Double Down on Gratitude
If I were getting a report card on optimism and attitude over the last several days, I would not be thriving. In fact, I would be looking into a remedial summer school course on the subject. If we had summer school, which - like so many other things - we don't.
Things are feeling like a struggle right now and I know I'm not alone. The National Center for Health Statistics reports that nearly a third of Americans now show signs of clinical levels of depression or anxiety. Socially and professionally I am hearing that people's endurance, coping skills and hopefulness are being stretched, despite our best efforts. This is normal, of course. It's also fatiguing. I've felt too often recently that I just don't have the emotional bandwidth for many things that I usually manage well or enjoy.
I'm going back to the basics though, because it is so important to keep looking for beauty in the small things and gratitude in the routine of our day-to-day life, however disrupted right now. There are ways to feel good, and do better, even when we are not at our best and circumstances are challenging. I would like to usher in the New Normal ideally by banning the expression the New Normal, and going back to the tried and true ways of adapting to unpredictability.
Practice Gratitude: Practicing gratitutde yields many benefits. This practice is not about denying disappointments, losses or setbacks. It simply orients us to the power we have to transform difficulty into opportunity or recast a loss into a potential benefit. Gratitude allows room to observe and experience hard realities, but also gives us an avenue to disengage from negative emotions and thoughts, and helps us channel them in positive ways. Practicing gratitude invites questions like:
• What did this experience teach me that I can benefit from?
• What strengths or opportunities did this experience bring out in me?
• What might I be thankful for down the line, even if I am struggling in the moment?
• Have my negative feelings about what I'm experiencing prevented me from seeing a potential upside? Can I shift this?
Even as we struggle with a significant hardship in a major facet of our life, there is likely a chance to attend to some blessing in another. It helps to consider all major life areas: spirituality, community, family, physical and mental health, work, and home. (For more on gratitude, see my May 14 post Make Room for Gratitude).
Maintain Some Structure: Structure is important for our mental health. It gives us predictability and a sense of control, which is especially helpful during difficult times. Eating well and hydrating, going to bed and working up at routine times, connecting with your supports regularly, getting some exercise, having a self-care routine that you practice habitually - are all healthy ways to focus on the basics. However, strucure should offer some guidelines, rather than be something we should feel trapped by. Right now, many days look like our previous days, and routines can feel monotonous and rigid with all the things we are "supposed" to do to manage well. It is okay to amend your routine and intentionally choose to do something differently. Even if feels like you are going through the motions for now, stick with it until something else reveals itself as helpful. Motion is critical to fighting depression or anxiety.
Movement: Most everyone knows that movement is good for our physical and mental health. Crises activate fear and anxiety, so it it important to get out of our heads and move our bodies. Movement increases natural chemicals in the brain like endorphins, serotonin, dopamine and glutamate, which are critical to enhancing our mental health. They help reduce the negative effects of stress and pain, regulate appetite and mood, and lower our risk for depression and anxiety. Other benefits may include sharper memory and thinking, higher self-esteem, better sleep, more energy and enhanced physical and emotional resilience.
While it can be difficult to find the motivation to exercise when we are struggling, keep in mind that it doesn't have to be rigorous. You can gain significant physical and mental health benefits from exercise with 30-minutes of moderate exercise five times a week. Some activity is better than nothing, so commiting to moderate physical activity—however little—on most days is helpful, even if it's a brief walk.
Connect: With the focus on social distancing, many are feeling disconnected from those most important to them or isolated from others as they limit their daily routines. We need to maintain solidarity and intimacy, even as we adapt to new norms. It is so important to feel seen, heard and understood right now, and extend that same generosity to others. I have heard a common refrain from people who are withdrawing from others because they are having difficulty being positive and do not want to feel like a burden to others when "everyone is struggling" or "so many people have it worse." But there is no ranking system for hardship or grief, and being honest about how you are doing and creating space for giving and getting support is an opportunity for intimate connection that many of us welcome. Giving and receiving support both have their benefits, so reach out even if you are not at your best.
Change the Narrative: When something is difficult, we often ruminate on it, rehashing the negatives and anticipating all that can go wrong. And with all the challenges that have come with this pandemic, it is easy to feel catastrophic. While this is understandable, it doesn’t move us toward optimism, healing or growth. One way to foster resilience it is to change the narrative of what we are telling ourselves. Instead of focusing just on the dark sides of this pandemic (of which there are many inviting our attention), we can attend also to the potential positives of our struggles. The stories we tell ourselves are not going to serve us if they are organized around our fears, challenges and limitations. This is never going to end. This brings out the worst in people. I'm not going to be able to manage this if it persists.
I can do doom and gloom, without a doubt, and in my darker moments, things have felt apocalyptic to me. Interestingly, I also recently learned that the origin of the word apocalypse means revelation or disclosure. What if we shift our lens to focus on what this period is intended to reveal? What if we craft a new narrative that focuses on an opportunity for growth and understanding? What if we set the intention to uncover something important about ourselves, our communities or our common good? When we experience loss or life looks like something we didn't expect it to look like, how can we find meaning in that experience? These types of questions can help us change the narrative from one in which we feel powerless, to one in which we have some sense of control, hope and resilience.
For more strategies on self-care during COVID