A Framework for Staying Sane in a Year of Uncertainty

Essential elements we must balance in the age of social distancing.

Posted Apr 16, 2020

 Pexels
Source: Pexels

In a previous post, I discussed flexibility and how we must learn to adapt to new and unprecedented circumstances. That was in mid-March—when the full scope of the coronavirus had only started to become apparent in the United States. Now, many of us have been asked to stay inside for an indefinite period of time, nervously scroll through the latest stream of distressing news headlines, and worry about job and financial security and the health of family members, friends, and colleagues.

In times of stress, crisis, and trauma like these, we often revert back to “survival mode,” which manifests in negative emotions and health outcomes—such as a decrease in physical activity and exercise, an increase in a drive to eat, and an increased likelihood of experiencing psychological disorders such as depression.

To provide advice during this crisis—the most threatening one to the world since WWII—numerous guides to mental health and well-being have sprouted. We’ve seen tips to handle our anxiety, stay connected to our loved ones, and stay physically healthy when indoors. However, few have gone deeper than lists and general advice.

I want to offer a framework for maintaining balanced mental health and resilience that has been used for years to assess and support youths’ psychological and social-emotional health. I am talking about the Clover Model, developed by our team at Harvard and McLean Hospital, that highlights four main domains of thriving: active engagement, assertiveness/voice, belonging, and reflection.

We need to actively and physically engage with the world through movement and hands-on learning and emotion management; we need to be assertive and voice our wants and needs; we need to feel like we belong and build trusting connections and attachments with others; and we need space and time for reflection so we are able to deepen our self-knowledge and make meaning out of our experiences. The presence of all four elements lays the foundation for positive mental health from childhood into adulthood.

Throughout this crisis, it is imperative that these elements are tended to consciously and deliberately, particularly at a time when it is harder than ever to make each happen. In the same way that we follow nutritional guidelines to maintain a healthy diet, we too must tend to our psychological needs in a balanced way to guide our actions. Just like a chronic lack of vitamins or fiber in one’s diet can lead to negative health outcomes, a lack of belonging or reflection has negative psychological outcomes.

This virus has taken away some cherished parts of daily life. For example, it is becoming harder to move and exercise and feel one’s body in action, which affects active engagement. Shuttered schools and businesses make it difficult to experience one’s voice with power and conviction. We are barred from meeting friends and family face-to-face, which damages our sense of belonging. Our need for reflection can also be strained as we struggle to make coherent sense of the situation we are in. These situations can easily create imbalances for our well-being, but they do not have to. When we know that we are experiencing or anticipating deficits, we can compensate for them.

Many of us have supported our need for active engagement and belonging by virtually catching up with friends (more often than many of us did during “normal” times), spending quality time with children, trying out new exercises at home, and catching up on rest. We are also turning to social media to feel connected and to share our voices by posting pictures and videos of our experiences at home. And while the future feels more uncertain than ever, spending time during the day or evening to reflect, journal, or meditate is also critical to maintaining a solid psychological balance.

The point here is that it is not enough to focus on one thing or the other. Keep track of all four elements and watch how they contribute to the whole. Maintaining a balance also cannot become a rigid practice—balance and flexibility should be two sides of the same coin. Becoming more self-aware of one’s own balance of these four elements is key, and checking in with yourself every few days is a useful practice.

As you program the days with your partner or children, notice whether you are keeping an eye on this balance—similar to how you decide on your meals. You may notice that you are spending a lot of time on social online connections and have a regular post-lunch walk routine, but that you haven’t allowed space for quiet reflection. Having a frame with which one can refine, rebalance, and experiment will help. I will follow this post with more specific suggestions of what can be done under our present conditions of confinement.

The times demand internal and interpersonal resources that we did not know we had. But we have the ability to fortify our resilience by focusing on a new repertoire of behaviors, activities, and insights that promote balance and mental wellbeing. When the threats and fears subside, the things that we’ve built—community, friendship, voice, purpose—will not simply fade into the background. Instead, we will be able to strive to find a balanced response to any challenges that may lie ahead.