As mental health specialists we want to contribute in any way we can to help you remain resilient during this global health crisis. Below, our therapists (Dr. Salazar, Ellen, and Kathy) offer some tips for staying well in these unprecedented times. In the coming days, we will be posting more often with tips and strategies to help you and your family manage your stress, fear and anxiety.
Dr. Claudia Salazar, Psy.D on coping with uncertainty
“The mistake is thinking that there can be an antidote to uncertainty.” — David Levithan
As sophisticated as our brain is, its most important function is to do everything it can to keep us alive and to survive as species. By default, our brain likes simplicity, familiarity, predictability. When we face new situations, our brain can react as if there is a threat to our survival, as long as we are interpreting the stimulus as a sign of danger. When we don’t have all the facts, our brain tends to fill out the gaps and it doesn’t always do it with facts. Sometimes our brain comes up with “fear-based thoughts” that we believe 100%.
What can I do to ease my anxiety?
Rely on facts: It is important to get our information for reliable sources and to limit the information that is coming from sensationalistic media, or misinformed, well-intentioned neighbors, friends, and relatives. Pick two or three reliable sources of information and limit your exposure to a limited amount of time, or schedule your “catch up with the news” time. Most importantly, don’t check the news just before going to bed.
Stay calm: As social beings, we sometimes tend to have a “herd” mentality. Avoid falling victim to panic. Anxiety tends to be contagious. Be aware of how other people’s anxiety may be impacting you. It is only when we can remain calm that we have access to good judgment.
Control the controllable: Certainty and control are for the most part an illusion. We need this illusion in order to wake up and go about our day every day. We can only be in control of the decisions that we make moment by moment. Focus on those aspects of your life that you can have some control over.
Structure your day: Spend some time planning with your family about ways to structure your time. Stick to routines. This will be particularly challenging if you need to balance work while caring for young children.
Ellen McSweeney, LGSW on staying grounded in the present moment
“Get yourself grounded and you can navigate even the stormiest roads in peace.” – Steve Goodier
During times of stress and uncertainty, I like to take advantage of some very basic yet wonderful resources: my five senses, my physical body, and my breathing. Tapping into these sensory, embodied experiences can help me “change the channel” from a crowded, anxious mental environment to the slower, quieter pace that my body naturally offers me.
Everyone is different in terms of what helps them stay grounded in the present moment. Here are some of my favorite tips and tricks:
- During long spells of computer work, try setting a timer once per hour to take a “sensory break.” Focus on concrete things that you can see, hear, touch, taste, and smell. For instance, right now you might use your hands to notice at least three different textures that you can feel in your immediate environment. I can feel the rough texture of my chair cushion, the smooth coolness of my desk, and the thin fabric of my shirt.
- While walking outdoors, try focusing completely on what your visual sense can take in: shapes, colors, and qualities of light may become more vivid when you allow your attention to focus. You can also do the same “game”, focusing on your sense of sound: noticing bird-song, car stereos, and places that are quieter or louder.
- To interrupt rumination and worry, try giving your body a quick challenge. Get down on the floor and hold a plank pose for as long as you can. See how long your legs can hold you in a “wall sit.” There’s nothing like a quick burst of muscular effort to shift your mental state!
- For particularly sticky emotional states, try offering yourself the practice of RAIN – Recognize, Allow, Investigate, Nurture- as taught by beloved local meditation teacher, Tara Brach.
- The Insight Timer app is free, and has lots of great guided meditations and resources.
Katherine Maestre, LGPC on dealing with catastrophic thoughts
“I am an old man and have known a great many troubles, but most of them never happened.”- Mark Twain
The way we think affects how we feel and influences how we behave. When we are overwhelmed with anxiety, our mind tends to gravitate towards the possibility of catastrophic things happening. We start to worry way before things happen, and sometimes even without having any evidence for concern. We also imagine that we don’t have the ability or skills to face a particularly challenging situation, and that it will be devastating for us to go through it.
How to stop and change anxious thinking?
First, identify or recognize that anticipatory thinking is the root of what is causing you anxiety and ask yourself if you have any evidence to sustain it. Second, as you will have no evidence to support it, every time fear-producing thought shows up, stop it! say “Enough!”. Stopping anxious thinking is the first step to ultimately achieve relief. Third, change the thought using distraction. To prevent it from appearing again, the easiest thing to do is to mentally sing your favorite song, or focus on a nice memory.
If you have thoughts that cause you anxiety about getting coronavirus, ask yourself if you are following the proper protocols, then think about whether there is evidence to support that you are at risk of infection. If so, take action. If you are not at risk, slow down your thinking and change it. It is not healthy for your mental health to be anticipating catastrophically that you will contract the virus and that you will not be able to survive it.
It can also be helpful to make a complete list of all the possible associated thoughts or beliefs are also fueling your anxiety. When we are able to fully unload the list we can identify possible sources of stress that you were not aware of. As the old saying goes: Name It to Tame It!
Last, you can also schedule worry time, so that you can download all your worries at a particular time, preferably away from bedtime.
Wishing you all peace of mind and heart during these difficult times,
The CEPS team.