Being quarantined during a global pandemic is not how most of us envisioned spending our spring! Rather, we were planning fun vacations, preparing for long-awaited graduations or weddings, or just excitedly getting out of our winter confinement. Instead, we find ourselves amidst a medical, economic, and mental health crisis all rolled into one. Can you say worry, anxiety, and stress on steroids? The good news is that practicing a few simple strategies can help bolster our biological and psychological immune systems. Stress and worry are designed to help cope and find solutions for short periods of time. During times of prolonged stress, poor handling of our emotions and reactions can quickly erode both our physical and mental health.
Although I had written a self-help book on overcoming worry and anxiety (Why Worry? Stop Coping and Start Living), I found myself initially starting to feel overwhelmed by the pandemic. One day I’m happily doing research at my University and the next day the entire place shut down. This was quickly followed by the rest of my hometown, St. Louis, MO.
Feelings of disbelief, anger, uncertainty, and yes, worry started bubbling up. Interrupted sleep, lack of appetite and often a low-grade headache dotted my initial days. The good news about being a self-help expert was that I bounced back once I caught myself slipping into those old bad habits. That’s the key to overcoming stressful feelings. It’s a matter of management not elimination.
Dr. Robert Schuller once said, “Tough times never last, but tough people do.” Indeed, the COVID-19 crisis is making all our lives tough and rather crazy right now and for some time to come. Many of us worry about how we will get through this. As days progress, we may become emotionally and spiritually drained. That’s why right now is a good time to toughen up our mental attitude, do a stress smackdown and get on with our lives.
The first step into feeling more peaceful and calm begins with a rather simple idea. Ralph Waldo Emerson, a renowned poet and philosopher, said, “The ancestor to every action in the physical world is a thought.” Another great teacher, Dr. Wayne Dyer explains, “What you think about is what expands.”
Do see the main message here? Your thoughts create your life. They can either overwhelm you with anxiety or (when you take charge of them) can help restore a sense of calm and normalcy. To help you regain this sense of serenity, here are FIVE ‘thought-provoking’ ways to fight back at COVID-19 stress and anxiety.
Create Calm Despite COVID-19 Chaos
The number one mistake we often make is allowing our minds to expect the worst possible outcome for challenging situation. I call this ‘terribilizing.’ Unfortunately, terribilizing is an energy-draining habit that hardwires us into chronically feeling stressed, anxious, and worried. Terribilizing is also very automatic. You may have had parents who were worriers or believed that if they worried about something enough, it wouldn’t happen.
Because our bodies respond to our thoughts, chronic worry can ramp up to anxiety or panic and can lead to health issues by chronically engaging the stress response. The way out of automatic terribilizing is to wake up to our hidden powers…Awareness and Choice. By first becoming aware and listening into the negative chatter, you can then choose to react differently. You may not have much control over your initial worry thoughts, but your power lies in becoming aware of them and formulating better choices for second, third etc. thoughts. Focus on what you can do, not what you can’t. Focus on your ability to bounce back.
To overcome terribilizing, learn to disagree and instead create mental dialogues filled with positive possibilities. Such “Possibilizing” keeps you in command instead of reeling out of control with negative runaway thoughts. You can thank your thoughts for trying to protect you, but firmly counter them with assurances that you can handle whatever life throws at you. You can do hard things. You are tough enough, capable enough, and strong enough to handle whatever you need to handle. It helps to prepare a mental toolbox of helpful commentary before you actually need to use it. To start possibilizing, create statements that are powerful, positive and in the present tense. Here are some examples improved inner dialogues:
Weakening Thoughts Empowered responses
I feel so helpless. I can do this! I am strong and capable.
I can’t stop worrying. I am the leader of my thoughts, not the follower of my fears.
This will never be over. I will handle whatever I need to for as long as I need to.
I feel overwhelmed by everything. I will take time out to nurture myself. I am worth it.
Can you feel the difference between the two sets? Write down these as your own positive statements and tape them to your bathroom mirror, the refrigerator, or wherever you can see them. Focus on you and don’t allow negative comments by others to influence your own inner sanctum. You may also be acting as a role model to help someone else see how to handle worries and negative thinking.
Turn on your Happy Genes
Although stresses may seem to overwhelm any thoughts of being happy, the truth is that the happier you are, the happier you will be! Our bodies respond to our thoughts. Repeated thoughts (good or bad) hardwire your brain responses. When you think thoughts that make you happy, your body responds by turning on your ‘happy’ genes. It’s a feedback system. Insist on your right to be happy, despite all the challenges you and others are facing. But also, set boundaries and take time out devoted to only YOU and your needs.
Perhaps you wish to do something helpful like make masks. I cannot sew a stitch and thus decided to give back by sharing what I know about overcoming stress and worry.
Create a Sweetspot between Routine and Variety
Scientific studies show that people do better with a routine. You had one before the crisis, so build a new one, a stay-at-home one. Get up, get showered, get dressed, eat, and begin some project. Study, work from home, or be productive in some way. However, life is also sweeter when there is variety. Although we may be creatures of habit, most of us like some diversity in our lives. What appeals to you? Learn something new or begin a yoga routine.
Walk outside and let the sun shine on your face. Being out in nature, even if our own backyards or balconies, can nurture our souls.
Watch Good News
You likely already know what you need to know. Wash hands, wear a mask, physical distance and just be careful! However, when your mind is saturated with doom and daily death counts, how can you feel a sense of peace? You’ve got to be in this for the long haul. Instead, take a bad news break or limit the amount of time you watch. There are many sources of good news, too, these days. I chuckle all the time with the John Krasinski “SGN” (Some Good News) programs on YouTube. I also get email newsletters from CNN’s “The Good Stuff.” Those are just a few ideas. What appeals to you?
In closing, I hope you will make it a practice to hear and then turn around those negative thoughts. Choose ones that help, not hurt. Look for positives and try to find solutions to your challenges. Sometimes, however, the solution is acceptance. We will get through this by keeping a tough mental attitude yet being kind to ourselves and others. Always remember, our thoughts create our lives, choose them wisely!
About the Author
Kathryn Tristan is a Research Scientist and Assistant Professor of Medicine on the faculty of Washington University School of Medicine. She studies our biological immune system and its diseases. She also is interested in the “psychological immune system” that represents our constellation of thoughts and feelings meant to protect us. She is a prolific writer with more than 300 articles in leading scientific or lay publications and has written two self-help books, Why Worry? Stop Coping and Start Living and Anxiety Rescue: Simple Strategies to Stop Fear from Ruling Your Life. Kathryn has appeared on television and spoken on numerous radio shows as well as being a presenter at international conferences. Her passion is speaking and writing about how to focus our minds to overcome worry and anxiety using simple and easy tools of the mind, body and spirit. She lives in St. Louis, Missouri.
Email: [email protected]