I was talking with a girlfriend about the pandemic the other day when I uttered this personal fear. “Most days, I’m okay. Working, taking care of the kids, the house, life. But sometimes I wonder…what if there isn’t going to be any getting back to normal? What if this is what life is like now?”
Even though I work in the mental health field, and know many of the tips and tricks for managing my mental state when things are turning blue inside my head, I have, like so many others, struggled to keep my emotional wellbeing above the waterline during this past year.
Like any year, there have been the usual challenges, both personal and professional, that I’ve had to process and work my way through. I’ve reframed the problems. Thought outside the box. Come at my troubles from a different perspective. And even reminded myself that when one door closes… well, you know.
And that is all well and good and important to practice. For the most part, I feel like I’ve gotten pretty good at the mental and emotional gymnastics required to just navigate life while keeping the spirits up. That’s not to say I don’t get overwhelmed, negative, and even indulge in some light self-sabotage thinking at times, because I certainly do. But long gone are those days in my teens, twenties, and early thirties where depression, bottomless self-doubt, and the crushing cognitive consequences of early programming haunted my every thought about my past, present, and future self.
As I approached life as a middle-aged woman, I worked hard to give the girl I had been a goddamn break. To take care of her. Nurture her. Let her know I know she’s been TRYING all these years and that she was already ENOUGH. She always had been. Period.
I had learned along the way of this life that if you hadn’t been given something you really needed by someone who should have handed it to you as you were growing–it was 100% okay to double back in your life and give it to yourself.
You CAN rewrite your own narrative. Upend your history. Give yourself a new back story. From there you are free to live your new present, envision that better future.
These have been VERY powerful, life-changing lessons for me. Hand to heart, both cognitive and behavioral therapy techniques have completely changed my life for the better. And while it’s not always easy, and I’m not perfect and do sometimes slip (negative self-talk, self-sabotage, etc) for the most part I’ve been able to keep my neural activity pointed toward the sun for the past ten years.
Enter a pandemic.
And suddenly that new present and better future are a whole lot harder to conceptualize. Even though I’ve executed a mental trapeze act that has created a much better life circus than the one I was born into, it now seems the tent poles of our collective existence may be buckling around me. At least it sure feels that way some days.
Keeping a positive mindset can be hard under normal life circumstances. Given our current reality? It can feel naive, irresponsible…downright impossible when nothing is as it was and the only sure thing is that nothing is sure right now.
It’s no longer simply a matter of bolstering and shoring up my past self; It’s every day working to assuage the fear of what lies ahead. The road that is now unfamiliar, poorly lit, and of unexplored length. Striding down it with a healthy dose of self-confidence suddenly doesn’t feel like the most relevant of mindsets.
No. I suspect what is actually needed right now is courage, faith (the blinder, the better), a metric ton of hope, and a dizzying degree of overt kindness (for others, yes, but also for ourselves.)
Some days, the day I confessed my fear to my friend, my courage is failing me. I worry about everything: my kids, our jobs, the entirety of society as we once knew it. I lose faith in the hope of vaccines. I doubt in our ability as a society to ever work together again. Worst of all…I can’t envision what our future will be. Not mine. Not yours.
In those moments I’m all ebb, no flow.
Thankfully, learning to manage my personal demons over the years has left me with some skills for also corralling these external dragons.
First of all, I recognize I’m spiraling in the first place.
Next up, breathing. Deep, long, chest filling breaths. It’s almost a guarantee that if I’m starting to freak out about something, I’m either unwittingly holding my breath or taking shallow breaths.
Finally, I wrangle my thoughts. Typically they have flown out the window and are riding the updrafts and death drops of anxiety. I challenge my catastrophic thoughts, one by one if I have to, and lay to rest the ones that have ZERO supporting evidence or are completely based on “what-if” premises.
Honestly, usually 95% of them can be resolved this way.
For the other 5%, objectively real-world problems, I find that these are usually much more amendable by real-world problem-solving solutions once they aren’t being super fueled, and confounded, by the catastrophic thoughts and “what-if” fears. Work problems, kid problems, finance problems, house problems, problems that I feel capable of developing a plan of action for once my brain is no longer hijacked by fears along the lines of:
THE WORLD AS WE KNOW IT IS COMING TO AN END!
Other things that help:
Listen to, calming, music
Meditating (I KNOW…but it works)
Taking a bath
Playing/snuggling with my pets
Hugging my kids and telling them I love them
Hugging my husband and telling him I love him
Cleaning my house (I don’t think this is just me, when my spaces are clean and organized, my anxiety goes way down)
Reading books (written by OTHER people)
Watching fun, non-news related, TV and/or movies
Journaling (specifically about what I am grateful for)
Zooming with friends
It’s true, we are not living in easy times right now. It is unrealistic, and probably unhealthy, to imagine we won’t feel anxious, afraid, uncertain…maybe even terrified at times. But also we don’t have to lose ourselves entirely to the fear and worries either.
It’s normal to experience these emotional ebbs and flows right now, but we should never forget that we have ways of managing the tide.