you can't let go of something that you don't have. What you're really letting go of is the illusion of control, because control doesn't actually exist.
Now is a great time to take stock of what you do have control over: primarily your own thoughts and responses. In the mental health world we call this reframing in terms of locus of control. We can have an internal or an external locus of control. Someone with an internal locus of control tends to think that they are responsible for, or have power over, things that effect them. Someone with an external locus of control tends to hold others responsible for events. The truth is that sometimes we do have responsibility and power, and sometimes we don't. When it comes to our own behaviors and choices, we do have control, other people's behavior and choices, not so much. Recognizing what you can and can't control will help you to put your energy where it will do the most good. Trying to control other people is almost always an exercise in futility, as well as a great way to damage relationships. When you make a decision to not put time, energy, or other resources into trying to control the uncontrollable, this frees up energy and resources to put into what you can control, yourself.
Most of us are fixers, we really don't like feeling helpless, and manage much better if there is actually something that we can do to address an issue that is causing anxiety. As you evaluate what is within your locus of control, notice what you do have power to do. You have the power to educate yourself, to take common sense precautions to stay as healthy as possible, to comfort others, to be kind. There might be other things you can do as well, maybe writing letters or calling people who are currently under quarantine due to increased risk of serious illness or death if they do contract the virus. You also have power over what you DON'T do, meaning that you can minimize exposure to news or social media if this is making you more anxious. It's been said that 'necessity is the mother of invention' so now is a great time to get creative and find things you enjoy that give you a respite from world events.
Now is a great time to review the difference between acceptance and learned helplessness. Learned helplessness is when we ignore the ways that we do have power to effect change, while acceptance is deciding that we won't put our energy into trying to change something that we don't actually have any power over. Acceptance is useful, learned helplessness is not. I write about acceptance as if it's simple and easy, it's not, it's a practice and it requires us to be honest with ourselves. Acceptance is the deliberate act of letting go what we don't have power or control over. The deliberate part is very important, this practice is most useful when it's done with thought and intention, otherwise we might be practicing avoidance or learned helplessness, which actually make anxiety worse.
What Is Your Compass?
In crises we see the best and the worst in other people and in ourselves. Now is a great time to think about what your guiding values are, identify and practice these. Only you can determine who the person you want to be during a crisis is, and then do your best to behave in a way that is congruent with those values. As a puppy mom I love the saying: 'I try every day to be the person that my dog thinks that I am.' Our children are learning some hard, but important lessons right now, so be mindful of what you're modeling for your kiddos.
In conclusion I would like to briefly describe some coping tools that you might find useful. Breathing is always a great option. When we're feeling anxious or attacked it's very natural to hold our breath, or breathe shallowly, while a perfectly natural reaction this isn't very helpful. Our brains work much better if they're getting enough oxygen, so practice deep breathing to ensure this. A really easy breathing exercise is called squared breathing: Slowly and deliberately breathe into the count of four 1....2....3....4 and out to the count of four 1....2....3....4, repeat this cycle at least four times. I like this exercise because it's simple, and it's much easier to remember to do something simple than something complicated. Another useful strategy is sensory grounding. There are many different ways to practice sensory grounding but my favorite, again because it's very simple, is to just check in with all of your senses and try to focus your full energy into being present with those experiences. Ask yourself: What am I seeing? Pause and focus your full attention into what is in front of you. What am I hearing, give this your full attention. What can I taste? What can I feel? What can I smell? Check in with, and fully attend to each sensory experience in turn. This accomplishes a couple of things: staying in the present moment, and distracting from unhelpful thoughts. Sensory grounding can be especially useful when we're feeling overwhelmed. The present is the only thing that we can actually effect change in, we can't change the past and we can't know the future, staying in the here and now helps to reduce our field of focus to a more manageable size.
If you are caring for children who are now completely off of their normal schedule while also watching adults try not to panic, take advantage of things like bubbles. Blowing bubbles is a great way to get kiddos to do deep breathing without even knowing that that's what they're doing. Art or other creative endeavors is a wonderful stress outlet for both children and adults, and can be useful for helping us to check in with and be present with our senses. Finally, find a mantra that really speaks to you. It doesn't matter where this comes from, it can be a fortune cookie, a positive saying (I'm a huge fan of: 'This too shall pass' I think that got me through my kiddos' toddlerhood!) or something that a friend or family member says, it doesn't matter, it just needs to speak to and comfort you. Please feel free to share any ideas or resources that you might have in the comments section and I wish anyone reading this peace and health.