As the COVID-19 pandemic wears on, reports of depression, anxiety, and chronic stress symptoms are at an all-time high. Calls to crisis hotlines are way up, and a mixture of intense emotions causes people to lash out at those closest to them as well as strangers in markets and on the street. People may be feeling that their life is on pause - and that they have no control over what happens next. As a result, people become demotivated, less productive, and experience negative shifts in their mood, poor concentration and focus, tenuous emotion regulation, less satisfying social relationships and a decline in physical health.
Right now, we may be especially prone to self-sabotage. In an earlier Psychology Today article, I wrote about the universality of self-sabotage, as it is built into our neurobiology and woven into the very fabric of what makes us human.
There are two simple principles that drive our survival: attaining rewards and avoiding threats. Attaining rewards and avoiding threats are like two sides of a coin. They aren’t independent systems, and there is a constant interplay in the brain to try to bring the two drives to an equilibrium. However, when these two desires are out of whack, we are primed to self-sabotage.
Right now, our minds and bodies are in chronic flight-or-flight, because there are some real and present dangers in our world that can threaten our physical and emotional survival. While human beings do quite well with short bursts of flight-or-flight experiences, we are not designed to be heightened chronically, over weeks and months. This lack of opportunity to reset causes us to become cognitively exhausted and emotionally worn down. And when it feels like our basic needs for survival aren't being met, we can't reach higher for the bigger and loftier goals that bring the kind of deep meaningfulness and gratification that we so desperately need right now.
While the pandemic brings some significant challenges, and it is understandable that our fight-or-flight response would be activated for much of the time, it is also now becoming apparent that we are playing a long game and we will have to adjust to the new normal for the long-haul. So we have to stop putting our lives on hold, and start taking control back. Despite the hardships, we need to rebuild our confidence and empower ourselves to create the very positive experiences we want and need to keep us moving forward during difficult times.
Here are some helpful, evidence-supported tips on how to stop self-sabotage today. We can right our ship and move towards our goals; whether they're in the realm of our career, social lives, or intimate relationships. And a lot of this has to do with dismantling our fear responses, disengaging fight-or-flight, so that you can feel psychologically safe to approach and pursue the goals you've set aside.
Relax your body. Being in constant fight-or-flight has physical repercussions. You may experience muscle tightness, fatigue, or feeling as if you are keyed up. Start noticing these bodily sensations, identify where the discomfort is, and do some progressive muscle relaxation. Focus on one specific body area at a time (for example, your calves, toes, shoulders, or neck), consciously tense up that area for a few seconds, then let it all go by relaxing that area as much as you possibly can. This teaches you the feeling between tension and relaxation and also shows you how you can consciously relax yourself at anytime. Remember to take deep breaths throughout this exercise.
Identify and dismantle negative thinking. We almost always notice negative feelings and emotions, but we don't always notice our thoughts. And yet, feelings are very often reactions to our thoughts and our interpretations about what's happening. So the next time you notice a negative feeling, ask yourself, "what was I thinking just before this?" Once you recognize what thoughts were present in your mind that drove those negative feelings, do some work on dismantling those negative thoughts. Often times we take thoughts as truth automatically, but sometimes they're just our interpretations of what's going on, and they may or may not actually present a balanced view of the situation. So ask yourself, "what is the evidence for and evidence against this thought?" Get used to questioning your thoughts more. To balance your thinking, create a new mantra using the "Yes, But" technique. This is when you recognize something that is not going well, but then recognize something that is. For example, "I didn't get much done today from my to-do list, but I had a very productive day yesterday and I can do it again."
Notice what's right. Our mind sometimes goes right to identifying all the problems and how we might solve it, but we don't spend nearly as much time noticing what's right. The next time you find yourself bogged down with negativity, ask yourself, "what's going right in this moment?" Challenge yourself to identify at least one thing that is going well or one thing that doesn't need problem solving.
Start the day with gratitude. Positive mindset is a choice, and it is something we can cultivate. One important shift towards a positive mindset is to start your day with gratitude. When you wake up, ask yourself, "what are 3 things I am thankful for today?" Anything goes, no matter how small they may seem. Write this down in a journal or tell it to your family members.
Develop an If-Then Plan. We will all stumble and make mistakes during our goal pursuit. We will trip up and the important thing is to not become bogged down and give up. Plan ahead for these barriers and detours by creating a series of if...then plans that will allow you to get back on course. For example, if you know that one of your deterrents to healthy eating is midnight snacking, create a plan by finishing this sentence, "If I get the urge to snack at midnight, I will...." Name a different action you will take when the urge comes up, whether it's grabbing a book to read, sipping on seltzer water, or busying yourself with a game on your phone. Write an "if...then..." statement for every scenario you can think of that might cause you to veer off track. It's important you plan these out ahead of time before the triggering moments, because in those moments it will be harder to think logically and you may be more impulsive.
Treat Yourself Well. Self-sabotage sometimes rears its head when there is an inner voice that tries to convince you that you don't deserve better, that you don't have what it takes, that you shouldn't even bother trying. Sometimes our inner thoughts are incredibly mean-spirited and over time this chips away at our sense of self-esteem and self-worth. So do nice things for yourself, treat yourself well, and nurture yourself to build and bolster your resilience and self-concept. Sleep well, eat well, pamper yourself, and show yourself kindness. One of my favorite strategies to do this is to do a lovingkindness meditation where you wish yourself happiness, safety, health, and wellness. It's a great mindfulness activity to take good care of yourself and help avoid self-sabotage.