Part 1: Better Habits for a Healthier Mind
Since the Covid-19 outbreak, we’ve all had to make adjustments so we can cover our basic needs, care for our loved ones, and remain productive while quarantined. No matter how well you’ve adapted, there’s probably a part of you that feels like you’re just trying to get through to the next day.
And, to your credit, you have.
Despite the extraordinary steps taken to reduce the spread, and even with multiple vaccines hitting the public, it’s clear COVID isn’t going away anytime soon. At least not as fast as we’d like.
When we stop thinking in terms like “getting by,” and start approaching our lives and work with the same vigor we had before the pandemic, is a personal choice. And when we do, regaining our old momentum won’t be as easy as flipping a switch. So, we asked some leading experts on behavior and peak performance what mental strategies they recommend to help us build personal momentum and a pathway forward.
1. Live in your “Present Box”
Licensed clinical psychologist, Dr. Beth Kurland, says evolution instilled a “wandering mind” in humans as a survival mechanism. We’re never totally in the present because our survival instinct is constantly reminding us of things we overcame in the past and alerting us to potential future dangers. Dr. Kurland says, “In this pandemic of uncertainty, these kinds of mental ruminations can really increase a lot of the anxiety people are experiencing.”
The more we focus on the here and now, the less anxious we are, and the more motivated we feel to tackle immediate problems. To help achieve this mental shift, Dr. Kurland recommends drawing two large boxes on a sheet of paper. Label one “The Present,” and label the other “What If?” Then, write the things that occupy your mind in the appropriate box.
According to Dr. Kurland, separating what’s happening right now from what could happen helps us “to think about what is in our sphere of influence, what we have personal agency and control over.”
Yes, eventually, you may have to move some of those “What If’s?” into your “Present” box. But for the moment, try to imagine putting a lid on your “What If’s?” and structure your time around what you can do today.
2. More Teflon, less Velcro
Psychologist Rick Hanson says, “The mind is like Velcro for negative experiences and Teflon for positive ones.” The anxiety and worry we’ve experienced only enhances our tendency to dwell on the negative and overlook the many good things we have in our lives.
An added benefit of the Two Boxes exercise listed above is the more present we are, the more likely we are to notice and appreciate the positive. For example, many of us feel closer to our extended friends and families thanks to Zoom calls and care packages. Other folks have used the working from home experience to chart new career paths.
However, a Teflon mindset doesn’t mean boxing away the real emotional hardships you’ve experienced during the pandemic. Instead, Dr. Kurland encourages us to find a healthy balance between letting our feelings in and not letting them keep us down.
“I think it’s really important to acknowledge and have an opportunity to process those emotions,” Dr. Kurland says. “To hold a space for the grief, the sadness that may be there, and also find ways to notice the moments where we can appreciate the positive things we take in. The warm glance from a family member or a kind word from a coworker. These kinds of things, as we take them in, can help us to get through a difficult day, a difficult moment.”
3. Separate good stress from bad stress
“Stress is good to a certain extent,” says Commander David Sears, who served for 20 years in active duty as a U.S. Navy SEAL officer. In Commander Sears’ experience, stress can be a catalyst for growth and improvement. Right now stress is instilling new habits in you, such as wearing a mask when you go shopping or retooling your monthly “budget” to adjust for changes in your work and living conditions.
But Commander Sears cautions, “You can get overwhelmed by stress and then it starts to become chronic, debilitating and turns into a sort of pain.” To manage his own stress response, Commander Sears leans on lessons from his military service, including the importance of having a support system around you and finding order in a personal routine.
“This whole idea of social distancing that we have is wrong,” says Commander Sears. “It’s physical distancing. We still need that social interaction, you need to have those communications. And you have to add in structure to put some sanity back into your life.
Maybe develop your own schedule in the morning: I’m going to get up, I’m going to work out, I’m still going to put on my pants and get out of my pajamas. I’m going to then go to my first project of the day, then I’m going to go to the second. You might even need to implement a little more structure and discipline in your life in these times so you don’t feel like you’re wandering.”