Part 1: Better Habits for a Healthier Mind
Since the Covid-19 outbreak we’ve all had to make adjustments so that we could cover our basic needs, care for our loved ones, and remain productive during quarantine. No matter how well you’ve adapted to these extraordinary circumstances, there’s probably a part of you that feels like you’ve been just trying to get through the next day.
And, to your credit, you have!
But as the country begins to reopen, it’s time to stop “getting by” and start approaching our lives and work with the same vigor we had before the pandemic. Regaining our old momentum isn’t going to be as easy as flipping a switch. I was on a web call last week with some leading experts on behaviour and peak performance what mental strategies they would recommend to help us start building personal momentum as we approach, hopefully, the end of quarantine life.
1. Live in your “Present Box.”
Licensed clinical psychologist Dr. Beth Kurland says that 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 that people are experiencing.”
The more that we focus on the here and now, the less anxious we are going to be, and the more motivated we will 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 are occupying your mind in the appropriate box. According to Dr. Kurland, separating what’s happening right now from what could happen helps us “to really think about what is in our sphere of influence, what we have personal agency and control over.”
Yes, eventually, you might have to move some of those “What Ifs?” into your “Present” box. But for the moment, try to imagine putting a lid on your “What Ifs?” and structure your time around what you need to do – and 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’re all experiencing during quarantine only enhances our tendency to dwell on the negative and overlook the many good things we have in our lives.
Dr. Kurland believes that an added benefit of her Two Boxes exercise is that the more present we are, the more likely we are to notice and appreciate the positive. For example, many of us are feeling 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 some of 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. “But try to both hold a space for the grief, the sadness that may be there, and also really find ways to notice the moments where we can really appreciate the positive things that we can take in. The warm glance from a family member or a kind word from a coworker. These kinds of things that really, 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 within the United States Special Operations Command 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 good new habits in you, such as wearing a mask when you go shopping or looking at 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 it 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 put in some structure in order to put some sanity 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 trousers and get out of my PJs. 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.”
We understand that transitioning back to living and working outside of your home is going to present its own set of challenges. We hope the expert strategies discussed here will help you approach those challenges from a more positive place.