How to Reframe COVID

How shifting our perspective can help us during the COVID crisis.

Posted Jun 30, 2020

Deborah Cabaniss
Source: Deborah Cabaniss

A few weeks ago, I realized it had been 90 days since I last published a blog post. It was the end of May 2020. Three months into the COVID crisis. And I felt like I had nothing to say.

I started my “Finding Mind” blog a few years ago to write about mind and brain. As a psychotherapist and educator, I hoped I could synthesize ideas about mental health topics for a general audience. I felt I had some expertise to share. But in May I felt empty. Deskilled. What could I write about now with any authority?  Telepsychiatry? I was green as the next person. COVID? No one knew anything about it.  Tolerating the isolation of quarantine? I had the same anxieties as my patients, my friends, and my colleagues.

During the pandemic, the feeling of being deskilled is ubiquitous. Doctors know nothing about the vagaries of coronavirus and its aftermath. Retailers know nothing about curbside sales. Few economists have studied pandemic finance. Veteran elementary school teachers are brand new to Zoom. Every day, Andrew Cuomo told us, honestly, that the right answer was, “I don’t know.”

But not knowing also brings opportunity. How do I create meaning without the usual signposts? How can I best help my patients over the internet? How can I tap into inner strengths that I don’t always use? How can I surprise myself with new tolerance for uncertainty? How can I connect to friends and family I sometimes neglect? What beauty can I find in things that I generally overlook? How can I use what I am learning to improve my work and life after we are able to hug each other again?

I wrote that down. Somehow, shifting my thinking loosened my ability to write. How did that happen? I asked my friend and colleague, Deborah Glasofer, a CBT and eating disorders expert at Columbia, who said,

It sounds like you started out with an unhelpful, automatic thought focused on what it means for you, as a mental health professional and accomplished academic, to "not know" something. You were aware that you were not alone in your "not knowing," and that provided some solace, but overall, this way of thinking functioned by encouraging you to mentally review all the ways you did not know. Not to put words in your mouth, but if I had to guess, I'd say that it was a way of thinking that kept you feeling inadequate and nervous. When you noticed that your mindset was leading to unhelpful actions and uncomfortable feelings, you wondered if there was some perspective that you were missing, and you actively looked for it. This is called cognitive reframing.

Aha! So interesting! "What exactly is cognitive reframing?" I asked.

Cognitive reframing is shifting one's perspective. We sometimes do this naturally and we sometimes need to actively seek out alternate perspectives. It's essentially asking yourself, "when I think this way, what am I missing?" Or simply wondering, "Is there another way to look at this?"

“But we’re still in a global pandemic,” I responded. “How can we think about that in a positive way?”

A cognitive reframe is not a complete reversal in thinking -- it is not saying to yourself, "It's fabulous to be in this total novel pandemic situation!" That would be more like an affirmation, and affirmations tend to ring hollow. A cognitive reframe is a more reasonable or helpful conclusion that is still something that you, the thinker, can ‘buy.’ In this example, you invested in the reframe that "not knowing brings opportunity.” And this mental shift freed you up in big ways. Big enough to start writing! Big enough to reach out to me and start this conversation! In my opinion, the best part of cognitive reframing is that sometimes a 10% mindset shift can yield upwards of 50% improvement in emotions and subsequent choices (or behaviors).

“Wow, that sounds pretty powerful!” I said. “How can you get yourself to reframe? Are there techniques that help? Can it be done outside of therapy?"

Cognitive reframing can absolutely be done outside of therapy! It's typically easiest to start with thoughts that, deep down, you do not always 100% believe. In addition to some of the questions I described above, you can nudge yourself in the direction of a cognitive reframe with questions like

         What would I tell a friend if they were sharing this exact situation with me? And why would I really mean what I was saying?

         If I had to guess, how do I think that I'll think about this in 6 months or a year or 5 years? What might I see then that's hard to see right now?

“It sounds like this technique might be particularly well-suited to this period of isolation/trauma, " I suggested. “Does that sound right?”

Definitely. The best analogy here is exercise. Maybe you usually go to a yoga studio, but now you're figuring out a home practice. Maybe you like spin classes, but now you are taking bike rides with your kids outside instead. Even though we’re all relatively isolated right now, we are finding ways to stay active. Cognitive reframing is a way you to do a little at-home workout for your brain. It'll help with mental fortitude and flexibility and it's a way to be in productive conversation with yourself, rather than involved in unhelpful thought loops.

A COVID reframe can help us find opportunity and meaning. Quite a lesson for this psychoanalyst, and super helpful for us and for our patients during this time of crisis.