The reality is life is uncertain. It’s just that when we are going about our daily lives, we typically aren’t restricted so much, and we are able to let go of some of these uncertainties and continue moving in a forward direction. For a lot of people, the difficulties being stirred up by coronavirus are only highlighting issues that are always there for us – fears, work uncertainty, money worries, interpersonal stress.
In this time of uncertainty, we need to learn how to manage our minds. There is much we can’t control, or have even been told we can no longer do in the short term (eg. work, physical and social contact, maintain our usual lives, etc). But instead of focusing on what you aren’t able to do, let’s focus on what you ARE able to do.
One key area that we can control is learning how to manage the thoughts we are thinking. Thoughts have a direct impact on how we feel, which then feeds back on thoughts. This cycle makes thoughts and feelings feel really real.
For example, I know for myself, I typically don’t watch the news because fear-based thoughts really tend to affect me. In the last few weeks, I broke that rule and found myself watching all the latest COVID-19 updates. Within a few days, I noticed my mood slipping to a dangerous place.
The negative thoughts conjured up by watching the news created fearful, anxious, overthinking thoughts about people’s livelihoods and health that made me feel bad. Thankfully, I had awareness of the source of the bad feelings and was able to connect the dots to why the negative thoughts were increasing – due to a choice I made about watching the news. I have since stopped watching the news and have instead engaged consciously in managing my mind so that I am not at its mercy.
The wonderful, empowering news is that you can do it too! Sometimes we think thoughts are reality. They are there and we just believe them instantly. But with this strategy below, we can equip ourselves with tools to break down that belief and talk back to our thoughts and create better ones instead, thoughts that foster better feelings, better behaviours, and better lives.
Steps to Managing Problematic Thoughts
- Recognize the thoughts. Did you notice in the example I gave that I had to recognize the thought spiral before I could do anything about it? If we are used to thinking negative things, try to be aware of them, to bring them into the light. Are you saying things like “I can’t…” or “I’ll never be able to…”? Learn what your thought patterns are like so you can begin to work with them.
- Refrain from following those thoughts. When a difficult thought comes up, we tend to follow it, overthinking the outcomes, consequences, possibilities, and how all of those will pan out. Especially for over-thinkers, it’s easy to spend time and energy on thought spirals, each thought generating a new one to think about. If you can recognize a thought, stop yourself by saying “that’s just a thought” and not follow its spiral. Don’t spend the time or energy in the spiral. The more effort you put into this step, the more you’ll see it really is possible to not follow all your thoughts.
- Relax in the moment. Take a look at how thoughts make you feel. Are you tensing your muscles, holding your abdomen in a certain way? Are you clenching your teeth? Doing something physical to release the tension is a great way to break the thought loops. Take a deep belly breath, relax your face, arms, shoulders, and belly.
- Return to the present moment. Come back into the now, where future and past thoughts can be let go as “just thoughts”. Notice the colour of the sky, the texture of the ceiling, how warm or cold the room is, the number of yellow things you can see…. These are all examples of mindfulness techniques you can use to come back into the here and now. This all helps to reduce problematic thought-following and negative feelings.
Other Tools for Managing Your Mind
On top of that process, there are things you can do to help reduce the chance of feeling anxious, worried, or of overthinking.
- Exercise/walking/getting outside in nature/finding time to move each day. This helps to reduce the stress hormone cortisol that can fuel anxious thinking.
- Sunshine is a mood boost and helps you to create vitamin D, a natural immune support.
- Reach out to loved ones – set up a tea date via zoom or other social apps. Keeping social is essential to mental health.
- Diet suggestions – keep added sugar low as it can cause emotional rollercoasters. Make sure you’re getting enough protein and water. Both of these can affect the mood strongly if you don’t get enough!
- Offer help – being helpful to others is a meaningful and effective way to engage. It helps to forget about ourselves and break negative thought patterns, and it might really make a difference to someone out there.
- Gratitude – studies have shown that exercising gratitude by actively thinking about things we’re grateful for is supportive of good mood and resilience in the face of difficult situations.
- Dance and movement – find joy in the difficult times as well as the happy times! Dance and music is still free, you can put on a your favourite tune and rock out in your kitchen to put a smile on your face and shake off some stress.
- Meaning – ask yourself what is the lesson to be found in your current situation? In the situation we’re all in? How can we learn from this and be better as people, and as a collective?