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MANAGING THE MIND IN COVID-19 TIMES June 2020

LEARNING AS WE GO
Times of crisis can be rich opportunities to learn about ourselves and to devise better strategies for coping in the future and yet, we are often so overloaded that just surviving them is all we can do; usually there isn’t much time or energy left for self-reflection, personal growth, or becoming more effective or resilient for the next challenge.

Once the crisis has passed, we typically leave it behind and move on to the very pressing clean-up mode so we can normalize our lives as quickly as possible. In the process, the mind is highly motivated to tuck the recent ugliness into deep recesses, to move the event out of our consciousness but unfortunately, it doesn’t entirely remove it from our beings. We need to process and integrate what we’ve experienced and advance ourselves by understanding which of our strategies served us well and which did not.

This coronavirus pandemic is different than most life crises and because of that, it creates an unique opportunity. It is literally a life-and-death crisis for everyone at the same time, it is a battle for our very survival as individuals. And yet, if we are among the lucky ones and live through it, we will be on the battlefield with it for 1-2 years. The long duration, the smoldering nature it already has taken on, gives us time to learn about ourselves, to become more effective warriors in our personal battles with the many stresses, IF we can lean in to them and take the opportunity grow. Intentionally managing our minds is key to moving beyond surviving to thriving in the time of this pandemic.

KNOWING THAT YOU KNOW

From the Inside
A major tool in learning from both good and bad experiences of any kind is to be fully conscious, fully engaged with them at the time, or be able to look back and clearly see and feel what you experienced. We each need to draw upon the wisdom of all of our ‘selves’ to do that.

Thirty years ago when in personal growth workshops, I learned about the concept of “an observer.” Everyone has one but not everyone notices or honors that part of themselves. It’s the sense of self that watches, notices, and sometimes admonishes us. With practice, we can all make the division between ourselves and our observer sharper so it is easier to hear its quiet voice.

I sense my observer as a non-entity that floats just behind my right shoulder. It’s always there, giving me feedback as to whether what I am doing is consistent with my goals in the moment, if my thoughts are drifting into regrettable darkness, if I am being effective. It tells me when I’m doing stupid stuff. Sometimes I’m able to redirect myself based on its input and wisdom; other times I cringe and go on knowing that I should be taking its advise but don’t.

My observer gives me a little running commentary as I move through the world. I sharpen my focus to really tune-in to it in important situations. When at a critical juncture, I make a decision and then pause to get a ‘thumbs up or down’ from my observer, or perhaps some additional considerations. I know I can trust its wisdom when making urgent decisions; we are in it together.

Here is how a friend described his experience of his observer: “For me it has always been more of a discussion with my intuition, instincts or conscience on past experiences and feelings.” Others describe it as a “witness.” For some people it is right there, others must cultivate the relationship over years and demand its presence when needed.

Cultivating your observer, trusting that “You know that you know” is a powerful tool in managing and learning from difficult situations. You don’t have to go it alone when you befriend your observer—you’ll feel calmer and more confident when it is actively engaged.

From the Outside
If you don’t sense or trust that you have an internal wise one with whom you can consult in difficult times like the pandemic, be clear as to whether you have an outside source that can do part of the job of your observer, a person with whom you can confer. We all need someone to talk to who will listen well, not be critical or dismissive of our fears and feelings, and be a counterbalance to what can become our own crazy thinking.

Critically evaluate your partner, if you have one, for suitability as a substitute or a surrogate observer. They may be a wonderful fit for you in many parts of your life, but are you comfortable with their guidance, their perspective, their feedback at critical junctures? They may be spot-on in their assessments`` for themselves or other people, but are they right for you?

If you don’t have a partner or they don’t fill this slot in fortifying your sense of wellbeing, look for another outside source. Perhaps there is a friend you can call, a pen pal to write to, or a relative with whom to consult. If there isn’t anyone in you life that feels like a reliable and comfortable guide in difficult times, consider establishing a relationship with a therapist you can call on from time to time to steer you through your decision making processes. Be resourceful, cultivate your observer or develop an observer substitute to keep your mind clear. Two heads are always better than one.

Endless Loops
The downside of not having an active observer, either inside of you or a surrogate one in another person, is the risk of going in endless circles in difficult times. We all occasionally get swamped and we need a way to throw ourselves a life ring. Anxiety, depression, and indecisiveness can circle around and around in your head like sharks, sabotaging your ability to take good care of yourself in a crisis, whether short lived or prolonged, like the pandemic.

Especially if you are prone to anxiety, it’s too easy to get tracked in your own thoughts, to get into eccentric orbits, to not get drawn back into fully coherent thinking on your own. It can create a vicious cycle of escalating anxiety and poor decision making. We all need feedback, a second opinion.

ANXIETY, UNCERTAINTY, & DECISION-MAKING
Anxiety is sometimes described has having both feet in the future (the unknown) whereas we need to keep one foot in the present (known) while letting only one foot venture out into the future. Anxiety is incredibly destructive and anxiety feeds on anxiety. It endlessly chases its tail and feels so important when doing so and yet it is counterproductive. Anxiety must be dismantled; it is not useful for more than a moment. Once it has alerted you to an issue, it needs to be sent off like a messenger. Your observer is a very potent combatant for confronting and dispatching anxiety: “Thank you very much for your information, we’ll take it from here.”

Demand that your observer learn what goes on in your body and mind when you are anxious. If you don’t know what you physically look like when you are anxious, perhaps a friend can give you that feedback or you can look in a mirror. Maybe it’s a fixed gaze or expression, a look of fear on your face, shallow breathing, or perhaps you become physically immobilized when you are anxious.

Notice your mind when you are anxious. Do you feel doomed, hopeless, in despair, cornered, confused, or abandoned when you are in that frame of mind? Learn to recognize that anxious state of being and convince yourself that you must devise a way to extract yourself from that endless cycle.

One of the problems with anxiety is that it makes it impossible to make good decisions because of the confusion it foments with its distorted assessments. The second-guessing, the self doubt, are gut wrenching. You can break out of that continuous loop by making decisions, anchoring a bit of certainty in the muddle. Each decision made becomes a stepping stone that creates a pathway out of anxiety and despair, out of dithering.

When the terror from the pandemic and its repercussions struck in mid-March, there was an explosion of uncertainty. We all had more questions than answers: the characteristics of the virus, the details of the disease course, our likelihood of survival, the social impact, the economic impact, the possibility of food supply disruptions, the availability of almost anything, the potential for social disorder, and how long it would all persist. Uncertainty rained down on us like ejecta from a volcano and triggered anxiety as each bit struck, singeing and scarring us in the process. It was immobilizing, we didn’t know which way to turn; there was no where to run to to escape. We each suddenly needed to invent a strategy for our particular situation for us to survive while under constant, prolonged threat.

I was fully aware of the devilish interplay between anxiety and uncertainty when the pandemic overtook us. I also had known since my mid-30’s that I didn’t have an underlying problem with anxiety but that uncertainty was highly erosive to me. I felt capable of countering almost any threat, but I needed to know what it was. Vagueness was my enemy; concreteness was my ally. It was immediately clear to me that managing our minds during the pandemic was going to be a top priority, it would be pivotal to navigating through the terror of uncertainty.

The familiar saying “You can’t control what happens to you but you can control how you respond to it” was key. We needed to rally our minds to limit and confine uncertainty the best we could, which in turn would quiet our anxiety and dramatically improve our odds of mental and physical survival.

A first step was to recognize that chunking uncertainty into manageable bits, even temporarily, was pivotal. As information slowly rolled out about the virus transmission, we set policies about how we would deal with it. Sometimes the knowledge base changed every few days; no matter, we changed our policies at the same rate. The key was making a decision, creating clarity where there was little, to diminish the destructiveness of uncertainty. We did so with the understanding that these might be temporary certainties, evolving certainties. Absolutes didn’t matter here, clarity in the moment did matter and clarity took the energy out of anxiety.

Instead of picking up a carton and wondering what to do with it, the carton policy was “Quarantine for 24 hours;” if it had plastic packaging tape, that material was “Quarantine for 3 days.” The whole thing either went in the back of the truck for 3 days for the virus to inactivate on its own or the box was broken down and walked to the dumpster, being treated like it was radioactive. There was no uncertainty, no indecisiveness, it was dealt with according to a fixed protocol. Our hands would be cleaned after the carton was dispatched, before we touched anything else, especially our faces. Any bubbling anxiety dissipated with the clear action. (Physical movement, like discarding the box, also helps to diffuse anxiety.)

There was a rule, a decision for every type of material, every situation. In the laundry room, we wore masks, observed the 6’ distancing rule, and didn’t linger. We used paper towels to open and close washer and dryer doors and liberally dabbed alcohol on our fingers and hands. At the grocery store, it was masks and face shields because there were so many more encounters with people than in the laundry room. On the trail when confronted by others, we covered our noses and mouths with our neck gaiters, scampered 6-10’ away, attempted to go above them on the trail, and if the results were suboptimal, we’d turn our backs as they passed. Sometimes we asked the people to wait while we positioned ourselves. Every situation was standardized so there was no confusion, uncertainty, or conflict: “It’s just what we do.” We were a team; we negotiated the protocols in advance and rigidly stuck to them in unison to foster certainty.

OTHER STRATEGIES FOR MAINTAINING EMOTIONAL EQUILIBRIUM
Glitter Jar
A glitter jar can be a quick and easy way to settle your emotions, your anxiety. Look for recipes online but basically, you make one by putting glitter, glitter glue and water in a small jar. When you are upset, you shake the jar so, like with a snow globe, the glitter evenly distributes through the liquid, obscuring your view through it. Watch the glitter slowly settle, the water gradually becoming clear again, and use that as an analogy for your emotions. Your emotions get stirred up, prevent you from seeing clearly, slowly settle, and you can see through them again.
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Let the settling glitter in the jar aid your agitation in settling so you can see & think more clearly.

Glass Half Full
Taking the “glass half full” approach to all things was very useful for us early in the pandemic. One of the learned behaviors that perpetuates depression is to minimize outcomes, to react to all things as not quite being good enough or as being incomplete. “Yes, that’s nice but….” Realism is important, but never acknowledging success feeds depression and anxiety. So, we consciously celebrated EVERY partial victory to support our mental health. No one else was going to praise us, so we’d better do it.

When we made mistakes, like missing a cross-contamination moment, we’d strategize how to limit the negative outcomes and congratulate ourselves for staying on top of the situation, of doing a little better each day. When we had successes, no matter how small or incomplete, we would cheer ourselves and celebrate.

Respecting Biorhythms
For decades, respecting and supporting our biorhythms has been a top priority. We currently aim to be in bed by 8 pm and usually make it by 8:30 pm; the alarm goes off at 5 am and flubbing on bedtime isn’t usually rewarded with sleeping in. Sleep is precious for health; it fortifies your immune system and calms the mind. Sleeping well is always a top priority for us because a good night’s sleep makes every thing go better.

”Low stimulation 2 hours before bedtime is the rule” which means backing down the lights, the volume, and the risk of becoming agitated. Cutting off screen time an hour before bed is enforced if a pattern of not sleeping well erupts. Emotionally charged exchanges that crop-up in that 2 hour window get shut-down: “This will have to wait until morning.” Often, the emotional intensity is amplified by weariness and, after a night’s sleep, the issue frequently has dissipated on its own.

Particularly during the pandemic, the bedtime ritual forbade talking about depressing things. Expressing negative emotions was OK, but were not topics for discussion. We emphasized sharing successes, joys, and what we were looking forward to the next day. Bringing up beautiful images from time on the trail hours earlier was always welcome.

Maintaining Fitness
Exercise, especially outdoors, is very restorative for the mind and the body. Both the exertion and the connection with nature provide outlets to aid in releasing tension and improving your sense of wellbeing.

Fitness also fortifies the immune system. Keeping your skeletal muscles buff and your muscle mass up dampens inflammation and maintains the potency of your natural killer cells—all good things to help your body clean-up infections and fend off the coronavirus.

Diminishing Dithering
Use the abundant emotional upsets of the pandemic to sharpen your skills for disrupting your dithering, if you are prone to it. Here are some ideas with which to experiment:
..take a short, super-fast walk or exhaust yourself with push-ups
..take a hot bath or shower
..scrub a sink
..make a “to-do” list and line-up the supplies for doing 1 item on the list
..play loud, raucous music or soft, soothing music
..write your feelings down in an email, whether you send it or not

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Getting outdoors, exercising, & enjoying humor help hit the ‘reset’ button.

RECOGNIZING & QUIETING MY PANIC
End Point
In the early days of the pandemic, perhaps before it was even declared as such, I realized that my escalating panic could usually be quelled by remembering “There will be an end point, there will be a vaccine.” It was my observer to the rescue, my observer could finally be heard over my flash of panic and shout “Vaccine.”

One thing would lead to another, like fear and anxiety often do, and I would forget that there would be an end, no matter how distant, and it ramped-up my fretting and drowned-out my observer. The threats from the pandemic felt endless, it felt like there would be no escaping infection, but that was wrong.

There would eventually be a vaccine. Of course, it helped that I actually believed that it was true, that the nature of this coronavirus made it highly likely that there would be an effective vaccine fairly quickly, even if it required annual revaccination. Remembering this became a simple antidote for me: First, I had to notice the overwhelming sense of doom, then I had to remember that that was unfounded, that there was an “out.” After interrupting that cycle several times, the panic stopped recurring.

The Principle of Non-Accumulation
My second technic for calming my jitters was being clear about the “principle of non-accumulation.” You won’t find the “principle of non-accumulation” in Newtonian physics or any textbook—I made it up. Especially early in the pandemic, when new information was rapidly emerging, I’d periodically clutch, thinking “Yikes, the way I handled that situation 2 weeks ago was terrible, it could have been fatal!” Indeed, it may have been that poorly executed, but generally, if it was more than 5 days prior, I’d tell myself “Forget it; it’s over.”

The risks from possible exposures to the virus don’t compound, once the elapsed time for incubation (generally 14 days) has passed from an exposure, the risk is over, it doesn’t count anymore. You can increase risk of infection by increasing viral load, by repeated exposures in a short period of time, but the risk from infection from not washing your hands after handling a bag of carrots 2 weeks ago was an isolated event, it’s like it didn’t happen if you didn’t get COVID-19.

It was a simple thing, but reminding myself that there was a reset button that, by the criteria I decided upon, was reset every 5 days (the usual time before onset of symptoms), which was a huge relief. Doing so kept my anxiety from piling up—the pile got knocked down a bit every day based on a 5 day expiry date for each flubbed event. Deciding on a number of days that fit for my conclusions about the virus and risk was another way to introduce certainty into the situation, to keep the accumulating fears from compounding.

Self Acceptance
On April 19, Brian Stelter of CNN shared that he crawled into bed the night before and cried. In a poignant telling of the accumulation of feelings that led to him hitting the wall, he shared “It’s OK to not be OK right now.” We appreciated the message, the validation of what we were feeling. Coping was our goal, not being chipper or invincible.

Grade Yourself (be generous!)
By the end of May, I had no difficulty looking back at the nearly 3 months of adapting to life with the COVID-19 Pandemic and giving us an A+ in managing our minds. Here’s the scoring:
..we perfectly maintained our weekly fitness routine of 40 miles/week of hiking + biking
..we only suffered 1 night of poor sleep
..we only had 1 bedtime tiff to avert
..there was passing terror but no prolonged, deep despair
..we consistently were kind to each other, ourselves, and others
..we cultivated laughter and joy and shared it with others
..we each found ways to make improvements in our personal growth work

We weren’t as productive in the first 2 months of the pandemic as I would have liked, but staying afloat, staying alive, guarding our sense of wellbeing, not productivity, were the objectives.

CONFIDENCE

Restoring personal confidence is key to surviving the coronavirus pandemic. We must all find ways to float above our anxiety, our terror, our fears, and the very real threats so that we can move forward with confidence and joy. Control what you can control and close down the aperture to allow in only as much negative external information as you can handle. We each must maintain our resilience so we can rally if we get blindsided again. We must manage our minds to thrive during these times, not just survive, so at least some of the time we can experience gratitude.

Rx
We both highly recommend taking a form of Vitamin B3, niacinamide (not niacin) for an improved sense of wellbeing. We find that it helps quiet our minds without dulling them. We began taking niacinamide for skin cancer prevention and discovered incidentally that it has a soothing effect. You can read more about our experience with it on:
https://detail.travelfit.us/page19/index.html.