Pandemic Tools for All Ages
by Dr. Dan Peters
Every day, it seems as if we are being presented with something new — increased COVID cases, businesses closing, schools maybe opening — as well as having to deal with our new normal: wearing masks, keeping distance, not going to our favorite places.
When will there be a vaccine? What if I get COVID? What if you get COVID? Will it be safe to go to school? Will I get to hug my grandma again? Will life ever be the same again? These are just a few of the worrisome thoughts that people of all ages are being barraged with on a daily, if not moment-by-moment basis.
These are also some of the thoughts that the mythical creature, the Worry Monster, puts in our heads to make us scared. Sure, these thoughts have a lot of validity these days, yet we do not need to be a victim to them. We can take action by questioning our thinking, altering our thinking, problem-solving, and working on accepting our new (temporary) normal.
I am not minimizing that we are in a pandemic nor that our lives have drastically changed. I also understand that we are dealing with an incredible amount of uncertainty. And guess what? Uncertainty is the Worry Monster’s best friend. When we do not know what is to come, he uses the unknown to mess with us in a big way by telling us (with our thoughts) all of the things that could possibly go wrong.
The catch is that all of the things he tells us “could” happen (someone I love might get COVID) has not happened yet because it is in the future. If someone in our family unfortunately did get COVID, then it has already happened and the Worry Monster will make us focus on the next worry. That is what he does — tells us things to make us scared.
The good news is that even in the midst of a pandemic, we can fight back. We can reduce our worry and fear by taking steps against the Worry Monster. Here are some tools I use in my own life, with my family, and with my clients:
Ask yourself what you are thinking — We can usually tell that we are worried or anxious because we can feel it somewhere in our body (chest is tight, headache, sweaty palms, stomachache). When your indicator feeling goes off, ask yourself what you are thinking. (Am I worried COVID will never go away?)
Once you identify your thought, you can check to see if it is completely true (which it usually is not) and then alter your thinking so it is more reality-based (masks reduce infection; plus many people and countries are working on the vaccine and it should be out soon). We need to use our thinking brain to overpower our emotional brain when the Worry Monster is messing with us.
Stay present — Simply put, all worry is future-based. When we worry, we are thinking about something that “could” happen in the future. The future has not happened yet, and the Worry Monster makes us spend a lot of time in this unknown place. When we “live” in the future, we are trying to predict events and situations that are out of our control, rather than staying in the present moment — the only thing that actually exists.
Be aware of when the Worry Monster pulls you into the future with “What if” thoughts. Pull yourself back to “right now” and tell yourself that things are fine now, and you are not going to think about something that hasn’t happened yet. Short breathing exercises where you focus on your breath can be calming and reorient you to the present moment.
Focus on what is in your control (and let go of what isn’t) — It is helpful to divide into categories — what we can control, and what we can’t. Just this exercise alone gives people some initial relief. We don’t realize how much time we spend worrying about things we can’t change (COVID cases, school and business openings and closings) and we can choose to spend our time and thinking on what we can control (social distancing, washing our hands, safe outings in nature).
Separating these categories — what we can control and what we can’t — allows us to use our problem-solving skills to impact the things we can and to work on letting go of what we can’t. This awareness reduces the Worry Monster’s hold on us because he wants us to worry about everything and doesn’t want us to know we can take action.
There is no question we are living in unchartered and worrisome times. We need to remember that humans have encountered extreme hardship and adversity since the beginning of time, and now it appears it is our turn. We must take on the Worry Monster and use our skills to reduce the amount of negative influence he has on our lives. We must be aware of the way he works (putting scary thoughts in our minds) in order to take a stand against him. We must empower ourselves to be brave in the face of this tremendous adversity. We must do this for ourselves and for our children. We have a lot of life to live, and we will get through this.