(This is an email I wrote for my thousands-strong online newsletter community, want to join the club?)
So, I’m having a big-time ‘be careful what you wish for’ moment, as you know I’m constantly talking about how I loathe small talk and wish we could talk about things that matter more.
I take it all back!
Please for the love of God someone talk to me about how their umbrella cost $14 and doesn’t even open right, or how the weather just can’t make up its mind, or how bad traffic was this morning even though it was the same level of traffic that it is every morning, or all the other pointless stuff people say when we don’t know what else to say. Gimmie somethin, cause I’m over here eating all the survival peanut butter with no more episodes of “Love Is Blind” left to watch. (We will address Jessica’s behavior from a place of non-judgemental compassion in a later post).
In the last 24 hours, the states have seen the collective anxiety turn from “Keep calm and carry on,” to, “Run!” (Except instead of run, it’s more like stay in your home and wash your hands.) This is otherwise known as the anxiety tipping point, when back of the mind screen saver worry shifts to your dominant thoughts, and those dominant thoughts in turn dictate so many of your behaviors and interactions.
HERE’S WHAT WE’RE DOING AND NOT DOING TO STAY EMOTIONALLY HEALTHY
1. If you suffer from a mental health disorder that you take medication for, refill that medication now.
2. Acknowledge that this is stressful.
Normalcy has been disrupted, and even under the best circumstances, disruptions are difficult. It’s not stressful because you’re doing something wrong, and while we can work to minimize stress, we also need to accept that stress is unavoidable in this moment. It’s okay to feel anxious. Anxiety is a natural human experience.
3. Get space from anxiety triggers.
Sensationalized, repetitive news is often the number one trigger in a crisis. Look, I get it. Information on COVID-19 is ever-evolving, and it’s hard to pull away. But (especially if you already suffer from an anxiety disorder), put some boundaries around your exposure to the news feed. Designate a trusted loved one to give you a recap, or pick two to three trusted news sources and check in at limited intervals throughout the day. Whether you’re alone or around others, narrate your own behavior out loud as a way to help you step into the next activity with presence, for example, “I really want to play with you, so I’m going to put my phone on the shelf now.” “Let’s open a recipe book and cook something that we’d never have time to make, I’ll put our phones in the other room.” “I’m going to enjoy this movie without distraction, I’ll charge my phone in the kitchen.”
Just as there’s power in writing things down, there’s power in saying them aloud. You usher yourself into the next moment with cleaner energy when you’re clear with yourself about what you’re about to do and not do. Whatever your triggers are, get space from them.
4. Cognitive flexibility all day long.
There’s a saying that flexibility is the cornerstone of mental health. My favorite way of remembering to be flexible is reminding myself, “YOU CAN BE BOTH.” It’s a mantra I deploy near constantly. When we encounter difficult feelings, it’s easy to drop a period on the end of the hard feeling and make that statement the entire experience, a la, “I’m so anxious.” “I’m really starting to freak out.” etc.
Here are ways to yank the period and widen the story to include a 360 view, instead of reducing your entire experience to the part that’s hard to feel:
“I’m so anxious, and at the same time I’m glad to have a stretch of days where I can just be home.”
“I’m really starting to freak out and this whole experience is helping me to see how grateful I am for regular essentials like soap and clean towels.”
“I feel so lonely, I’m realizing how important it is for me to work on staying connected to people who I love and like, I think I’ll text a few of them now…”
5. Remember that where there are risk factors there are always protective factors.
The more protective factors you implement, the more you reduce your risk. Physical protective factors for Coronavirus include things like washing your hands, restricting contact, working from home when possible, etc. Emotional protective factors include things like staying connected to a support network (friends, family, online community, clubs), creating schedules for your day, prioritizing rest, using positive coping skills (lets grade ourselves on a curve and say that watching Love Is Blind counts here), making food and drink choices that make it as easy as possible for you to emotionally regulate (sugar crashes and hangovers make it so. much. harder. for you to get in a positive head space), etc.
Protective factors are often where your sense of personal agency lies, and feeling empowered in a crisis feels good. You’ve likely already taken significant steps to increase the protective factors surrounding you, once again, saying that out loud might help.
6. Use music.
In my opinion, music is the second most underrated tool for strengthening emotional wellness, right behind getting sunshine on your face. Listen to music that makes you feel good, energized or nostalgic in a positive way (think more Killers and less Adele). Make a playlist. Text some friends to make a playlist with you. Write me back and I’ll send you my latest one. Music is a special kind of therapy, use it.
7. I need to throw this in.
This crisis is also an opportunity to build compassion for others around mental health challenges, and a reminder of why we should never use mental health disorders as a casual descriptor in our lives. You know how much you’re washing your hands and thinking about germs? This is a small window into what it’s like to live with OCD marked by a compulsion to sanitize. So in a year from now, when you’re at your desk at work and someone moves the stapler, don’t say, “I’m so OCD about my stapler!” Because someone who lives with OCD or loves someone with OCD might hear you, and it is so invalidating to reduce their daily, profoundly challenging and all-consuming experience to something that you personally find annoying for a quick second, or that’s a pet peeve.
This also applies to using the words borderline, schizophrenic, manic, etc. If you step into the world of those mental health disorders, you quickly see that they are never to be used as casual reference points.
8. Activation Anxiety is a thing.
I am the self-proclaimed queen of the reframe. I love using language to empower new, useful ways of thinking about our lives. I didn’t come up with activation anxiety, but I loved the phrase the second I heard it. Use your anxiety to activate the parts of yourself that you enjoy, love or want to see more of. For example, if you love how thoughtful you are, use your anxiety as a cue to reach out to any elderly people you know and check in on them. If you’re good at getting organized, channel your anxiety to tackling that home project that you’ve been meaning to do. If you love cooking, use your anxiety to activate your creativity on what you can make with a slice of bread, a bullion cube and half a banana. You get what I’m saying.
This moment is undoubtedly stressful, but it’s also an opportunity. To break down your daily structure and rebuild it in a more intentional way, to connect with people you love, to rest, to serve other people who aren’t as fortunate as you, to face-time, to nurture your body, to watch something funny, to read something moving, to take a social distancing themed walk outside. Perhaps the greatest opportunity here is to remember that we are all in this together, and that that’s the whole point.
Hope you’re well, that you’re thinking about your emotional health more often than not, and that you know I appreciate you being a part of this community.
Katherine Schafler is an NYC-based therapist, writer and speaker. For more of her work, read her blog, join her newsletter or follow her on Instagram.