Building strategies for resilience, a healthy mindset, and ways of bringing calm to the nervous system are especially important at this most difficult time. Please see Part 1 of this series if you haven't yet read it, and then continue here for Part 2.
3. Ask yourself, "What can I choose in this moment?" Health psychologist Kelly McGonigal shared that in times when so much is out of one's control, it can be most helpful to focus on this question of "what can I choose" rather than "what can I control?" While it is, of course, wise and skillful to control what we can (physical distancing, frequent hand washing, etc.), when we ask "What can I choose?", Kelly McGonigal suggests that we invite in a different kind of response. This question encourages us to think about our deepest values—who we want to be, what is most important to us, and how we want to show up in the world. Some of the things we might choose during these difficult times include courage, compassion, kindness, and self-care.
4. Work with mental rumination. In addition to our built-in fight-or-flight alarm system, we also are wired for our minds to wander. In particular, they tend to wander to the past and to the future, to what-ifs and worries of things not in the present moment. This may have had some evolutionary survival value for our ancestors, but it is not always so helpful in our modern lives. Planning for the future, anticipating potential dangers, and taking actions to prepare, is of course important and helpful. But incessant worry and mental rumination about things we can’t do anything about can be very wearing. Yet it is sometimes very hard to step out of. And we don’t always even recognize we are doing this.
One thing I have found helpful is to imagine two boxes. In the first box, put everything that has to do with the present moment. This could include specific actions you need to take in the coming days or week, as well as what is actually happening right now. In the second box, which I call the future box, put all of your future worries and what-ifs, that may or may not happen, and that you can do nothing about right now. Put all of the unhelpful places your mind wanders to in that box. For many people, that second box can be quite large. Now imagine taking the present moment box and the future box and dumping out all the contents in the middle of the room. Trying to deal with all of that at once would be overwhelming. Instead, imagine putting the lid on the future box and gently setting it aside. Open the present moment box and choose to focus only on the contents in that box. As it becomes necessary, and only when and if it becomes necessary, move what is appropriate from your future box into your present moment box.
I find that most of my mental suffering is caused by living from my future box, mentally rehearsing future what-ifs, and trying to cope with these unknowns on top of what is actually here. When I am able to remind myself of this exercise it lessens that suffering.
5. Having anchors and refuges
When emotions are very intense, it can be helpful to have ways of anchoring ourselves in something right here and now. What is effective can vary from person to person, and different things may be helpful at different times. For me, sometimes focusing on “just this breath coming in, just this breath going out” can be helpful in the midst of high anxiety, but at other times I need something more active. I find that when my fears are particularly heightened about something, focusing on a task that does not take a lot of mental effort, such as folding laundry or cleaning my house, can be helpful to bring me back to presence, fully immersed in the activity at hand. This offers relief from mental rumination and anchors me back in the present moment. For some people, focusing on walking and feeling the sensation of their feet making contact with the ground, doing a puzzle, knitting, drawing or cooking might be helpful. Being in nature and taking in one’s surroundings with any or all of the five senses can be both a helpful refuge and anchor for many people. When we can rest in something in this moment, even if just for short periods at a time, it can offer relief and refuge from the heightened anxiety in our bodies and the mental worries in our minds.
6. Focus on resources you already have. Think about some of the most challenging things you have faced in your lifetime and identify what helped you through. What inner strengths, mental mindsets, beneficial actions did you use to help you manage these challenges? Know that those inner resources are there for you to draw on as you need. You are more resilient than you may realize.
A word about meeting our needs for satisfaction
Many peoples’ lives have changed in dramatic ways in a very short period of time. Students are home from schools, many people are working from home or perhaps may not even have jobs to go to at present. What we normally have done for entertainment may no longer be available in the ways we are used to. It is helpful to acknowledge our needs for satisfaction and to rethink how we might find sources of satisfaction in new ways. I know some people who are viewing times of self-quarantine or extended time at home as an opportunity to do things they normally don’t have time to do—learning something new, reading, taking up a hobby, taking care of unfinished projects, or spending more time with their children. Others are taking advantage of more things happening online, such as the Metropolitan Opera streaming performances, taking online workshops, or taking virtual museum tours. We may need to be creative about finding ways to meet our satisfaction needs as our routines are disrupted but having an open mind and willingness to think outside of the box is one place to start.
A word about meeting our needs for connection
More than ever, in times of crisis we need connection with others, yet this very connection is being challenged in ways we have never before experienced. Similar to our need for satisfaction, it is important to acknowledge and prioritize this need and come up with creative ways of remaining connected. Fortunately, we have technology on our side for this one! Many of my family members just had our first virtual get-together. My local meditation community just announced they are offering all of its workshops and gatherings online. The nice weather where I live enabled me to get together and go running with friends at a local state park, while keeping a good amount of distance. Phone calls and Facetime can allow family members and friends to remain connected. Finding ways of remaining connected to others is a crucial way that we can take care of ourselves and each other during these stressful times.
While these uncertain times may challenge us as our core, it is possible to take steps to help ourselves feel more moments of calm, safety, satisfaction, and connection than we would if we let our panic and anxiety go unchecked. As we move toward the “green zone,” we can be more responsive and less reactive to the challenges at hand, and face each day with resilience, inner strength, and courage to guide us through this uncharted territory.
The original version of this post was published on PsychCentral's World of Psychology Blog.