Building Your Pandemic Toolbox
Three different psychological angles to help cope with your coronavirus stress.
Posted March 23, 2020
We are living in times that are rapidly changing, stress-filled, and unpredictable. This may be bringing up anxiety and worry for you. The following are some ideas on coronavirus stress management from three different psychological modalities: Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), and Mindfulness. Understanding different approaches to cope with anxiety may help build a more robust toolbox to deal with your current worries.
In all anxiety management approaches, our work starts with noticing what is transpiring in our thoughts, our emotions, and our bodies. Without awareness, we often don’t know that we have work to do, or that there are strategies we can employ to help ourselves. We may take the frazzled way we are feeling for granted and forge on. However, once we tap into awareness, we can make active choices about what we are going to do with those troublesome sensations and thoughts, and begin adaptively coping.
The following is a break-down of what three different psychological schools of thought would say to help mitigate your coronavirus related stress and anxiety:
1. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). One of the principles of this modality is learning to identify our thoughts, recognize their impact on our emotional response, and then reframe the tricky thinking. By adjusting our thinking, we change our emotional response and the actions that follow.
Anxiety thoughts, by their very definition, are not accurate. They may start with a kernel of truth but then expand into a worry-story that is full of inaccuracies that feel highly believable. Replacing inaccurate thoughts with more accurate ones can be very helpful. This is not about cultivating positive thinking, it’s about accurate thinking.
With anxiety related to COVID-19, you may want to try this: Practice slowing down, isolating the worry thoughts, and "talking back" to them using past evidence, history, and your rational brain.
Identify the thought that is worrying you, and use logic and evidence to put it in its place, so to speak.
For example, if you’re thinking is, what happens if we get very sick? Or, what if we run out of supplies? What if society crumbles? Challenge it with more rational thoughts such as, There is a very minimal chance that will happen. Yes, it’s a possibility, but it’s not a probability. I can’t live in the realm of possibility — because anything is possible, always. I choose to live with probability, which is the more likely scenario. I am resilient and can deal with hardship that comes my way [and this is how…]. I’ve dealt with difficulties in the past. I can’t control the future. All I can do is meet myself at this moment and ask myself the question, what do I need to do right now?
2. Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT). This form of therapy is about learning to accept our thoughts and emotions, and regardless of what is happening in our noggin, committing to meaningful actions. Here, instead of challenging the thoughts, as we do in CBT, we notice them, watch them, and let them go so that they don’t act as a barrier in pursuing your goals.
This form of therapy emphasizes shifting our relationship to our thinking so that we become the observer of our thoughts, recognize they are just thoughts, and gently set them aside as we pursue our life and dreams.
An analogy I like is that of a bus or a car: You are in the driver’s seat of your life, driving yourself to the places that you want to go to, together with your passengers — your thoughts and your feelings — whatever they might be. You are not being driven around and being told what you can or cannot do by your thoughts or emotions.
Another popular analogy for ACT work is to learn to watch your thoughts come and go like the clouds in the sky. You are not the cloud, nor are you on the cloud. You are lying flat on your back, watching the clouds (thoughts) come and go.
With our current worry surrounding COVID-19, an ACT approach would be to observe your thoughts. Remind yourself that they are just thoughts and allow them to be. Don’t fight them or get swept away by them. Ground yourself in your personal values: the actions/mindsets that provide you with meaning.
When you have stress-related thoughts about the coronavirus, you may want to try saying, Oh hello, thoughts. Come on in. You can come with me today as I do X if you’d like. I will not allow you to dictate what I do or don’t do with my life.
Practically, this might look like coming up with a daily list of activities that you can do from home that give you a sense of value. One client said she came up with a quarantine "bucket list" of sorts — things she has been wanting to do for a while that she finally has time for.
Doing these value-driven tasks regardless of what thoughts you are having may be helpful in weathering this storm. Some ideas might be: texting a friend, doing something kind for someone, cleaning a space in your house, being creative with music or art. Identify what gives you meaning, chunk it into attainable goals, and stay connected to those things.
3. Mindfulness is learning to cultivate a gentle, non-judging awareness to what is unfolding within, moment to moment. It is different than the ACT approach in a fundamental way. Whereas ACT is a cognitive strategy where we use metaphors to learn to watch our thoughts, mindfulness doesn’t use metaphors. At its core, this practice is about creating non-judging awareness. It is being present for whatever is unfolding within you moment by moment, noticing where your mind is, and shifting your attention back to one of your five senses or your breath.
To help with the anxiety of the coronavirus, a mindfulness approach might involve noticing the thought, creating space for it, and kindly bringing your attention back to one of your five senses or your breathing. Your breath can serve as a wonderful anchor to come back to when you notice your mind going off to anxious places.
When you notice yourself having a worry thought, you might want to say, thank you for that, mind, and then notice other sensations you are having at that moment: your breathing, what sounds your ears pick up, feeling your feet on the ground, or the sensations in your hands.
4. Self-Care. This isn’t its own modality per se but is a foundation from where we use all the skills discussed above. Practicing self-care is fundamental to psychological health and wellbeing.
Self-care is nurturing yourself. It is also staying tethered to preventative strategies such as exercise, eating healthfully, and getting enough sleep. When we do the things that take care of our souls- and our bodies- we are practicing self-care.
Unfortunately, self-care is often one of the first things to go during times of stress. The irony is that while self-care is always important, it becomes even more so during hardship. Why? It’s how we prevent depletion and exhaustion and sustain ourselves to weather the stress. Right now, you may want to pay extra attention to how you are caring for yourself and be creative and committed to making this happen.
Try making a list of things that recharge you, a menu of sorts, and choose from them and practice them daily. Get outside (this has been scientifically shown to lower anxiety), even in your own backyard. Move your body. Talk to comforting friends and family. Meditate. Listen to music that lifts your mood. Lose yourself in a hobby. Find your anchors, and allow them to ground you, keep you steady in these difficult times.
As it is in therapy, there is no one size fits all when it comes to skills and tools. Perhaps try these different skills as you confront the unfolding stress of the times, and see what works for you. Experimenting with different coping strategies may lead to increased self-awareness and feelings of empowerment, reinforcing that you have the ability to help yourself through these difficult times.