All of us are beginning to realize that life as we have known it has dramatically changed. We are at war against an invisible enemy that is wreaking havoc on our lives. Playdates for our children, lunch with friends, a steady income, worship, exercise classes, school, sports, graduations and even shopping are either nonexistent, canceled, postponed or look very different at this moment in time. Our lives have been interrupted in a huge way.
Even for the most spontaneous person, being forced into a dramatically different way of living has many of us on edge.
"During times of trauma and uncertainty, we are stressed, weary and overwhelmed," says Dr. Gary Oliver, clinical psychologist. "Our typical response is to 'react' in the moment, which often makes things worse. This is our emotional brain hijacking our thinking."
Especially during these times, Oliver says we need to be intentional about "responding" instead of "reacting."
"In life there are only three kinds of situations: things I can control; things I can't control but can influence, which is a larger group, but the degree of influence probably isn't as great as we think; and things that are totally out of our control," Oliver says. "We can't control the COVID-19 outbreak. But we can be sure to wash our hands; distance ourselves from others; if you are a person of faith, you can pray; we can exercise to stay healthy; we can be kind and help others who are more susceptible to catching the virus."
Oliver believes it is this focus on what we have control over and can influence that will help us thrive as we work to reach the other side of this crisis. For each decision that you are faced with during this time, Oliver recommends that you think of the situation as a blinking yellow caution light. We all need to slow down and proceed with caution because we are at risk of acting in ways that will only complicate the situation or possibly make things worse.
Here are some specific actions Oliver recommends to help us deal with the days ahead:
1. Make a list. Sit down and make a list of all the things you can totally "control." If you are like most of us, this is a very short list.
Then make a list of the things you believe you can influence.
Finally, list the things you can do nothing about — and this is probably an endless list. Oliver says, most of the time, people are kind of shocked by how few things they actually have total control over. Some studies suggest that approximately two-thirds of what we worry about are things totally beyond our control.
Now, go back to the list of things you can actually influence and rank them from 1 to 10, with 10 being the highest. The things at the bottom of the list are the things you actually have the least influence over. Look at the things you scored 5 and above, and ask yourself, "What are some specific things I can do in these areas?" Your answers may be something like this: I can stay aware of the latest updates, or I can practice good self-care.
Speaking of good self-care, Oliver points out that we are only as good for our spouse, children, extended family and friends as we are for ourselves. If you don't take care of yourself, you can really be unhelpful to others. You can love yourself and others by eating well, resting, utilizing spiritual resources if you are a person of faith, and getting exercise.
2. Count your blessings. In challenging times, it is easy to focus on the negative instead of what you actually have. Make a list of your blessings. Do you have food? Is there a roof over your head? Can you walk, talk, see and hear? Do you have people who love you and are checking in on you? Do you have electricity, running water and access to the internet? Visually seeing your list is empowering.
Ask yourself, "How can I encourage, express appreciation, support and pray for others?"
Although we have social distancing, we still need relationships. Texting and Facebook are OK, but there is no substitute for face-to-face contact. Seeing someone's face and hearing their voice is comforting and psychologically, physiologically and emotionally nurturing. We all need that, especially at this moment in time. Isolation is good for not spreading the coronavirus, but relationship isolation is not healthy so Skype, Google Hangout, FaceTime or something else, but find ways to connect face-to-face.
3. Pay attention to your pets. Brain science now tells us that interactions with our pets can be life-giving, especially in times of crisis.
When people feel like they can't do anything, anxiety, fear, discouragement and depression creep in. People become overwhelmed with a sense of helplessness and hopelessness.
These suggestions may seem small in the scheme of things, but they are not insignificant. Instead, these recommendations can help you grow smarter and make wiser decisions. Look for the opportunity to encourage others, because it's not just about your own survival.
Ask yourself, "What is going to be my next healthy step?"
Julie Baumgardner is president and CEO of First Things First. Email her at Julieb@firstthings.org.