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Coping With the Next Phase of the Pandemic
May 26th, 2020

Written by Dr. Moe Gelbart, Thelma McMillen Recovery Center

After about three months of COVID-19, we are being forced to confront new concerns related to re-opening of our society and economy. With the first wave in February, came severe anxiety due to dealing with the unknown. Anxiety breeds on fear of the unknown, on uncertainty and on being confronted with things we have no control of. When the consequences include possible illness and/or death of ourselves, our families, and our loved ones, the anxiety can be overwhelming. What the last few months have shown us is that we are resilient, and we have come to terms to some degree with this unknown enemy and the new normal. We have learned about social distancing, handwashing, and facemasks, all things to help us feel a sense of some control. We (hopefully) follow the data and heed the guidance of our physicians and public health experts.

As our world begins to open up, we have a new set of concerns, again raising our fears and anxieties. Should we go to work? to the beach? to a restaurant? send our kids to school? go to the doctor’s? get a haircut? go to the gym? and all the other things which just three months ago never caused us pause. Revisiting some of the coping mechanisms and strategies for handling stress may help us navigate through these decisions and shed some light on these dilemmas.

Thoughts and Feelings. We are motivated to action by our feelings. Fear and anxiety make us avoid an action. Desire will propel us towards something. Since feelings drive us, we need to understand the connections between thinking and feeling. Feelings are always accurate and correct, but they are the byproducts of thinking. Our thoughts are complex results of our history, experiences, perceptions, and even misinformation and distortions. The way to understand our feelings is to be very clear about our thinking, and meaning we give to things. The way to change our negative, painful, and fearful thinking is to adjust how we think, and how we perceive things. When it comes to making choices about stepping outside of our “comfort” zones, (like getting back to some activities), we have narratives in our heads which create our feeling states. We can, if we feel uncomfortable, examine those narratives, and possibly come up with a new perspective. Often, the narratives are indicative of absolute, all-or-none, black-white thinking which tends to cause unpleasant feeling states. If we can see things in more “gray” perspective, the intensity of our feelings lessen. In some ways, it is being able to see the proverbial glass as half full rather than half empty. Some things which help with this process includes:

Accept and do not judge your feelings. When our inner voice judges our feelings, with thoughts like we are wrong, dumb, insecure, inadequate or other negative judgments, it only deepens our shame and anxiety. Instead, when you hear yourself judging your emotions, feelings, or reactions, learn to “speak” more kindly to yourself. I tell people to speak to themselves as they would to their children, which is always with kindness and understanding, and an attempt to help. For example, when we feel afraid, we may hear ourselves say “what is wrong with you” or “there is nothing to be afraid of” or “you are weak”. If your child came to you with the same issue and same feelings, you would no doubt treat them with care, and help guide them. This is something you can do for yourself as well, and which will enable you to come up with better outlooks and solutions.

Empower yourself with your strengths. We have all had ups and downs, achievements and failures, and we are often much stronger than we think. In stressful times, our fears lead to catastrophic thinking, which leads to anxiety and depression. If we head down the “what if” road to visions of disaster, we need to tell ourselves to stop, and take inventory of our strengths and capabilities. We need to remind ourselves that our worst fears are not very likely to occur, and even if they did, we are more capable of handling them than we think. It is almost impossible to deal with a monstrous scenario that has not occurred yet and that is in our imagination, but we are able to feel a sense of control in dealing with things that are in our present.

Understand Risk-Reward Tradeoff. We are often paralyzed when we try and determine whether actions are right-wrong, correct-incorrect. Many of our decisions have, in actuality, no right or wrong, but are choices with benefits/rewards, and positive and negative consequences. When we think about re-entering our activities, we need to be clear about the rewards offered, and the risks that need to be taken. When we feel the benefit outweighs the risk, then we can proceed. We need to be certain to accept our feelings, understand the thoughts that produce them, and not judge or shame ourselves into an action we are not comfortable with. Be very careful of the dangerous internal thought known as “you should”, and be able to replace it with “I want to”.

Expand your focus. We sometimes have a habit of thinking about things in only one way, and never allowing ourselves to see things any differently. This is known as selective inattention. In a well known experiment (you can Google selective inattention gorilla), people were asked to view a group of teens in white tee shirts, and a group in black tee shirts, both passing a basketball. The viewer was asked to count how many times the group in white passed the ball. The interesting part was they were so focused on their task that the majority of the viewers did not even see a man dressed as a gorilla on the screen. I have tried this many times in talks I give, and shockingly, about 85% of the people do not see the gorilla, until the video is rewound. The point is that sometimes we need to take a step back from our way of thinking in order to see the bigger picture and options.

Express yourself. I have written about this before, and it bears repeating. Express your thoughts and feelings to trusted others, those who listen, reflect, and do not judge. Often what you are looking for is a caring ear, and not advice. This often lets you come to new ways of seeing things on your own.

As you get ready to confront getting back to “normal” activities, remember to trust your feelings, know that your feelings come from your thoughts, that you can investigate your thinking and gain more clarity, and that most decisions are not right or wrong, but are choices with positive and negative consequences. Trust that most things will not be as bad as you fear, know that you are stronger and more resilient than you give yourself credit for, and be kind to yourself.