Seven months ago I lost my spouse of 52 years. My grieving process has been complicated by the isolation imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic. The isolation has deprived me of the opportunity to talk face-to-face with people and hug friends which I dearly miss. However, it has not deprived me of the ability to manage my behavior and emotions with my thoughts using an approach called cognitive behavioral therapy. The simple premise of this technique is that what we think will influence what we do and what we feel.
It is certainly normal but not necessarily helpful or productive to be experiencing feelings of sadness, anxiety, worry and even anger during these times. These feelings may be expressed by behaviors like tears, withdrawal, impatience and lashing out.
There are some steps you can take to manage the negative emotions and behaviors that you may see increasing at this time of high stress and isolation:
- When you experience a negative emotion (anxiety, anger, sadness, etc.), be aware of what you are thinking prior to the emotion. Imagine that someone was critical of you in front of others. Your thought could be, “She is having a bad day”, “She is a jerk” or ”I am failure”. Your emotions and your behavior will be very different depending on what thought is rumbling around in your head.
- Ask yourself, “Is my thought irrational?” If you can’t say a definite “yes” or “no”, put it on a scale from 1 to 10 with ten being totally irrational and 1 being totally rational.
- Ask an objective friend for help if you can’t decide where your thought is on the scale.
- If it is irrational, then rephrase your thought so that it makes more sense. For example, “This person’s comments are more about her then about me”, “I am ok and know this was an unfair attack”, etc.
Just as negative thoughts often lead to stressful and painful emotions and behavior, positive thoughts can lead to more uplifting and desirable emotions and behavior. In this pandemic environment of non-stop news cycles of death and economic deterioration it can be challenging to have positive thoughts that create hope and optimism.
The following are some things you can do to increase positive thoughts:
- Acknowledge and focus more on silver linings even if they may seem relatively insignificant. For example, I value the time that I have to practice meditation and to exercise and am taking better care of myself. I have heard from others that have learned new skills such as ways to connect (FaceTime, Zoom, Duo), renew old friendships, learn a language, research family history, etc.
- Be curious, think of new ways to do things and new things to learn. For example, I recently I was able to organize a Zoom meeting and spend time with 6 old friends, acquiring a new skill and experiencing the support of friends in the process.
- Think of ways to create laughter. At this time, laughter could truly be the best medicine. It’s much harder to maintain negative thoughts when you are laughing. Turn towards books, movies and television shows that are humorous. Share jokes with friends. Reminisce with family and friends about those past experiences of shared comical situations.
- Write about anything that is important to you. It could be about your personal experience during this time; a short story or even a novel that you have planned for years or maybe it is a daily journal. Just the act of writing and putting your own thoughts on paper can be uplifting whether you share these writings with others or not.
5. Giving support to others can help you find purpose and meaning which will enhance your ability to survive these stressful times. Support can be as simple as a phone call or more extensive as in helping to provide groceries or meals to those in need. The receiver gets assistance and you the giver experience a sense of purpose.
In the spirit of full disclosure, I find that even as a clinical psychologist that has great faith in this approach as a way to experience healthier emotions it can still be exceedingly difficult to manage my feelings of anxiety, sadness and even fear. It can be helpful to have someone that can be a sounding board to help you evaluate and change negative thinking before it leads to depression. I hope that you will remember that your EAP is there for you as a resource to help you during this time of isolation.
Dr. Robert Kagey, a clinical psychologist, is a co-founder of Comprehensive EAP. He has extensive experience developing innovative approaches to fostering healthy, respectful and productive work environments.