- ‘I feel trapped.’
- ‘What if I lose my job?’
- ‘My child is missing out on his education. He’ll never get these years back.’
- ‘My neighbour won’t look at me. She knows I work in a grocery store.’
- ‘This will never end.’
These are just some of the thoughts and feelings shared by people around the world since the outbreak of Covid.
If you’re feeling worried, stressed, angry, or overwhelmed these days, you’re not alone. According to one study, anxiety and depression is increasing in the UK since the Covid outbreak. Almost half of Americans reported in a KFF survey that their mental health has suffered because of the pandemic. Older adults and families with adolescents are at greater risk for experiencing increased worry and stress due to social isolation.
Bending or breaking?
It’s easy to understand why so many people feel crushed by fear and worry when their health, finances, and well, entire futures feel threatened. There are no clear answers at this time as we wait for the development of vaccines and effective treatments for Covid.
Here’s one thing we do know: the anxious part of our brain does not like uncertainty. When it can’t get answers it goes on overdrive. It worries, and worries some more, sending our bodies into panic mode. This process never solves problems, and only makes things worse.
The flexible you
Acceptance and commitment therapy, known as ACT, teaches that the basis of mental health is psychological flexibility. Psychological flexibility means being able to live a full and meaningful life, based on one’s own values, while at the same time allowing yourself to experience life’s painful moments.
So how do we do that, since we are all experiencing painful moments right now?
Signal versus noise
Psychological flexibility is the capacity to bend, but not break, under stress. It’s the ability to adapt, change, and to accept things as they are when we can’t change them. We’re also flexible when we don’t avoid our painful experiences, but instead notice them and choose how will respond or behave.
Next time a worry thought comes up, ask yourself: Is this signal or noise?
- Signal: A worry thought that indicates a problem you can try and solve. It gives you useful information that something is wrong, and you should listen to it. Think of it like a traffic signal. When you’re driving and see a red light, that’s a signal to stop your car. That red light/signal keeps you safe; it’s information you need to pay attention to.
Here’s an example from Stephen:
Stephen’s 15- year-old son, Raymond, ran out the door every night to hang out with his friends, as if there was no pandemic. Were they wearing masks and social distancing? Stephen had no idea, and was worried sick. Stephen labelled this worry a clear ‘signal’ that something was wrong, and he needed to speak up. Stephen sat Raymond down. Raymond opened up about how much he missed his friends and how lonely he felt. Stephen decided that Raymond and two of his friends could hang out in their garden, with masks, six feet apart. Raymond agreed, simply relieved to spend time with his friends.
- Noise: A worry thought that’s like static, like the buzz in between radio stations. It’s just noise; there’s no useful information to act on, other than you need to change the channel.
Here’s an example from Mary:
Mary wakes up in the middle of the night, her heart pounding. She’s terrified her husband will lose his job as a result of the pandemic, even though his business seems secure. With diminished sleep, Mary feels exhausted and depressed. Mary practised labelling her worry thought as ‘noise’, since there’s nothing she can do about her husband’s job. She read a favourite book when worry woke her until she fell back to sleep, instead of playing out frightening scenarios in her head. It wasn’t easy, but with time Mary regained her sleep.
Have patience and then practise
Of course, none of this is easy. Learning to look at your thoughts in a different way takes practise, just like learning to play tennis or the piano. It can help to post reminders: Is this signal or noise?
You can leave sticky notes around, put reminders in your mobile, or ask a loved one to kindly cue you. It’s one step to becoming more psychologically flexible.
Stephanie Kriesberg, PsyD is a clinical psychologist in private practice in the Boston area. You can connect with her on Twitter @drskriesberg.
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