Mental Reframing During the COVID Pandemic

Can we change our mindset to help weather the COVID crisis?

Posted Jan 26, 2021

In his discussion of “mental reframing,” Steven Petrow explains that changing his mindset about an approaching winter storm in Northern Finland turned dread into peace. Mental reframing consists of identifying and then changing the way situations, experiences, events, ideas, and/or emotions are viewed. Petrow reframed his notion of the looming storm, paying attention instead to the sunshine reflecting off the snow, the shine of the moon at night and the little fires set alongside pathways; he noticed the magnificence within the shadows.

He acknowledges that his success at reframing his dreaded experience resulted from the work of Kari Leibowitz, a Stanford University psychologist. She did a survey of 238 people from Norway and the Arctic island of Svalbard. Leibowitz identified correlations between a positive wintertime mindset and measures of wellbeing, including life satisfaction and positive emotions. (Steven Petrow, “What’s known as ‘mental reframing’ can help us with all kinds of physical and psychological challenges,” Washington Post, January 23, 2021.)

After reading Petrow’s article, I realized that I have been going through mental reframing in the months that the COVID pandemic has kept me hibernating in my house with my husband. I have utilized this time (that I am not traveling, visiting friends, entertaining in my home, dining out, or going to cultural events) to turn my attention to things I have long ignored. For example, I renovated my office — a project I have been putting off for years. I cleaned out all my closets, gave old clothes to Goodwill, and rented a dumpster for all the collected junk in my basement. I finally bought snowshoes after years of saying it would be a good thing to do. My mental reframing transformed all these chores and projects into opportunities. I am paying attention to my surroundings in a new and exciting way and feeling a sense of accomplishment when I complete a task.

Roberta Satow
Source: Roberta Satow

In addition to turning chores into opportunities, the COVID-19 pandemic has made me more assertive. There have been many times in the past when I put myself in danger because I did not want to hurt someone’s feelings. Once I got mugged because I did not want to run away from a young man who was walking suspiciously close to me on an isolated street. I did not want to hurt his feelings. But now, because of COVID-19, I was able to take care of myself even if it resulted in hurting someone’s feelings. Today I was playing tennis in an indoor facility that requires players to wear masks on the court. One woman, Sally, wore her mask in a way that exposed her nose while covering her mouth. It was the first time I had played with her and I did not want to hurt her feelings.

“You know,” I said, “your mask is slipping and isn’t covering your nose properly.”

“Yes, I know,” she replied. “But it fogs up my glasses and it’s covering almost everything.”

I did not want to create a ruckus during the game, so I did not respond.

When the game ended, she said, “That was fun, I hope we can play again next week.”

I was going to smile and say nothing. But then I experienced a mental reframing. I realized this was an opportunity to take care of myself and educate Sally about taking care of herself as well.

“I’m sorry,” I replied, “but you are not wearing your mask properly and it isn’t protecting you or us. None of us have gotten vaccinations yet and we will not play with you unless you wear a mask that covers your mouth and nose.”

She looked shocked; I am sure she was hurt. But I knew that was the right thing to do. When I got home, there was a message on my answering machine from Sally.

“Hello, this is Sally, I got a new mask, and it fits snugly on my nose and I hope that you will be willing to play with me next Monday.”

I was delighted.

The COVID pandemic is a stressful time for all of us. For some people, it has caused unemployment and financial ruin. For others, it has brought illness and death. But for those of us who are lucky enough to be financially stable and healthy, we can actively change our mindset and transform this period of social isolation and anxiety into a period of growth and appreciation.