By Dean Barbara Glesner Fines, UMKC School of Law
I’m not a professional counselor, and I do rely on a professional to help me and encourage others to do so. But I’ve also lived a pretty long time and have faced a challenge or two in my life, and I am a learner and read and study wellness literature quite a bit. Maybe what works for me might work for you.
Let’s start with the basics: eat your veggies, don’t try to escape into drink or smoke or other chemicals, get some sunshine, exercise every day, and get enough sleep. If you already have some bad habits in this area, don’t think of reforming yourself. Now’s probably not the time to try to dramatically change habits. Instead, just commit to a short time span of change – I’ll drink juice instead of alcohol this week; I’ll walk around the block every morning. Nothing dramatic. You would be surprised how well you can fool yourself with a “just this once” mindset about good habits – it is as alluring as a “just this once” mindset about bad habits.
I try to build some gratitude into every day. Suppose you have a job that is causing you stress, and you are also experiencing stress about personal health risks relating to COVID-19. That stress is real, but there is also something to be grateful for here. You can take a moment simply to be grateful that you have that job at all. You can also be grateful that the personal health risks you may have to take in your daily life are not those that hospital workers and grocery store clerks are taking every day. If you actually take the time to commit that gratitude to paper (or electronics or social media), you especially reinforce the power of gratitude.
Part of being grateful is giving back. I try to do something for others as much as I can. Right now, for example, I’m sewing masks from my hoard of fabric for my nieces who are nurses in Florida and Michigan. Every stitch feels like I’m helping to save their lives. That makes me feel like a hero. It makes me feel strong. It reinforces gratitude, and it feeds me with good feelings that help balance all the bad feelings.
Now counting blessings only goes so far because alongside gratitude there is real loss and threat and fear. I lost my husband two years ago. It cut a hole in my soul that will never ever be healed, no matter how much I pour into that hole all the gratitude I feel for the miracle of the time and relationship we had. Sometimes I just have to grieve. Likewise, this pandemic has brought us all tremendous loss and tremendous threat. Some days and sometimes you are just going to have to feel sorrow, fear and anxiety. What I have learned in the past two years is that those feelings are what they are, and I shouldn’t try to avoid or fight back against them. Grief (and sorrow, fear, and anxiety) are like quicksand. They will pull you in if you struggle against them or try to ignore them. Instead, I simply acknowledge the feelings, let them be, and try to float on top of them until I can move onto firmer ground emotionally. Because the other thing I’ve learned is that none of these feelings last forever. Your brain will grab at any lifeline it can and pull you out if you give it a chance.
Of course, you have to be aware of your feelings in order to manage them. You’ve probably heard about mindfulness. It’s a powerful tool and is a pretty simple concept. Just do this a couple of times a day, or anytime that you are feeling overwhelmed. Get in a nice comfortable spot. Relax your body as much as you can. Take a nice big deep breath in through your nose, and let it out slowly through your mouth. Do that three times. While you do that, focus as much as you can on the breath moving in and out. Then just sit quietly for a moment and observe. Observe your body. Where is there tension? Try to relax those spots. Observe your thoughts. Let those thoughts just flow by. Don’t judge them. Don’t try to avoid thinking, but also don’t dwell on the thoughts you observe. Just watch them flow by and move back to observing your breath for a moment. What are you feeling? Again, don’t judge. Be as compassionate with yourself as you are with others. Develop this habit of “checking in” with yourself a few times every day. There are apps you can use to help with this process. I know this technique is off-putting to some people. Some view this as a form of religion or spirituality, and it certainly can be incorporated into a prayer practice. But you can also simply think of this as a brain exercise – just like you learn to stretch before running. Research tells us that this is a powerful tool, and it is so easy to develop. It is worth the effort.
Another technique I use to manage my emotions is what I call “time shifting.” I focus on the present as much as possible and only go to the future when I am doing realistic contingency planning. If that planning moves to anxiety and worry, I shift back to the present. As you are completing especially onerous work tasks such as trial preparation, you spend most of your time in the present doing what needs to be done at that moment. But you also set aside some time to work on a backup plan. What will you do if the trial is postponed? What realistic steps can you take? Who can help? What information will make things clearer? But quickly, this planning will have to end because you will run up against one wall or another: either you will find aspects of the future that are simply out of your control or you will be overcome with anxiety. That’s when you shift back to the present and focus on what is right in front of you. This technique takes some practice, but, for me, it’s been pretty powerful in getting through crisis.
These are really extraordinary times and so I cut myself a ton of slack. If I want to eat licorice for dinner, I do. If I want to re-watch stupid television episodes for the Nth time, I do. If my to-do list is only growing by the hour but I have no more to give to it, I just walk away. I can be a superhero another time. In a crisis, good enough has to be good enough. Decide what is essential, and let the rest go.
Make time every day for things that make you feel good. I pet my dog, play my guitar, and write in my journal. I also play Pokémon Go so that I get out of the house and get some fresh air and exercise every day. Do what makes you happy or distracts you mightily. Just don’t get so distracted that you don’t get to the essentials. Be careful that you don’t overdo anything. Games can distract, but you can’t spend all day playing games. Staying in the present can soothe, but you have to spend at least some time planning. Work, exercise, socializing – all of this has to be balanced, and routine is very important in these times. I’m not a good routine person – I tend to chafe against the strictures of a schedule. But I try very hard to start my day at the same time in the same way every day; to watch the clock a bit to make sure I don’t spend all my time in one place (mentally or physically); and to aggressively maintain good sleep hygiene. But it’s hard. So I cut myself some slack.
I joke. I very much believe in humor. I figure if it worked for Viktor Frankl in a concentration camp, it should work for me. (“It is well known that humor, more than anything else in the human make-up, can afford an aloofness and an ability to rise above any situation, even if only for a few seconds.” ― Viktor Emil Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning). Trying to develop your sense of the absurd in this environment is time well spent. Spend time with or find a friend with a really good sense of humor that works for you. Recognize that humor is so individually and culturally bound that not everyone’s humor will work for you – some offends or bores more than it helps.
I hope these ideas help. Probably the most important thing is to know that you can reach out to others for help. We are all in this together.