I don’t think this is quite how most people expected the new decade to unfold. Last week feels like years ago, and each and every day brings unexpected news and challenges. My daughter, Lucy, will be celebrating her 4th birthday in a few weeks and my nearly 70-year-old parents are spending their winter in Florida. I’m worried about them, the health of my business, my own sanity, my neighbors, and people who I don’t even know, hoping everyone in my world and beyond finds a measure of safety, and peace in these next weeks and months.
Research tells us that counterproductive thinking tends to be heightened during four circumstances: (1) when there is vague and ambiguous information; (2) when something that you value is at stake; (3) when you’re run down, stressed out, tired and depleted; and (4) when you’re doing something for the first time. All four of those factors are now present in the way we live and work. As a result, anxiety and uncertainty are off the charts, but there are ways you can preserve your mental strength during these trying times.
Limit Catastrophizing. Catastrophizing is worst-case scenario thinking. A stress-producing event happens and in less than a minute you’ve got yourself living in a van down by the river. This style of thinking is problematic because it stops you from taking purposeful action – you stay stuck spinning your cognitive wheels. Cognitive behavioral scientists developed the following five-step a process to help you minimize this style of thinking as follows:
- Write down the stress-producing event factually
- Then write the worst-case scenario. I call it a “brain dump.” It’s already in your head and you won’t be able to balance your thinking until you capture all of your unvarnished worst-case thoughts
- Think about how you can maximize any potential upside. Positive emotions may seem misplaced in this process, but they are strongly linked to resilience and help to calm the anxiety you are likely feeling with this thinking style.
- List what is most likely – this is your more balanced approach. The trick is not to list all of the positives, it’s to be more even-handed in your assessment of the situation.
- Write your plan of action – what specific action steps are you in control of and what can you do next?
Look for the Helpers. Mr. Rodgers used to talk about how when he was scared by something on the news as a boy, his mom would ask him to “look for the helpers.” She wanted to reassure him that there were good people everywhere, even in the toughest of circumstances. On your own, or with your kids, talk about all of the ways people are helping during this crisis.
Reframe Stress in Real Time. This is one of my favorite stress-relief skills, taught to me by one of my professors, Dr. Karen Reivich. When your mental strength is low, it’s important to be able to reframe counterproductive thoughts in real time. You can do that in two different ways:
Create a contingency plan: If x happens, then I will do y… (SOUNDS LIKE: “If my kid’s school gets cancelled, then I will create a structured plan for each day at home.”)
Leverage optimism: Another way to look at this situation is… (SOUNDS LIKE: “Another way to look at this is now that all of my workshops got postponed, I’ll have more time to write my book.”)
Savor Something. There are three different types of savoring: reminiscing by thinking about a past event, savoring the present, and anticipatory savoring – thinking about something good that is yet to come. My beloved golden retriever, Sadie, passed away almost two years ago. I keep a picture of her in a field of flowers on the wall in the kitchen. Lucy and I were baking banana bread together on Sunday and she said, “Mommy, I miss Sadie, but I think she’s happy – she’s in the flowers.” Tears came to my eyes, but we had a very sweet conversation about how much we loved our Sadie Bear. It felt really good to re-live her memory in such a trying time.
Clarify Your Values. The older I get, the more importance I place on values. I knew I had them, but I never really thought about them until I left my law practice and started my business. My three core values are kindness, courage, and love, and they inform every decision I make. Kindness comes easy to me, but I have to practice courage in a much more effortful way. What are your core values? What about your family? Brene Brown has a great list you can use to get started.
Don’t Expect Immediate Results. Mentally strong people know that immediate results aren’t always possible, and that’s especially true now. Healthcare experts tell us that it’s likely going to get worse before it gets better, and even once we turn a corner, it may take weeks or months to return to a new normal.
Remember Hope. Virtually all of the people I have interviewed or coached about their burnout experiences talk about feeling a sense of hopelessness with their situation. When you don’t feel like you can change the outcome of your circumstances, it’s hard to keep putting one foot in front of the other. While hope may be initially thought of as an emotion, it’s actually a thinking style. The three components of hope are having a realistic goal, thinking about the obstacles you might encounter so you can plan for multiple pathways, and agency – believing in yourself and believing you can reach your goal from wherever you are right now.
As we seek to preserve many of our tangible resources in the coming weeks and months, let’s make sure to add our mental health to that list. This is a test for all of us, but it’s one I know we can pass together.