Written by Dr. Moe Gelbart,
Thelma McMillen Recovery Center
After about three months of COVID-19, we are being forced to confront new
concerns related to re-opening of our society and economy. With the first
wave in February, came severe anxiety due to dealing with the unknown.
Anxiety breeds on fear of the unknown, on uncertainty and on being confronted
with things we have no control of. When the consequences include possible
illness and/or death of ourselves, our families, and our loved ones, the
anxiety can be overwhelming. What the last few months have shown us is
that we are resilient, and we have come to terms to some degree with this
unknown enemy and the new normal. We have learned about social distancing,
handwashing, and facemasks, all things to help us feel a sense of some
control. We (hopefully) follow the data and heed the guidance of our physicians
and public health experts.
As our world begins to open up, we have a new set of concerns, again raising
our fears and anxieties. Should we go to work? to the beach? to a restaurant?
send our kids to school? go to the doctor’s? get a haircut? go to
the gym? and all the other things which just three months ago never caused
us pause. Revisiting some of the coping mechanisms and strategies for
handling stress may help us navigate through these decisions and shed
some light on these dilemmas.
Thoughts and Feelings. We are motivated to action by our feelings. Fear and anxiety make us
avoid an action. Desire will propel us towards something. Since feelings
drive us, we need to understand the connections between thinking and feeling.
Feelings are always accurate and correct, but they are the byproducts
of thinking. Our thoughts are complex results of our history, experiences,
perceptions, and even misinformation and distortions. The way to understand
our feelings is to be very clear about our thinking, and meaning we give
to things. The way to change our negative, painful, and fearful thinking
is to adjust how we think, and how we perceive things. When it comes to
making choices about stepping outside of our “comfort” zones,
(like getting back to some activities), we have narratives in our heads
which create our feeling states. We can, if we feel uncomfortable, examine
those narratives, and possibly come up with a new perspective. Often,
the narratives are indicative of absolute, all-or-none, black-white thinking
which tends to cause unpleasant feeling states. If we can see things in
more “gray” perspective, the intensity of our feelings lessen.
In some ways, it is being able to see the proverbial glass as half full
rather than half empty. Some things which help with this process includes:
Accept and do not judge your feelings. When our inner voice judges our feelings, with thoughts like we are wrong,
dumb, insecure, inadequate or other negative judgments, it only deepens
our shame and anxiety. Instead, when you hear yourself judging your emotions,
feelings, or reactions, learn to “speak” more kindly to yourself.
I tell people to speak to themselves as they would to their children,
which is always with kindness and understanding, and an attempt to help.
For example, when we feel afraid, we may hear ourselves say “what
is wrong with you” or “there is nothing to be afraid of”
or “you are weak”. If your child came to you with the same
issue and same feelings, you would no doubt treat them with care, and
help guide them. This is something you can do for yourself as well, and
which will enable you to come up with better outlooks and solutions.
Empower yourself with your strengths. We have all had ups and downs, achievements and failures, and we are often
much stronger than we think. In stressful times, our fears lead to catastrophic
thinking, which leads to anxiety and depression. If we head down the “what
if” road to visions of disaster, we need to tell ourselves to stop,
and take inventory of our strengths and capabilities. We need to remind
ourselves that our worst fears are not very likely to occur, and even
if they did, we are more capable of handling them than we think. It is
almost impossible to deal with a monstrous scenario that has not occurred
yet and that is in our imagination, but we are able to feel a sense of
control in dealing with things that are in our present.
Understand Risk-Reward Tradeoff. We are often paralyzed when we try and determine whether actions are right-wrong,
correct-incorrect. Many of our decisions have, in actuality, no right
or wrong, but are choices with benefits/rewards, and positive and negative
consequences. When we think about re-entering our activities, we need
to be clear about the rewards offered, and the risks that need to be taken.
When we feel the benefit outweighs the risk, then we can proceed. We need
to be certain to accept our feelings, understand the thoughts that produce
them, and not judge or shame ourselves into an action we are not comfortable
with. Be very careful of the dangerous internal thought known as “you
should”, and be able to replace it with “I want to”.
Expand your focus. We sometimes have a habit of thinking about things in only one way, and
never allowing ourselves to see things any differently. This is known
as selective inattention. In a well known experiment (you can Google selective
inattention gorilla), people were asked to view a group of teens in white
tee shirts, and a group in black tee shirts, both passing a basketball.
The viewer was asked to count how many times the group in white passed
the ball. The interesting part was they were so focused on their task
that the majority of the viewers did not even see a man dressed as a gorilla
on the screen. I have tried this many times in talks I give, and shockingly,
about 85% of the people do not see the gorilla, until the video is rewound.
The point is that sometimes we need to take a step back from our way of
thinking in order to see the bigger picture and options.
Express yourself. I have written about this before, and it bears repeating. Express your
thoughts and feelings to trusted others, those who listen, reflect, and
do not judge. Often what you are looking for is a caring ear, and not
advice. This often lets you come to new ways of seeing things on your own.
As you get ready to confront getting back to “normal” activities,
remember to trust your feelings, know that your feelings come from your
thoughts, that you can investigate your thinking and gain more clarity,
and that most decisions are not right or wrong, but are choices with positive
and negative consequences. Trust that most things will not be as bad as
you fear, know that you are stronger and more resilient than you give
yourself credit for, and be kind to yourself.