By David W. Hart, Ph.D.
May is Mental Health Awareness Month, and the remembrance takes on much more meaning in 2020.
The COVID-19 pandemic has turned our world upside down and all of us are wondering if what we considered normal two months ago will ever be the same. How will we travel, socialize, worship and work in our brave new world? Hearing the predictions of public health experts nationally and locally, we will create a new normal that mirrors the sobering realities of the devastation of the coronavirus. Yet the road ahead is likely daunting. Learning, or relearning, strategies to cope with stress related to change and uncertainty is imperative in our radically altered reality.
First, let’s state the obvious. Living through any pandemic is Traumatic (notice the capital T). The news is filled with heartbreaking stories of pain, loss and devastation. To witness this degree of worldwide tragedy is translated by the brain’s more primitive regions as extreme danger. Typically, the higher order pre-frontal cortex can contain our responses to perceived danger — but the deadly effects of the novel coronavirus is not just perception. We’re in real danger. Hence, we may feel overwhelmed, hyper-vigilant, scared, worried, worn down or just plain stuck – think deer in the headlights. No matter how we’re feeling, the feelings are likely appropriate. This is not the time to be beating yourself up for what you should be feeling or ought to be doing. Albert Ellis, one of the founding fathers of behavioral psychology, famously advocated for us all to stop “shoulding” all over ourselves. Maybe that’s good advice for this day and age.
Adaptation to change is an integral part of thriving across the lifespan. Suffering of some sort is a guaranteed part of life. The question is how to cope with it. In his seminal text, Man’s Search for Meaning, Dr. Viktor Frankl, who survived the Holocaust to become one of the 20th Century’s great minds of psychology, stated, “When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.” Maybe that’s another bit of historical advice that is relevant today.
So, how do we adapt or change ourselves to meet the psychological challenges of today? Here’s a list of suggestions that may be helpful to you in the coming days, weeks, and months:
Avoid exposure – That’s right. You need to turn off the 24-hour news cycle. Constant exposure to disaster will maintain your central nervous system’s fight-or-flight response, which will require additional energy to curtail throughout the day, likely leaving you feeling fatigued, worried and depressed. Try reading the newspaper or giving yourself a limited window of time to drop in on the news cycle and then quickly return to the life that’s right in front of you.
Find the helpers – When in the midst of a crisis, children are instructed to find the helpers to guide them to safety. This principle can be helpful for us today. Seek out what’s working in our society – the heroes providing essential services; the volunteers providing countless hours of time to support the most vulnerable among us; the economic safety nets that have stabilized millions of families across the country; and a scientific and research community working day and night to keep us safe and find a plausible treatment for the virus. Look for these people, see them, and really feel their good deeds. You likely will feel a sense of safety and reassurance in your own heart too.
Live in your hands – I recently came across a beautiful meditation recited in a book by Mark Nepo. In it, he shares that to live in our hands humbles our mind into accepting something other than itself. Take that in for a moment. Sometimes, in order to relieve our minds, we have to leave our minds. The best way to leave our worries behind is to redirect our attention to building, creating, and sensing through our hands. Freud described this process as sublimation. Find an activity to build, construct, concoct, sew, make, engineer or simply touch.
Counterprogramming – To balance the bad news, delight the senses with joy and positivity. Play your favorite music, burn a scented candle, add flowers to your environment, prepare your favorite meals (while balancing nutrition of course), watch a comedy series or routine and set aside time to do what makes you joyful.
What’s tried and true – Gratitude, random acts of kindness, mindfulness, social connection, and physical movement are all evidence-based strategies for cultivating positivity. Write down what you’re grateful for each and every day and share your list with others. Find ways to be kind. This might be as simple as moving off the sidewalk to provide 6 feet of social distance while walking by your neighbors. Maintaining social connection over the phone, via video conferencing applications, or by joining neighbors for a gathering in the yard, adhering to social distance protocols of course, are all parts of remaining well. There’s no better way to maintain mood than to engage in an exercise or movement routine.
I could probably write a dissertation here, but instead I’ll invite you to join me for a free webinar on this very topic that I’m facilitating on Wednesday, May 28 from noon to 1:30pm.
If you’re caring for a loved one with dementia and are interested in learning purposeful engagement activities to help fill your day, the South Bay Dementia Education Consortium is hosting a workshop on Wednesday, May 20 from 10am to 11:30am.
For more information or to register for these workshops, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org
Lastly, Beach Cities Health District is hosting several workshops over the course of May on social emotional wellness, including the topics of gratitude, purpose, kindness, and bravery. Please visit www.bchd.org for more information.
David Hart, Ph.D., is the director of clinical services at Always Best Care Senior Services in Torrance and is a faculty member in the Department of Counseling at California State University, Fullerton. Hart, founding chair and member of the South Bay Dementia Education Consortium, specializes in working with older adults with dementia and their families. For more information, go to alwaysbestcaresouthbay.com or contact him at email@example.com or at (310) 792-8666.