COVID-19 Coping Strategies

There are no questions about it, these are anxious and challenging times! We can now add COVID-19, volatile markets, closed borders, mandatory social distancing, skyrocketing unemployment, and an increased risk for illness and death to the stockpile of existential threats that we collectively face daily. Unfortunately, there is a high probability for even more adversity in the coming days. The very real tragedies, hardships, and suffering can feel overwhelming at times, and they trigger feelings of hopelessness, powerlessness, uncertainty, despair and loss of control. 

We must be vigilant to the fact that these types of life adversities will increase our chances of relapse for depression and anxiety—for any mental health illness. Even the most resilient will experience increased levels of depressive, anxious, paranoid, irrational, and catastrophic thinking. It is common, and it is to be expected that old self-defeating habits and behaviors, dysfunctional and repetitive thought patterns, and instinctive fear-responses will hijack our emotions. Emotional habits such as denial, detachment and repression often are experienced on one side of the emotional equation; and, on the flip-side panic, hysteria, obsession and despair. If we are not vigilant, we can get stuck on one side of the emotional equation or feel yo-yoed between the two instinctive fear-responses. This is ALL to be expected, it is normal, it is common, and it is not to be judged, criticized, or trivialized. 

Our fear-responses must be normalized, accepted, and taken seriously—now more than ever! The awareness of our habitual thought patterns, emotional habits, and reactive behaviors can act as our compass during this turmoil; and, compassionate acceptance of our habituation can help us to be more responsive as we take preventative measures to protect our physical and mental health.

So, what can we do NOW to help us cope with this global public health crisis and the physical, psychological, economic, social, professional and spiritual fallout that we’re helplessly witnessing and experiencing?

The following tips, practices, and evidence-based psychological strategies can help us to cope during these difficult and uncertain times.

First, please take this pandemic seriously and plan, prepare, but don’t panic! Anxiety, stress and chronic worry trigger our stress-response, and cortisol and adrenaline flood the brain and over engage the sympathetic nervous system (SNS). When the SNS runs too hot for too long, our immune systems become compromised, and we put ourselves at an even greater risk for infection and mental illness. 

Turn your anxiety into action! Be vigilant and proactive about your personal and public health safety practices. Stay informed by reviewing the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website and follow your local and state protective measures. It is as critical however, to place strong boundaries around daily news consumption. Practice healthy compartmentalization by being selective about when, where and how much news you consume. The media’s job is to inform AND sell the news. Sensationalism works well to boost ratings, sell newspapers, and increase advertising revenue, but it wreaks havoc on our minds, bodies, and spirit. I recommend choosing a time during the middle of the day to catch up on the latest headlines, news and public announcements. Starting your day and ending your day consumed by the headlines will negatively impact your level of functioning throughout the day and severely impact your sleep hygiene. If you notice chronic fatigue during the day and insomnia at night, you are likely not putting enough emotional-distance between yourself and the external world.   

Stick to your current behavioral health and wellness activities. For millions of us, we have worked diligently to create a healthy work-life balance in order to ensure that our homes remain places of refuge, and to keep work where it belongs—at the office! Millions of us now find ourselves sequestered to our homes, practicing social distancing, and placed under mandatory stay policies. Turning off work has just become that much more difficult for us, and we will find ourselves struggling again to practice the habits that support a healthy home and work-life balance. So, workaholics beware; we will need to stick to our normal work routines. Start and end your workday at the same time that you would have normally had you gone into an office. Create a separate workspace that you can close-off ideally or blockout visibly from the other rooms in your home. Take breaks and lunch at the same usual times. Workout and exercise daily. Movement is a critically important stress-reducing activity. These behavioral strategies will ensure that you keep the healthy work-life balance habits that you had previously, and they will offer you and your family the quality relationship time that everyone deserves. 

Let’s discuss some emotion-focused strategies. COVID-19 has most certainly triggered existential fears—uncertainty, loss of control, feelings of powerlessness, lack of freedom, and fears of illness and death. It is important that we do not  judge, criticize, belittle or minimize our fears, anxiety, despair, or any of our natural and instinctive emotional reactions. Judgement of ourselves or others for experiencing unnerving emotions is like pouring gasoline on an already smouldering fire—combustion will soon follow! 

The majority of us are feeling intense pressure, so now is the time to practice self-compassion and self-soothing. We must be gentle, patient and kind to ourselves and to others. Asking ourselves the following questions when self-criticism or judgement shows up will help you to NAN™ your emotions—normalize, accept and not judge them. Take time to answer these questions, and then internalize the comforting answers by practicing to comfort and soothe your emotions. 

  • How would I treat an anxious child that needed comforting during a traumatic time? 
  • What would I say to a nervous child that needed support when they felt out of control or faced uncertainty with terror? 
  • How would I protect a scared and sad child that deserved to feel safe, secure, and connected at a time when they felt unsafe, insecure, and alone? 

As destructive as having judgement of our emotional reactions, denying or repressing them will increase the likelihood of relapse into depression, anxiety, substance abuse or other mental illness. Remember, “What we resist, persists!” Depressing our emotions is counterproductive and destructive to our nervous system. Consciously connecting with our emotions for twenty minutes, once a day, will help us to “manipulate them” instead of being emotionally-hijacked by subconscious impulses, urges, and reactive feelings. Therefore, we must practice engaging the parasympathetic nervous system’s relaxation-response now more than ever. 

I have created a practice that I call the IWP Emotional-Mindfulness & Regulation tools, and it is a healthier and more productive approach to offset our instinctive stress-responses to pain, suffering, and fear. Click on this link to learn more about this practice and to learn to connect daily to the full range of your emotional experiences in non-threatening ways. The benefit of the daily exercise will be the immediate relief that you experience by intentionally connecting to your instinctive fears and to the anxiety that has been triggered by this health emergency. You will find that the exercise helps you from carrying around the weight of your subconscious fears, and eventually the outcome will be to gain better impulse control and enhanced emotional resilience. 

The final strategies that I want to offer will help with cognitive functioning and assist us to better work with our habitual thought patterns and the unproductive beliefs and narratives that get triggered during traumatic times. These tips can help you to learn to get curious in order to break habitual thought-patterns, practice self-affirmation to feel more secure, and use memory recall to connect with our strength and resilience when we need it most.      

As “breaking news” occurs and yet another troubling headline dominates our focus and attention, we will find ourselves battling not just the virus, but also a reactive brain running down familiar rabbit holes. Habitual ways of seeing life and thinking about life will resurface. If we are prone to feeling victimized by life, our thoughts will twist the narrative to support helplessness. If we are prone to denial, our thoughts will create rationalizations to support denial. So, if we are prone to anxious, catasphrophic, critical, extreme, rigid or other irrational thinking, our thoughts will continue constructing stories that reenforce those old habitual cognitive patterns. If we are unaware of our habituated patterns, we will most certainly experience the all too familiar feelings of despair, panic, helplessness, depression and anxiety. 

We must therefore be vigilant by examining our thoughts for habitual patterns, identifying them, and replacing them with other ideas, scenarios, possibilities and outcomes. When reactive thoughts or rigid beliefs present themselves, we can learn to break free from cognitive patterns by using what I call the IWP CQC™ Self-Affirming Practice—bring your curiosity, questions and a contemplative mindset to the moment. Then use self-affirmation and self-direction to replace unhelpful habitual thoughts with more responsive, neutral, rational and healthy thinking. Click here to access the IWP CQC™ Self-Affirming Practice.   

Another practice that we can use to cultivate flexible thinking and emotional strength during difficult times is called the paradoxical intervention. We can stabilize our anxiety, calm the nervous system and support our immunity by spending time reflecting on our past grief and suffering. Although so many of us are currently feeling overwhelmed and dizzied by all those worst case scenarios, struggling to think optimistically about the future, feeling helpless and bewildered about how we will get through this uncertainty, we are actually physically and psychologically resilient.  

As a psychotherapist and coach, I often prescribe my clients to revisit their past discomfort, anxiety, loss, or grief. I ask them to explore what they remembered about their initial thoughts, feelings and experiences. Together, we explore how they got through those traumatic times. What resources did they use? What did they learn about themselves, if anything? Did any thoughts or beliefs about their hardship change over time? Did they discover any opportunities? Find any meaning despite the suffering? Experience any growth? 

This counterintuitive intervention can allow us to reconnect to our emotional resilience, as we are reminded that we have an innate tolerance to these exact types of existential crises. Uncertainty, loss of control, feelings of powerlessness, and fears of illness and death aren’t actually new concepts for us.  

I can say with certainty that I’ve never experienced a global pandemic that has so abruptly changed our society, but I can recall frightening and painful experiences from my past that deeply shook me. I can remember what it took for me to survive my past adversity, challenges, heartaches, losses, and even tragedy. I can reconnect to my strength, determination, survival instincts, creativity, and adaptability. And in doing so, I can feel hopeful again and perhaps even some calmness in spite of the current circumstances… 

For additional coaching tips and more evidence-based stress-reduction strategies, please don’t hesitate to reach out to me. We are all in this together! 

Stay safe and be well, 

Ryan 

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