It feels like we are living in chaos right now. Schools and businesses are shut down, most of us are spending all or nearly all of our time at home, and we have no idea what additional restrictions might need to be put into place or how long they might last. We cannot quite adapt to this “new normal” because things can change at any moment. This much uncertainty is surely anxiety-provoking for many of you; I know it is for me. As a small business owner, I’m most worried about the financial toll that the very necessary social distancing methods we are employing will have on our practice, but I’m also worried about the health of my aging parents, the ways in which isolation can impact my young son, whether my many friends in the hospitality industry are going to be able to make ends meet, if our hospitals will be able to handle the influx of patients as the virus proliferates… the list goes on.
When there is so much that is unknown, we are more prone to anxious ways of thinking because it is easier to use cognitive distortions when there is ambiguity. In uncertain times, we often focus more on our negative thoughts, fears and worries and gloss over more optimistic possibilities. We pay more attention to, and place more weight upon, the negative information that we see and read than we do on that which is positive. It’s also easy to catastrophize in this current situation. One may take a realistic fear of loss of income associated with business closures to the catastrophic extreme of losing one’s job, not being able to pay the rent, and ending up homeless. Though when forced to think practically, it is clear that going down this rabbit hole of negative thinking is unhelpful and incredibly anxiety-producing, the train of thought that gets us there is often automatic and emotional, rather than practical. So, as any one of my therapy clients would know I would say, we need to interrupt that automatic way of thinking with a neutral and curious analysis.
First, it’s important to acknowledge that automatic negative thoughts are not facts and that the lens through which you are seeing things may be distorted and foggy due to your fears. Second, take the worst case scenario you’re contemplating and treat it as a hypothesis to be tested rather than a fact. You can then ask yourself some questions about it. To use our example above, Is there any evidence that I am going to be homeless? Is there any evidence that would refute that proposition? You can also survey others and ask them how likely they think it is that you will end up homeless. Ask yourself how you would talk to a friend who expressed this same fear? Would you be gentler or kinder to her than you are being to yourself? Would you help her to think of more realistic and less dire possibilities? Try giving yourself that same message. Then, substitute a more realistic and positive thought. This does not mean to minimize valid concerns, but just to be more realistic. So, an appropriate thought in this scenario might be: “It’s possible that my employer may lay people off to counter the loss of revenue they are having because of the pandemic. If I lost my job, that would be hard and I would be worried about finances, but I could apply for unemployment and I have good, marketable skills and would likely find a new job. I might have a loss of income for a period, but I can live on a budget and be able to pay rent until I found a new job. It would be hard, but it’s unlikely that I wouldn’t be able to make my rent.” Having this kind of internal dialog is likely to result in far less panic than the automatic negative thoughts produce.
Being alone with your thoughts can make them run wild, so it’s important to interrupt the negative spiral as soon as you notice that it’s happening. Though you might think that there is no way to avoid being alone with your thoughts right now, that’s not quite accurate. Think of creative ways to socialize. Create virtual happy hours and dinners with friends via Facetime or your other favorite video chat platform. Stream live workout classes. Physiologically, it will help to melt away some of your anxiety, but it will also interrupt any negative cycle of thinking and will help you feel more connected to others again. It’s not quite the same as throwing on your sneakers and running to your favorite workout class, but it’s a pretty good alternative.
Finding some sense of normalcy in these abnormal times is important as well. Routines can be comforting and in all likelihood, yours has been disrupted. So, establish a new one. Set your alarm and get a shower in the morning, even if you are not logging in to work from home at a specific time. Establish times to walk the dog, to make dinner, to do that online workout…and stick to it. Don’t let hours of reading new articles and social media posts become your new routine. It’s important that we are all informed so we can do whatever we need to do to minimize the spread of the coronavirus, but oversaturating ourselves with news will not inherently makes us better prepared. It will likely just be the fuel for our panic-fire. So, step away from the news periodically to watch a movie, read a book, clean out a closet while dancing to the revivalists…oh wait, is that only fun to me??? You get the idea. Find pockets of calm, and maybe even joy, despite the chaos.
And continue to see your therapist. In all likelihood, he or she is seeing clients virtually. Like happy hour via Facetime, therapy via video chat is not ideal, but it’s better than going weeks or months without that needed support.
Nicole Machinski, Psy.D.