COVID-19 PANDEMIC. It’s really scary, right? And there is a good reason that the whole world is hunkering down. This type of solidarity in hopes of “flattening the curve” and alleviating some of the burden on the healthcare system and providers serving on the front lines is inspiring, to say the least. But there are other realities that we are left to contend with, and most of us have been left feeling that our world just flipped upside down. It all feels a bit surreal to me, and perhaps you are feeling this way too. Now, more than ever is the time to examine your mental health and the way you tend to cope in a crisis. As it turns out, this also may be the perfect time to implement changes in your life. Most of us get into habits of living and we don’t alter them even though they may no longer serve us well. Let’s start with the essential stuff first.
This is a time to hone your skills of self-soothing. We often use this term when referring to young children or infants because it is a skill that we hope to develop starting at the very beginning of life. As it turns out, having the ability to calm ourselves down when we start to feel emotionally overwhelmed or distressed is a pretty handy one! The bad news is that many people did not necessarily have the good fortune of modeling healthy self-soothing strategies from the adults around them when they were younger. The good news is that, like pretty much anything else in life, self-soothing is essentially comprised of a set of healthy coping habits that we can learn. In fact, most aspects of healthy living involve habits and skills that can be adopted, practiced, and mastered.
Signs that you have a problem with self-soothing
First of all, how do you know that you may have a problem with self-soothing? Here are some indicators: You feel constantly frenzied or on edge. You are frequently irritable, and this impacts your interpersonal relationships. You have trouble sleeping, have panic attacks, are chronically depressed, anxious, or distressed with minimal reprieve. You have a negative record constantly playing, of thoughts and feelings (i.e., beliefs about yourself, others, and life in general) that you can’t turn off, which leads you to isolate or avoid, use drugs and alcohol, have angry outbursts, or other types of maladaptive or self-sabotaging behaviors. You feel like you need someone or something on the outside to fix things going on inside of you. Obviously, none of these situations are healthy.
So what can we do about this? Perhaps it is easier said than done, but let’s begin with some psychoeducation. There are different types of strategies for self-soothing – internal and external. However, it is important to recognize that regardless of strategy, the source of our distress ALWAYS originates from within us. There is no “thing” on the outside that is responsible for or has power over you on the inside. The downside of this is we don’t get to blame everyone and everything else for our internal distress. The upside is that the three little things we do have control over, as it turns out, are not actually that little. We alone have control over our thought processing, which will determine our emotional state. And these together ultimately determine our actions (or lack thereof). We can learn how to foster compassion for ourselves and for others, and we can learn how to sit mindfully in our pain – without judgment and without feeling like we have to “do” something about it. Learning how to acknowledge and validate our own pain – our own feelings – is a critical skill for a healthy life.
What self-soothing looks like…
So, what would self-soothing look like? Well, it would look like this: Something unexpected or undesirable in life happens, you have an emotional response, and you briefly feel some negative emotions, but with the use of a few healthy strategies you are able to push through that brief unpleasant emotional state and move on with your day without taking any baggage with you!
If this does not sound like you, then listen up! Often, the easier strategies are the external ones that involve us moving to action of some sort. A simple way to think about this is to explore how you might be able to use your senses. Most of us find something soothing. My personal favorite is music, but there are many others to consider. Do you feel calmed down by petting your fur baby, or stretching out on the couch with a super soft blanket? Do you respond positively to aromatherapy or some sort of nice smelling candles or fragrance, or even smells of certain foods while cooking? Do you feel calmed by looking at something beautiful (e.g., a painting, scenic landscape, your baby) or being out in nature? Does journaling, painting, drawing, or woodworking help you relax and find “flow?” Sometimes tangible strategies are easiest to engage in first, especially when our logical thought processing (often referred to as our “wise mind”) is not functioning as well.
Another approach is the slightly more challenging one that involves mindfulness, introspection, and thought challenging. When we are in crisis it is paramount to recognize not only how we are feeling but also what we are thinking. Not all of our thoughts serve us well, and they will ultimately be to blame for your feelings (for better or for worse). The trick is to realize that just because you are having a thought in your head, or just because it feels important or real, does not mean that it is important or real, or accurate, logical, or helpful. And if you have a tendency to get stuck on a thought that keeps you feeling badly, then we know for sure this thought is not likely healthy or realistic.
It’s normal to have natural emotional reactions to events in our lives, and it’s also normal to then move on quickly. Humans are impressively resilient, and often adapt much better to big, life-altering types of events than we might expect – sometimes even better than we handle the everyday nuisances. In both cases, what will determine our emotional outcome is our ability to manage the narrative. When we continue feeling negatively (e.g., sad, angry, anxious) for prolonged periods of time, then we know that these emotional reactions are manufactured, not natural responses. And what is manufacturing these ongoing negative feelings? Our ongoing negative thoughts. Yes, it’s actually that simple. Perhaps changing our habit thought processing is not easy and it may take some time, but the concept is really a simple one. And remember, in order to adopt a new healthier habit, you have to eliminate the old unhealthy one and replace it. And then you have to practice, practice, practice.
Let’s practice one right now!
Possible habit (unhealthy) thought you may have had this week:
“People are stupid. What a bunch of idiots. They’re so selfish, thoughtless, and careless. Things are never going to change, and our whole world is going to shit. The economy is going to crash. I’m going to lose my job, won’t be able to take care of my family, and we will lose our house and be homeless. People are going to die and we won’t have enough beds, ventilators. If given a choice, the doctors would probably let me die and save someone else. I’ve lost all hope in humanity. We are all doomed. What’s the point of anything anyway.”
Clearly, there is no shortage of negative thoughts we could add on and we can take this as doom, gloom, and dark as we want (think about your own record playing over and over in your head this week).
Now, obviously, there are some problems with this thought, not limited to the fact that you are generalizing about all people, labeling, and fortune-telling. This type of thought processing, regardless of how founded you believe the ideas might be, will likely lead to a lot of anger, anxiety, and sadness. And remember, the goal is not necessarily to be “right”…it’s to be happy, or at least not living in constant distress.
So, a much healthier (and more compassionate) replacement thought might be:
“People are panicked, I’m not sure why they want so much toilet paper, but maybe they have anxiety, a business, lots of people in their household, or they are worried about losing their job in the next month and not having the money to buy toilet paper. Maybe buying toilet paper and stocking up on food gives them a sense of control in this scary uncontrollable situation because it’s the one thing they can do. There are a lot of stories of amazing people doing amazing things to help, and how historically remarkable is it that the entire country, no WORLD, is acting together to slow the transmission, make testing kits, and find a vaccine. Actually, it’s pretty amazing. Things are definitely going to change and they may get worse before they get better, but we are all in this together, and I can only do my best to not make the situation worse for myself and others.”
One final thought: If there is something you have been hoping to integrate into your life – a new home workout plan, learning how to use your computer or other electronics, hobbies that have been sitting around, a stack of books waiting for your time because you’re committed to reading more this year – now is the time. Studies show that we are sometimes more successful at making big changes in our lives when things get turned upside down. It makes sense. In a way, we have to start from scratch and create a new routine, or maybe a whole set of new routines for ourselves. Well, folks, the time is NOW! Take advantage of this idea, and figure out how you want your life to be. Forget about what you were doing last week or the month before. It doesn’t matter and that won’t help you now. Here’s your fresh start…now grab it and run (maybe literally) ;-)!