Six Psychological Steps to Take in Corona
Tools and techniques from Acceptance and Commitment Therapy.
Posted Apr 25, 2020
The coronavirus pandemic is putting us all in front of new challenges. There are economic challenges, because entire businesses can no longer operate, putting millions of people out of work. And there are health challenges—not only due to coronavirus itself, but because the pandemic strains the resources of our healthcare system, leading to the illness and death of people who otherwise would have received proper treatment.
And as if this wasn’t enough, we also face mental health challenges. Because of corona, going outside is no longer “just going outside.” Instead, every trip to the supermarket is now a calculated risk, where we try to avoid contact with other people as much as possible. Meanwhile, we also need to make sure we do not accidentally touch our own face. Leaving the house thus means having to be constantly alert.
We not only fear getting infected ourselves, but that our loved ones get infected, and that we end up losing someone close to us. In fact, it is very realistic that we will experience some form of loss due to coronavirus, and it is important that we prepare ourselves for loss. The constant stress paired with the uncertainty of the future creates a harmful context, where psychological ailments thrive. For this reason, now more than before, we need to be attentive to our mental health. In the following, I’ve compiled six psychological steps you can do to effectively deal with the challenge of coronavirus. Let’s begin.
1. Connect with Feelings.
When we are entangled in difficult emotions like fear, sadness, or even panic, life becomes hard. Every little step becomes a chore, and our entire focus then revolves around stopping “bad” feelings. Meanwhile, we also stop doing things that would actually help us (e.g. like proper eating and exercise) and put our lives on hold.
In the middle of this pandemic, it’s important to not let our emotions run the show. This does not mean pushing bad emotions away—this has never worked well in my experience—but allowing ourselves to feel emotions, without having to act on them. Do not attempt to force “good” feelings, but try staying with your emotions in an open and compassionate manner. Hold them, like you would hold a small, anxious child. Be kind. Listen to your body. Then see if they actually contain information you can use in the next steps. For example, fear or sadness might be a good way to support connecting with others or taking steps to protect their safety.
2. Connect with Focus.
When the future is uncertain (as it is right now—more than before), our minds like to run wild. We imagine the wildest scenarios of what will happen, and how the pandemic is going to affect us. For instance, many people worry about supermarkets closing, and thus resorted to panic-buying products in bulk, like toilet paper, wine, and even condoms (yes, really). Incidentally, many of those same people are now realizing that this didn’t happen and some are even trying to get their purchases refunded (condoms, anyone?).
When your mind runs wild about all the ways of how things can go wrong, slow down and plant your feet in the now. Literally! Stand up, take a breath, and then notice your feet and how they hold you. Now that you are “grounded,” focus your attention where it matters. This is not about pushing unhelpful thoughts away. The thoughts are here, and that is alright. But instead of letting them take over, let unhelpful mental chatter pass, and focus on what is there to be done, here and now. There are many additional techniques for this, and they are worth checking out.
3. Connect with Others.
Social distancing is no fun. Due to coronavirus, we can no longer see our friends and families in the same way that we used to, which creates a big challenge. We are social animals after all, and the importance of physical touch for our well-being has been well documented. For the time being, we need to give up (or at least limit) touching others.
However, just because we limit contact, does not mean we need to give up connection. The New Zealand Minister of Health, David Clark, made an important distinction in a public address, where he emphasized the need for physical distancing, not social distancing. We need to maintain physical distance while staying connected socially. Through the internet and telephones, we can do this more easily than ever before. Call your loved ones, make time to attend to them, while maintaining six feet of distance.
4. Connect with Presence.
It is astounding how much the world has changed over the past weeks and months. Just two months ago, everything still seemed like it has always been. And you might even find yourself longing for the days when you could mindlessly scratch your nose, and carelessly shake hands. Naturally, this is no longer possible. And it is unclear how long this will last, and how much longer we will need to continue to adapt to coronavirus.
Right now it’s easy to wander off with your mind—to romanticize the past, or to paint grim pictures of the future. And when you caught yourself wandering like this, make sure to gently guide yourself back. You are needed right here and right now. Life is happening right in front of you, and the better you can attend to your life right now, the better off you—and everyone you come in contact with—will be. Ground yourself in the presence, and gently guide yourself back whenever your mind has wandered off.
5. Connect with Values.
The coronavirus situation has forced us all to restructure our days. The morning coffee at McDonald's? No longer possible. The daily commute to work? Not a good idea with public transportation. In short, a big chunk of our lives is out of order, and many of our habits that once filled us with pleasure and meaning are suddenly no longer an option.
This creates a problem. Many people can no longer do what is truly important to them, and for some, it is like taking their purpose, their lifeblood. In this stressful time, it is crucial that we reconnect with our goals and values, and with whatever lies closest to our hearts. Again, there are many techniques to do this, my favorite you can find here.
6. Connect with Action.
Many people have now more free time than ever before, because they are working less, and spend less time visiting their friends and family. Naturally, this opens a big window to finally do the things we always wanted to do, but never quite found the time for. And yet, most people do not tackle their goals.
Instead, they resort to just functioning, going through the motions, and continue putting things off. There is no strict schedule that they would need to stick to, and no colleague or friend to hold them accountable. And so a day in pajamas on the couch it is.
I get it. It’s hard. And this is exactly why we need to create accountability by choice and start taking action. Move towards your goals in tiny, small steps—bit by bit. This is not just about achieving a specific outcome, but merely taking steps with purpose can do wonders for our sense of competence and self-efficacy. Coronavirus is posing a challenge to us all, and we can come out stronger than ever if we are willing to show up as whole human beings, connected to our feelings and to others, focused on the now and the possibilities it contains for values-based action, and then moving forward in a way that reflects who and how we want to be.
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