With all this bad news, we’re starting to wonder how we’re going to get through it
As we enter another month of a global pandemic, only one thing is certain: that COVID-19 has changed everything about life as we know it. A few weeks ago, Google’s coronavirus search trends showed a spike in the search phrase “will life ever go back to normal?”—something you may wonder, too. We’re all thinking about what our future holds, and if it will even resemble the pre-epidemic existence we once knew.
Unfortunately, many sources show that things won’t be back to business as usual soon—and even if they are, it will still be different. So where do we go from here?
Though we can’t tell you what will happen next, we want to continue offering resources for common issues that we’ve heard about from our readers. From learning to recognize a frequent cognitive error that traps you in the past, to getting clear on the present, to even seeing opportunities for post-traumatic growth, we’ve collected an array of ideas to support your mental wellbeing during these challenging times.
Ready? Let’s dive in.
Make peace with the past by spotting this mental mistake
Does this scenario sound familiar? You keep circling back to the same things every day, like checking the news for the latest updates, worrying about what might happen next, and grieving over disrupted plans that might never reappear. By the end of the day, you’re in an unshakable funk.
If this is you, you’re not alone. In an article from The Atlantic called “Two Errors Our Minds Make When Trying to Grasp the Pandemic,” happiness expert Arthur C. Brooks writes that many of us feel trapped in this cycle for a simple reason. It’s because we’re not properly distinguishing between two similar feelings: regret and disappointment.
Both emotions involve wishing for a different outcome, but only one of them, regret, turns out to be useful to ruminate over. Regret is something that you can learn from, and that’s okay (as long as you’re not obsessing). When you do something stupid, it’s your brain’s ability to come back to this mistake that helps you not make it again. We can be thankful for this.
In contrast, when our expectations go unfulfilled, we end up disappointed. But it’s not very helpful for our minds to keep returning to our disappointment because we’re not learning from it.
What’s the way out, then? There’s three steps, according to Brooks: acknowledge, distinguish, and resolve. First, you can be mindful of your thoughts and notice when disappointment arises, which is natural. Next, you can work on distinguishing between regret and disappointment, remembering that you weren’t at fault, so you need not use this energy to think about it. Finally, you can resolve or set an intention to move on. Disappointment doesn’t have to interfere with what you can control. This is what we’ll talk about next.
Stop shooting the second arrow
It may be helpful for you to remember the Buddhist parable about the two arrows to help you make this distinction. Here’s how it goes:
The Buddha once asked a student, “If a person is struck by an arrow, is it painful?” The student replied, “It is.” The Buddha then asked, “If the person is struck by a second arrow, is that even more painful?” The student replied again, “It is.” The Buddha then explained, “In life, we cannot always control the first arrow. However, the second arrow is our reaction to the first. And with this second arrow comes the possibility of choice.”
Much like Brooks recommends above, the way out of this is awareness, discernment, and resolve. Most likely, you don’t even realize when you’re doing this. So if you catch yourself, it might help you to whisper out loud, “Don’t shoot the second arrow.” Remember, there’s already a lot of pain in the world right now—can you be kind enough to yourself to remove your own suffering?
Confront the brutal facts by leaning into Stockdale’s paradox
Even though states are slowly reopening, experts warn that the pandemic might last longer than we imagine. While we wait for a vaccine, there might be second and third waves of infection which might trigger shelter-in-place orders again. The thought of quarantines lasting into 2021 or 2022 is tough to stomach.
So how do you endure the long haul without losing hope? In Jim Collins’ celebrated book, Good to Great, the author offers us Stockdale’s paradox as a strategy for both businesses and individuals facing hardship for an unknown length of time.
Collins writes that he once interviewed Admiral Jim Stockdale, who became a prisoner during the Vietnam War and remained captured for seven years before being released. He asked him how he could mentally survive that amount of time and come out of the other end of the experience stronger, since many of his colleagues did not.
Stockdale told him that the ones who didn’t make it out were the most optimistic ones, who “died of a broken heart.” Those guys thought they’d be out by each Christmas, he said, and felt crushed when it didn’t happen.
His strategy was different, Stockale told Collins. His circumstances never depressed him—which even included being tortured over twenty times— because he held two opposing ideas at the same time. He decided “to never ever ever confuse...the need for absolute, unwavering faith that you can prevail despite those constraints with...the need for the discipline to begin by confronting the brutal facts, whatever they are.”
Stockdale was resolute that he would come out stronger while simultaneously facing the hard realities of his situation. So how can you apply this to your own life?
It goes back to discerning what you can control. Even just starting with a list of your to-dos or recording your daily activities can be helpful. Or, you can try out a simple “Stop-Start-Continue” list. Under each heading, list 3-5 things that you want to start doing, stop doing, and continue doing. Try this monthly, weekly, or even daily, and see what happens.
Don’t believe us? Well, maybe this advice from a 102-year-old who survived the 1918 Spanish flu, the Great Depression, and World War II will help. Ellson says, “To cope with this virus, and all that’s going on, I would tell people to not get stressed about planning far ahead. You can’t do it. A long time ago, I started making a list every morning of what I had to do. It was the only thing I could control, and I stuck to it, you hear me?”
Prepare for the future by reframing difficulty into growth
The last idea we want to leave you with is the concept of post-traumatic growth, which ties into Stockdale’s paradox above. Post-traumatic growth is a fancy name for the notion that enduring times of adversity can eventually result in positive change in an individual’s life.
Obviously, no one is implying that traumatic events are good or necessary, and in no way does this take away from the difficulty of the event itself. But the lesson here is that you can treat it as a possibility for your own future. Here’s how.
Researchers Tedeschi and Calhoun, who coined the term in the 1990s, recognized that there can be five areas of growth after a traumatic occurrence. These are: growth in connections with other people, an increased sense in your own ability to prevail after a difficult circumstance, a greater appreciation for life, an increase in the spiritual or religious domain, or developing awareness of new opportunities that come from the circumstances.
Can you see how some of these might apply to our current events? Learning about this has given us a renewed sense of hope about what the “other side” of the pandemic might be like whenever that may come.
Personally, we are trying to treat this time as an opportunity to investigate what positive things have cropped up in our lives, and imagining how we can take those into the future with intentionality. Whether it’s the opportunity to get to know neighbors that we never met before, having more video calls with our loved ones, or cultivating an appreciation for the things we used to all take for granted, we are developing more awareness and purpose for the road ahead.
Whatever you’re feeling now, we hope that you’ve found some of these resources and ideas to be a useful starting point for reframing the situation at hand. As Wayne Dyer once said, “If you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change.”
Did any of these tips give you new insights or motivation? Please let us know in the comments below!