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10 Necessary Cognitive Changes During a Pandemic

Rethinking worries, uncertainty, and core values.

1. Accept and do not avoid worry.

It is normal to react to a crisis such as a pandemic with worry and anxiety. Trying to downplay the severity of the situation can result in a lack of action. You do not become a superhero because you report absolutely no worry during global difficult times. We need a healthy dose of anxiety to implement actions required to slow down or abolish an epidemic.

2. Do not attempt to fight or control worry.

So, you do admit that you are feeling worried and anxious. Do not attempt to fight a fierce boxing match with worry to show that you are the winner. In the boxing ring of life, during an epidemic, we either all lose or all win. There is no invisible referee handing out an accolade to those who have their worry under control 100% of the time.

3. Do not judge your worry.

We sometimes say things to ourselves we would not say to our enemies! When you notice that you are worried, stop telling yourself things like “Here I go again,” or “Everyone seems to handle things fine — why am I falling apart?”

4. Broaden your attention.

During threat, humans naturally narrow their attention to focus on the cause of danger. This is wonderful if the threat lasts a limited duration of time and is specific. But during epidemics in which the threat may last months, this can be severely limiting. Make a serious effort to notice non-threat related news.

5. Be comfortable with now.

This is the time to focus on "now." Do not let worry about the future consume the potential embedded in every "now" moment.

6. Get comfortable with uncertainty (watch my BBC interview).

We love to predict and be accurate. We have been fortunate in the past to be accurate with many predictions. Particularly in the West, we are fascinated with prediction models. We predict who will win presidential elections, housing prices, stocks, or who will win American Idol. We get frustrated when our routines and predictions are interrupted by small things like pandemics. You need to be more tolerant of uncertainty by getting situated in the present moment. Think of crises as a "force quit" for our stubborn "certainty" program.

7. Identify your core values.

A crisis is a perfect time to sit with yourself and identify your core values. What values would you not compromise, no matter how bad things get? Make a list of 10 values. Post them somewhere visible to you at all times. Pick the top 3 values, and write them on a small paper. Carry it with you everywhere you go.

8. Make decisions based on your values, not your anxiety.

This is a tough one but can be learned. When making a decision, orient yourself to the three values you have in your pocket. Is your decision consistent with them? Or is it a byproduct of your anxiety?

9. Live your values, including during the most anxious moments.

Another tough one. This requires you to employ the laborious system in your brain and turn off the brain’s autopilot (see this TEDx talk).

10. Realize the imaginary power of your brain.

The human brain is magnificent! It has an enormous ability to create, imagine and pretend it's in control. Think of anxiety and worry as byproducts of this imaginary system. Worry is a creative story that is based on some true occurrences. Do not believe every thought you have.

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