How do I remain Peaceful– Even in the Midst of a Pandemic?
By Debra Watkins, MA, LMFT
How is it that some people do not seem to be as stressed or negatively affected by the 2020 ‘storms of life’ and others are sinking in despair? The truth is, due to COVID-19 and its overwhelming residual effects, reportedly 1 out of 2 people are struggling with chronic depression and 1 in 3 have developed unhealthy coping habits such as excessive drinking or drug use, over-eating, sleeping too much, etc. Many adults have labeled this year as the ‘year of worry and stress’ and decline to believe things will ever feel normal again while some optimistically declare 2021 will be ‘magical’ and everything will go back to normal. Although a positive attitude is always helpful, it is important to remember extremes in either direction rarely lead to good decision making, and as previously noted, worry and stress often result in emotional duress, extreme physical fatigue and increased health problems. So, how do we peacefully navigate these treacherous waters of 2020 and not drown in a sea of anxiety?
To put it in the words of the Greek Stoic philosopher, Epictetus:
“Man is not worried by real problems so much as by his imagined anxieties about real problems”.
Your thoughts, that spontaneous little voice in your head, are what therapists refer to as your ‘self-talk’, which is a constant running commentary that either encourages and strengthens you or brings panic by automatically exaggerating real problems into imagined, dread-filled possibilities. There are many types of automatic thought distortions, and maybe you will recognize a few of the following examples in your own self-talk:
Black-and-white/All-or-nothing – you often use the words ‘always’, ‘never’ and have thought to yourself, “if it’s not all perfect, I have failed.” “It was all a waste of time.” “This year is a total loss.”
Mind reading– you are quite sure you know exactly what other people are thinking, without having any proof or evidence. “My boss doesn’t like me.” “They think I’m incompetent.” “My family thinks I’m a loser.”
Emotional reasoning – your feelings determine your perception of reality, as in, “if I feel sad, I must be depressed”. “I feel worried about the upcoming year, so I know it’s going to be bad.”
What if’s – a common negative thought process leading to ‘catastrophizing’ about something that has not and may never happen such as panicked thoughts of “what if I get sick? What if I won’t be able to get through this?” or “what if we end up losing everything?”
Fortune telling – jumping to conclusions and predicting the future events, as if you have a crystal ball to know the future; for example, you are convinced of what will happen if a particular family member attends an event or if a certain politician wins the elections.
‘Self-talk’ is the basis of a modality of psychotherapy called Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT) developed by psychiatrist, Dr. Aaron T Beck in the 1960’s who found that depressed patients struggled with continuous streams of automatic negative thoughts either about themselves, the world or their future. Dr. Beck began helping his patients through identifying and confronting the underlying beliefs supporting their negative thoughts, and by evaluating the validity of those thoughts, patients were able to change their original erroneous and unhelpful beliefs to what was true and helpful and, thereby, change their lives. Since the 1960’s, through thousands of clinical studies, CBT has been found to be highly effective in treating a wide variety of disorders with a psychiatric component toward long-lasting change.
It may seem like a serious oversimplification, but our thoughts, whether supportive or self-defeating, affect our feelings, which in turn, affect our behavior. It is our self-talk, which is deeply rooted in our belief system, that explains how one person can be more at peace in the middle of a pandemic and another person lives with irrational panic and debilitating fear. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) offers many helpful tips and resources to care for your emotional health during the current pandemic to include taking care of your body, connecting with others as much as possible and staying informed about the crisis but warns that too much exposure to the news may be feeding your thought distortions. So, what can you do to diminish your thought distortions that produce anxiety and negative behaviors?
The Bible encourages us to:
… “take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ” 2 Cor. 10:5 NIV
First, stop and identify the dread-filled thoughts you are entertaining and accept them as a luxury you can no longer afford, if you want to live in peace. You will recognize thought distortions by their unpleasant physical side-effects, like obsessive worry, a pounding heart, sweaty palms, headaches, shakiness, shortness of breath, digestion issues, difficulty with memory recall, to name a few. Second, confront and evaluate every thought distortion that surfaces and measure it by the fundamental qualifying standards and ask yourself, 1. “Is that really true? 2. Is it helpful?”. Many thought distortions have some truth to them, but that truth is exaggerated and certainly not helpful. Third, replace the unhelpful thought distortions with what is true and helpful and anchor that thought in a scriptural promise that brings hope, such as:
John 14:27, “I am leaving you with a gift—peace of mind and heart. And the peace I give is a gift the world cannot give. So don’t be troubled or afraid.”
Prov. 3:5-6, Trust in the Lord with all your heart; do not depend on your own understanding. Seek his will in all you do, and he will show you which path to take.
Changing your thoughts to what is 1. true and 2. helpful requires an intentional act of your will and continual practice, but you can do it! If needed, help is available at RenuYou Neurofeedback Brain Fitness Center from a licensed, certified psychotherapist who is trained in CBT talk therapy to listen and confront your underlying negative cognitions and help you work through traumatic thought distortions, possibly through EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) or Clinical Hypnotherapy. A recent client shared with me her intense struggles above and beyond the pandemic issues, and after processing a combination of learning to modify her dysfunctional thoughts, acquiring relaxation techniques and practicing helpful self-talk/CBT cognitive skills she reported, “I never realized the power my thoughts had over my feelings and actions; I didn’t know I could actually control my thoughts!”. When we began intentionally identifying and changing her faulty thought patterns, she remarked with amazement she was more able to relax, was much less anxious and better able to handle difficult people and stressful situations in her life with calm and rational responses.
In keeping with the many nautical references in this article, I would like to leave you with a final thought: Jesus was sleeping in the boat while the disciples were furiously rowing against a raging storm, and they awakened him asking, “Teacher, don’t you care that we’re going to drown?” All it took was Jesus’ voice speaking to the waves to bring complete peace to the storm. On another occasion, Jesus came walking on the sea toward the disciples’ boat, and Jesus invited Peter to come out onto the waves and walk with him, and he did…until he doubted. You may feel your ‘life boat’ is taking on too much 2020 storm water and you are overwhelmed with doubt, but if you look closely, you will see Jesus is there; He has never left you. He may be asking you to take the risk and walk out to him in faith believing your ‘new normal’ is achievable, as He faithfully lifts you out of the waves of doubt when they wash over you. Be at peace; you are never alone. We are here to help.