As some of you know, I recently heard Dr. Lisa Damour, the psychologist, speak. She was addressing the topic of coping during this very challenging and stressful time. While her audience was school administrators, her message of focusing on what we can control and letting go of what we cannot applies to all of us.
This is simple advice, but not always so easy to execute. Most of us like being in control and feel uncomfortable when we aren’t. The more we feel that way, the harder we’re probably finding the pandemic. The pandemic challenges our desire for control in several ways. First, it imposes restrictions on our lives in unprecedented ways. Governments mandate some of these restrictions and others we choose to impose on ourselves based on our understanding of the disease. For example, I haven’t eaten inside a restaurant since March. Legally, I could have if I wanted, but doing so feels too risky to me.
Because the coronavirus is a new disease, scientists, doctors, and public health experts are still learning about its attributes. This means that we often don’t receive much direction about what we should be doing, or we receive conflicting or changing information. Those of us who crave certainty, a form of control, find this lack of clear and consistent direction difficult.
Finally, we cannot control what others do, whether that is abiding by extremely strict rules (which at least has the benefit of not endangering others) or, from our perspective, ignoring prudence and throwing caution to the wind, endangering others in the process.
While all these aspects of the current situation can be very frustrating, we have to accept that we cannot change them. Once we accept that, we release emotional energy that we have been expending futilely. While it may take some practice, we will feel better.
Focusing on what we can control will help us let go of what we cannot. So what can we control? A lot, actually. We can control how we approach each day. We can identify things to look forward to. Things to be grateful for (a beautiful day, our pets, our children, our partner, a good meal, even Netflix). We can consciously seek out the good in situations. We can also choose how we react. Are we reactive? Going on the defensive quickly or playing a blame game? Do we assume ill-intent? Do we play the role of martyr? (I learned about the concept of being reactive from Edwin Friedman’s book A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix—it’s very compelling). Or do we respond with the benefit of the doubt and with empathy? Do we exercise self-awareness so that we notice conditions that make us irritable and impatient? And then do we mitigate those conditions? Or at least acknowledge our behavior and apologize?
Getting adequate sleep helps us manage stress, and it’s something most of us can control. Since high school, I have not been good about getting enough sleep, but for the past year I’ve been trying to go to bed earlier, and when I do, I find it significantly affects how I feel the next day. I have more energy, am more productive, and less irritable. We can also control getting exercise, going outside, and what we eat. As we all know, exercise relieves stress and while we may not be able to go to a gym, there are many ways to work out at home, using apps or videos, or going outside for a run or walk. Being in the out-of-doors empirically improves our mood. Moreover, taking a walk clears our heads and actually makes us more productive. Since last spring, I have been taking almost daily walks. They offer a nice break that involves a modicum of exercise; I focus more on nature and the changing seasons; and letting my brain float free often leads to ideas or solutions. Taking walks has the added bonus of being an activity we can do relatively safely with a friend, a good form of pandemic socializing. Taking control of these aspects of our lives will both make us feel better physically and emotionally while also satisfying some of our need for control.
Besides working on our attitudes, we can be proactive about our relationships in other ways. Studies have shown that having strong friendships—quality being more important than quantity—helps us to be happier and live longer. In the beginning of the pandemic, many people were reaching out to friends and connecting virtually. I would encourage all of us to continue doing this. Exert some control in our lives by building in time for friends.
Two other areas of our lives may feel out of control, but we can wrest control and doing so may make us feel better. The first involves the news. Obviously, we all want to be informed citizens. However, if we subscribe to multiple news alerts, we have information popping into our phones constantly, headlines that generally do not uplift. These stories constantly stimulate anxiety, fear, frustration, and sadness. They can also lure us down a news rabbit hole. We have the power to turn off those alerts and choose other, healthier ways to stay abreast of current events, such as setting aside specific times in the day to read or watch the news. Social media, as we all know, presents similar issues. It can serve positive purposes, particularly as a good way to stay connected with friends and family (although it is no substitute for a conversation). However, it can become too consuming as we constantly check and then succumb to scrolling through our feeds. Before we know it, a substantial amount of time has passed with little to show for it. With some self-discipline and setting of boundaries, we can avoid losing ourselves to Facebook and Instagram. These would be constructive ways to exercise control.
The instructor in a yoga routine I do advises her listeners to “set your intention for practice.” We can do this in our lives. As we get up each morning, set our intention to be open-minded, kind, and empathetic to those around us. To find the good in our lives and be grateful. To cultivate healthy habits around exercise, sleep, food, and online activities. We cannot control a lot about our situations right now, but we still have a surprisingly large realm in which we can. Focusing on those areas will reduce stress and frustration and make ourselves and those around us happier. And by the way, it feels as though this might be especially good advice during the holidays, an often-stressful time that may prove even more so this year. That said, I hope you can avoid the stress and enjoy this special time of year, even under the circumstances.