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A 5-Step Process for Staying Sane in Uncertain Times

January and February are such strange months this year. There’s this weird juxtaposition between “new year, new possibilities” and the pandemic’s inherent uncertainty.

You have the uncertainty of vaccines, school (in, out, in, out), and hanging out in-person combined with the normal new-year messages. My inbox is filled with promises of a new body, new love, and the ability to have a multimillion-dollar business (!!!!)

It can be a lot for anyone.

Whether you have an anxiety disorder, anxiety sensitivity or are just feeling it more than usual, there are ways to help stay more grounded.

How to Stay Sane in Uncertain Times

1. Limit screen time.
Get off of social media, phone, tablet, TV, laptop … take notice of how you feel when you’re online, doom scrolling, watching the news.

Given the impact of the past year, many people I know feel worse when they’re plugged in. It’s important to ask yourself “why am I doing this?” This helps us determine, what we therapists call the behavior’s function. Triage what’s important and ditch what you don’t need.If you’re someone who wakes up anxious when cortisol levels are naturally at their highest, get up and DO something (that’s not reading about someone else doing something).

2. Focus on what IS versus what IF.
Remember that when our emotions are high, our worry picks up too. Times are stressful. I totally get (and feel) that. There’s the pandemic and the news, personal transitions like divorce or personal stressors (homeschooling, anyone?). It’s all legit, AND it’s also really easy to get swept up in our mental stories about all the things that could In those moments, we often forget that it’s not happening now, and what we need to do is drop back into what we know is actually happening — whatever you can see, hear, smell, taste, and touch.

You can also be aware of thoughts in your head, but you want to separate the thought from the meaning (or story) you make of it.“I am aware I’m having the thought that I might have been exposed to COVID” is very different from “What if I was exposed? I’m anxious. I can’t think straight (I think brain fog is a symptom of Covid) AND my head hurts, so I’m guessing I was. That means the kids are probably infected, and we will have to all quarantine. I can’t handle getting sick right now, and, if I’m sick, I won’t be able to work which means no money …”

3. Use your senses to drop you into the present moment.
When you’re in the moment, take stock of what you notice with your 5 senses. Every time your brain tries to pull you back into a loop (which it will), bring it back to something you notice with your senses. Training your attention to be where you want it to be.

This is also how a consistent mindfulness practice can be helpful. It gives you the ability to notice you’re in a loop and pull yourself out.

4. Take stock of which behaviors aren’t working for you anymore.
This is a great way to help keep you sane in the long term (which is what I’m all about achieving). After you Marie Kondo your house, do it to your behaviors.What behaviors are bringing you pleasure and mastery, moving you to where you want to go?If you don’t have many in your pleasure or mastery lists, that’s good information. Notice if your lists are imbalanced. Do you have more in the “not working for me anymore” category? Great, good to know.

We’re not here to judge. We’re here to gather useful information.

5. Think small. Don’t set big goals.
The smaller, the better. This time of year, so many people set big, unrealistic goals and then wonder why they don’t meet them.When setting your goals, does their achievement outweigh the pain it’ll take to get there? If what you want on the other side isn’t stronger than the discomfort required to get there, it won’t stick. Here are a couple of examples:

If you want to be physically fit, you need to be willing to:

  • Endure consistent workouts and the soreness that comes with them
  • Work through mental discomfort
  • Give up eating as much as you want to whenever you want

If you want to find love, you need to be willing to:

  • Endure the discomfort of online dating and awkward phone calls
  • Accept the possibility of rejection
  • Walk away if there are red flags

These are strange times, to be sure. The good news is that the same general process we use in normal times can help us in the unusually uncertain ones. And if you’d like some help, please reach out.