May 26, 2020

What our Lack of Control over the Pandemic is Doing to Us (& how to Feel Better).

Elephant’s Continually-updating Coronavirus Diary. ~ Waylon


We are no doubt living in unprecedented times:

>> with limited social activity, while being social beings;
>> with restrictions on what we can do compared to what we once did to feel valued and living a life with purpose—taking care of one’s self both physically and mentally by engaging in activities and passions that once provided peace and contentment;
>> with constraints on our lives within our homes and our family systems and the conflict that can arise over time and with built up frustration with little room for space and self-care;
>> with a desire to cope in unhealthy ways (drinking and drug use have increased substantially during periods of greatest uncertainty)—generally, to avoid acceptance of the uncertainties and having to put in the hard work to cope in a healthier manner;
>> with the lack of control that many refuse to accept;
>> with how education is delivered and issues with structure; and
>> with the uncertainty associated with the job market and our financial well-being.

This list is not comprehensive, and words cannot fully capture the challenges to which we are all currently adjusting—most of which stem from the distress associated with uncertainty about the future.

We have been left with no choice but to do the best we can to navigate these incredibly challenging times—especially related to uncertainty and acceptance—even if this acceptance feels radical. We are approaching the point where the discomfort from not adjusting is in fact less comfortable than the process of investing ourselves in healthy adjustment.

The fear of the unknown is one of the most distressing mindsets.

In fact, we have been able to survive all these years due to the problem solving that can take place in the face of anxiety. This would be the healthier form of anxiety. Furthermore, we have been taught directly and indirectly from an early age that we do, in fact, live in a predictable world where there are societal norms related to what should happen.

The reality that we cannot have control of what is going on around us is a tough one to accept—as control provides safety and peace of mind when we have little choice but to accept what we are experiencing.

There is also a grief and loss component.

For many, grief and loss are viewed as being related to the loss of a family member or other tragic event. However, most often, many of us have expectations of what our existence should look like—our families, our activities, our financial security, and the desired trajectory of romantic relationships. With summer and graduation season approaching, a time most look forward to, life will likely look much different. Certainly, it’s not what we prefer, and we would desire to experience is being replaced with challenges that make us feel there is not much to look forward to.

In therapy sessions, I continue to hear variations of: “Every day is Groundhog Day, but I feel like my Groundhog Day is reliving an imprisoned and uncontrollable existence—Every. Single. Day.”

It’s hard to argue with this statement, and easy to feel empathy for the person sitting across from me. Life today absolutely has the feeling of a painful and never-ending present—no future plans and understandably limited excitement or anticipation of fulfilling or fun events, which seem few and far between.

More specifically, I have also seen the following individual and interpersonal challenges among my clients—most associated with uncertainty of the current societal dynamics:

>> Sleepless nights and insomnia
>> Decreased motivation
>> Increased feelings of hopelessness and helplessness
>> Decreased times of feeling valued and having a purpose in life
>> Decreased desire to connect with others
>> Increased use of unhealthy coping mechanisms—alcohol consumption and drug use
>> Increased conflict in the home resulting in short tempers and hateful outbursts
>> Decreased desire to create rich experiences for children (decline in motivation)
>> Less commitment to work
>> Declining physical self-care—exercise, diet, sleep, and overall activity levels, which have driven weight gain, indifference, and the self-deprecation that follows, as well as the impact on psychological well-being associated with not drawing on the benefits associated with taking care of one’s physical and emotional self
>> Increased complacency and avoidance among young people with excess usage of video games to experience worlds that they can better control, which serve as a major distraction from realities
>> Declines in commitment to academics and structure among young people
>> Increased marriage or relationship discord
>> Increased domestic issues in family systems
>> Increased depression and anxiety associated with all of the items above—the more we fear and resist, the more anxious and then depressed we become

What can we do to be the best versions of ourselves in the face of uncertainty?

The million-dollar questions are: how long will this last, will COVID-19 return, and when can our lives start to resemble what they were before the pandemic?

And, perhaps more importantly, if things do not change for some time, where in the world do we find the motivation and drive to engage in activities, responsibilities, and relationships?

>> Accepting the Limits of your Control Rather than Resisting Them

If we are looking for acceptance, which no one prefers given our desire for control to provide the illusion of safety, we have no other option today but to accept what is going on around us. There is virtually nothing we can do as individuals to control COVID-19 or any other external event outside of ourselves and our influence.

Acceptance takes us to a place where we can acknowledge the constraints of life as we know it, and roll with them, while focusing on what we can actually control, and embracing those things that are most likely to increase self-satisfaction. Whether we realize it or not, being uncertain and unable to control things is our reality all the time to a different extent—we resist this notion, but it is the fundamental truth.

>> Reframe your Internal Mental Outlook with a focus on Positivity and Gratitude

Reframing involves how we frame and process personal and external events.

For example, rather than fixating on the easier go-to lens of, “I am going nuts working from home and feel trapped within this cycle,” one could instead adopt the view of “I am grateful that I have a job that affords me the opportunity to stay safe at home.”

This may sound like a simple adjustment, but reframing your thoughts can have a tremendously positive effect on anxiety and depression experienced by individuals. The key first step is becoming aware of our current way of thinking and examining whether it serves us well in our own personal growth. In many cases, our outlook does not meet the desired goal of increased happiness, contentment, connectedness, and fulfillment. Nevertheless, we continue to do what is familiar—essentially approaching life just as we always have.

Becoming truly aware involves becoming familiar with the unhealthy thought patterns and growth-hindering behavior, while acknowledging that there may be a healthier way to process external events.

>> Create Short-Term, Controllable, and Achievable Goals

Engaging in things that are goal-oriented, but are not necessarily directed toward achieving longer-term aspirations—that likely conflict with the unknown and uncertainty at this time—can have a profound impact during times of uncertainty.

Projects or hobbies (such as working out, learning how to do something new, connecting with old friends, or activities as simple as completing a puzzle) that can give you a sense of accomplishment and allow you to feel some sense of certainty can be rewarding, self-soothing, and promote feelings of value, increased productivity, and purpose through goal achievement—no matter how seemingly small those goals are.

Motivation to reduce our Anxiety in the face of the Unknown is No Easy Task

In no way should any individual striving to cope with uncertainty or seeking to accept our lack of control perceive the process as an easy one.

There is a reason why we as humans go into an emotional space in the face of uncertainty, which leads to helplessness and hopelessness. One, it has served us in the development as a human race in terms of problem-solving to reduce the overall impact that uncertainty has on us. Second, most of our brains have been hard-wired over the years to experience distress in times of uncertainty.

We have expectations about how life “should be experienced,” based on years of the development of societal norms and expectations—whether it be how we live day-to-day, what we should be accomplishing—professionally or personally, how families should be functioning, as well as how purpose, value, and productivity are defined. By now, for most of us, this is hard-wired into how we think, view the world, and behave.

Similar to physical muscle memory, our brain is no different in terms of how we naturally (healthy or not) do things or look at life. Thus, we react in the same manner every time, which often results in internal turmoil.

Breaking the hard-wiring and the subconscious function of our brains takes time, practice, resiliency, and a willingness to adopt a view of open-mindedness toward improving one’s own mental wellness; with physical wellness usually following suit.

Uncertainty and the illusion of having control were challenges for individuals before COVID-19, and will remain areas of anxiety after it is behind us.

We are being tested today more than ever. Adopting the aforementioned skills—accepting rather than resisting limits of control—is an unparalleled remedy for uncertainty, anxiety, and uncontrollable situations.

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