24.3.20 Once again, I just want to say I hope you and you loved ones are well at this difficult time. This is my second blog on tips I hope you will find helpful. The first blog titled ‘Tips to maintain your wellbeing’ can be found below this one.
Today’s blog is on coping with difficult thoughts and feelings that may naturally come up at this time. I wanted to write something a bit different from the standard basic tips I was seeing on the internet. However, because of this, some of what is written in this post may take a bit of time to get your head around. Therefore, if you have any questions or want me to clarify anything please do feel free to email or phone me. I’d be more than happy to talk through it with you.
Coping with Uncertainty and other difficult thoughts and feelings
Firstly, I really want to stress that at these difficult times it is completely normal to be feeling anxious. We are in an environment that most of us are not used to and our brains are having to negotiate through it with a lot of uncertainty.
The brain, naturally, is not a fan of uncertainty. Uncertainty in the past (caveman/woman times) often meant ‘danger’ (more chance of being attacked/eaten). Part of our brain has not evolved since these times. Therefore, when there’s a lot of uncertainty, our brain will naturally try to think ways to get more certainty so it feels safe. Unfortunately, achieving certainty is not always possible, so the brain just stuck on the loop of trying and this can lead to worry++ and be very tiring. So here’s some tips:
Tip 1: Recognise what you can control, and what you can’t control and try to focus more on the former.
Make a list of the things you can control and the things you can’t and try to focus on the former. Examples of each might be:
Things we can’t control:
- How long this virus situation will last for
- How others react in this scenario
- Whether others follow social distancing rules
- The amount of pasta left on the shelves….
Things we CAN control:
- What you do with your hands, feet and mouth right now
- Your positive attitude
- Trying to find fun things to do at home
- Your own decision whether to socially distance
- Whether you try to be kind and thoughtful
- If you go on social media, listen to the news
- Whether we try to be the best human we’d like to be at this moment
Tip 2a: Understand the difference between our ‘thinking-self’ and our ‘observing-self’
As I say, when we’re anxious, or dealing with uncertainty, we often have similar thoughts going round and round our head. For example, ‘What if I/(other person) gets COVID-19’ or ‘How do I make 100% certain others follow social distancing rules?’. We can recognise that we can’t achieve certainty, but sometimes our brain still stays stuck on the topic and this can be draining.
One answer may be to stop these thoughts. However, unfortunately, we don’t have a lot of control over our thoughts. For example, try not to think of a pink elephant for thirty seconds…… it’s tricky! Trying to stop a thought rarely works and nor does distraction. If distraction does work, generally it’s not for much time, particularly if it’s about something we’re very worried about.
Since controlling or stopping these thoughts invariably gets us nowhere, the trick is to do the opposite. This involves being more accepting of these thoughts.
So how do we accept our thoughts? Firstly, by accepting our thoughts, I don’t mean we agree with them. I simply mean that we accept that they exist, that they’re there in our head. It can also be helpful to recognise the difference between our thinking self and our observing self, and this exercise can help with that:
For the next thirty seconds, just pause for a moment and notice what you mind is thinking. Perhaps your mind is naming the objects around you. Maybe it’s thinking ‘I’ve got no thoughts’. Perhaps it’s even generated an image in your mind. If no thoughts appear, just keep listening until they restart. And that’s it. You’ve recognised the part of your mind that talks – the thinking self – and the part of your mind that listens – the observing self.
Tip 2b: Use your observing-self to help you accept your thoughts/thinking-self
Now, to accept a thought, we want to use our observing self. With our observing self we want to observe the thought/thinking-self non-judgmentally. I often suggest to clients to think of a name for their thinking self, like ‘Bob’ or ‘Goober’ (if it makes you smile, all the better!).
So, if you notice that your ‘Bob’ is thinking in a loop (aka worrying), try using the following techniques to help adopt an acceptance approach to the thoughts, and help you focus more on the things you can control:
- politely thanking ‘Bob’ for the alert then move on with our day.
- politely inform Bob that we know it’s worried and that’s just a sign we care, but we can’t control this problem
- put Bob’s thoughts on a cloud and watch them drift by, and when they come back just put them on another cloud – accepting the clouds/thoughts in the sky
- putting the thoughts on a leaf and imagine them floating down a river (there’s a great youtube video that can help you practice this): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r1C8hwj5LXw
- thinking about the BBC News Channel, with the ticker tape going along the bottom with all the headlines – imagine your thoughts scrolling on that ticker tape, just round and round – but notice how you can still observe the newsreader if you wish.
As well as accepting your uncertainty thoughts, it can be helpful to try to accept your uncertainty feelings too. This takes practice, but, as with the thoughts, the idea is to be able to step back and observe these feelings inside. Accept that, at this time, it’s completely understandable to feel this way. Then, with the time you’d use to typically fight/stop these feelings, try to be the best version of you that you can be (see Tip 3), even if means the emotions are still there. Russ Harris is world-renowned for his literature on acceptance, and he’s done a great video on ‘the struggle switch’ which explains the idea of accepting our emotions: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rCp1l16GCXI
Tip 3: Work out what matters and try to focus on being the best version of you that you want to be.
When we don’t spend so long trying to stop / distract ourselves from our thoughts, we often find we have more free time. With this time, focus on being the best version of you that you can be. To work out what the ‘best you’ is, it can be really helpful to think about what values you’d like to live by. This can be tricky and does take a little bit of thought. One way to work out the values that matter to you can be to ask yourself the following two questions:
- Imagine it’s your (insert your age + 2 years) birthday. You’re having a party and your family and friends are there. Invariably you come up in conversation (!). How, would you like your friends/family to be describing you / your personality amongst themselves?
- Think of some people you really admire. These may be people you know personally, maybe film stars/celebrities, maybe even a cartoon character. What is it about them that you admire? What qualities do they have?
If after thinking through these questions you struggle to come up with some values, that’s okay. Hopefully this list of values may help: https://www.actmindfully.com.au/wp-content/uploads/2019/07/Values_Checklist_-_Russ_Harris.pdf. The list has a task attached to it, specifically for the purpose of helping you to work out what values matter most to you.
Tip 4: Set some goals around these values
Now that you’ve an idea on some key values you’d like to live by, set yourself some clear, realistic goals on how you could live in accordance with them. For example, let’s say one of the values you choose is ‘Caring’. You may set a goal to make a loved one a cup of coffee in the morning. Another may be to give a relative a ring to check out how they are.
Since how we behave invariably impacts our thoughts and our feelings, behaving in a way that is congruent with the person we’d like to be often makes us feel content in ourselves.
I hope you found this helpful. If you did, it may be worth checking out Russ Harris’s booklet on COVID-19 for more detailed tips! Russ is a well known practitioner in the world of Acceptance of Commitment Therapy (ACT) and he’s written lots of helpful books on the treatment.
His COVID-19 handout can be found on: https://coronadosafe.org/blog/face-covid/#.XnkDNYj7RPY
As always, any questions, please do not hesitate to contact me.