With the country beginning to open up services, many people are struggling with how to go about re-entering into social situations. The decision-making process can feel overwhelming especially with so much uncertainty about health and safety in public spaces. Quarantine and isolation have definitely increased mental health challenges for many people. If you struggle with anxiety the next phases of the Coronavirus response will likely stir up difficult emotions.
Your brain is likely to debate with itself using all the information that you have been exposed to through your pandemic experience. News outlets, social media posts, friends, family members, zoom chats, spiritual leaders, or other influencers will have contributed loads of information about the pros and cons of beginning to re-emerge out into the world. This is all a normal process in decision making, but when it comes to the current pandemic situation your thoughts may become magnified and unrelenting. Engaging in this internal battle throughout the day will lead to heightened anxiety and increase your stress.
Remember this stress response is your brain and body’s way to protect you from danger, so you don’t want to turn off this mechanism. There are ways that you can lessen the struggle and increase your ability to tolerate the uncertainty that lies ahead. Here are a few tips to remember as we move toward re-entry:
Make a List
Your values are guideposts for living so make a list of your top five and consider how your behavior will impact these values. This will help you determine what actions you will take as you make decisions about the future. If you need help identifying your values you can complete a values card sort activity online at https://www.think2perform.com/our-approach/values/new. If stability is one of your most important values, you will probably take a more conservative approach to going out in public than someone who lists independence or adventure as one of their top values. If fairness is a priority to you, you will take different kinds of actions to make sure people are following rules and guidelines. Knowing your guiding principles will help clarify how you want to act and how to talk to others about your decisions. Rather than comparing yourself with those posting on social media or doubting your decisions, keep looking at your list of values as a reminder of why you are choosing your course of action. It is also important to be aware that you will become more upset and anxious when you are critical of other people’s values. A dose of compassion will go a long way when interacting with others during the upcoming months!
Tap Into Your Wise Mind
One of the concepts I often teach clients when they are struggling with anxiety is how to recognize the different parts of your mind and how they work together. We all have an “emotional mind” that is highly charged and sensitive to worry. This part of the mind often battles with the “rational mind” which tries to explain why there is no need to worry and reminds us of the facts we should focus on instead. When we are in a state of mental wellness these two parts of our mind work together to help us tap into our “wise mind” and make decisions in line with our values. The wise mind listens to both sides and validates what each part has to contribute, but it does not get pulled into a worrying battle. Rather the wise mind accepts that things may not be in our full control and thinks about how we can do the things that are important to us even if we are a bit uncomfortable. Many of us used this skill during the initial phases of the pandemic when we had to learn how to use unfamiliar technology and work from home. The emotional mind may have brought all kinds of worried thoughts about failure and struggle to adapt. The rational mind may have brought up the fact that if you don’t figure this out you may lose your job! The wise mind took in all the information and reminded you that even though this would be hard, it is an important part of continuing your employment. At the end of the day, your ability to have an income is a value that kept you working through uncomfortable situations.
Focus on What Is
It is natural to begin thinking about all kinds of “what if?” scenarios during times of uncertainty. Again this is normal and can help alleviate problems in many situations. If you work in a job that requires a lot of planning it is helpful to be able to anticipate things that may cause problems in the future. If you are a parent packing for a vacation with your kids you may ask yourself “what if?” questions to make sure that you are prepared (i.e. extra snacks in case there are long stretches without facilities, games for the car ride, wet wipes for spills). When the question of “what if?” begins to send you into a spiral of anxiety, it is no longer serving a helpful purpose. Rather than trying to shut off the “what if?” questions that will naturally come up, try balancing your focus with “what is” statements. “What is” reminds us of the things we know are true in the current situation and also those things we do have some control over. I cannot control where the coronavirus spreads (what if) but I can control the steps I take to protect myself (what is). I cannot confirm that schools will reopen as normal in the fall (what if) but I can focus on helping my child with the learning they are doing now as they finish the year (what is). When you balance your thinking patterns you are less likely to get overwhelmed with worry.
Try using one of these practices as you prepare to increase your exposure to public spaces. There will be circumstances in the months ahead that will impact the ebbs and flow of anxiety as this is a normal part of adapting to change. With time and lots of practice, we can all become more confident in our ability to deal with uncertainty. We will emerge from the pandemic experience stronger, braver, and with an increased awareness of our ability to overcome adversity!