The coronavirus pandemic has caused a lot of stress and anxiety, but luckily there are coping strategies that have been proven to work. Many organizations offer online resources, such as the Association of Family and Conciliation Courts (AFCC), the Canadian Fertility and Andrology Society (CFAS), and the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH), which starts off by reminding us that anxiety and fear are normal in a situation like this, and these feelings can actually help to motivate us to take constructive action. Indeed, it’s perfectly normal to feel overwhelmed right now.
An antidote to feeling overwhelmed is to deal with problems in a structured way. The experts recommend that we can start by identifying things that actually are problems that need to be solved, as opposed to worries that are not grounded in reality. Then, break each problem down into smaller parts, and prioritize them: what needs to be done now? What can be tackled tomorrow? And what can be delayed or even dropped completely because it doesn’t really matter in the long run?
Brainstorm some options. List them, and identify the pros and cons of each one. Narrow it down to the best option you have. (It won’t be perfect. Nothing is.) Then put the solution into practice and see how it goes. Did it solve the problem? Did it help a bit? Do you need to adjust the solution, or consider another solution from your list? Ask others how they see your problem. If they agree that it is real, ask for feedback on your solution.
Try not to think about “what ifs,” such as how you will cope if you get sick, or how you will manage in self-isolation. This can drive us to thinking about worst case scenarios. The reality is, people often overestimate how bad a situation can get, but underestimate how well they will be able to cope. You’re going to be okay!
Mindfulness meditation and cognitive behavioral techniques can help to keep anxiety in check. For many of us, particularly when confronted with a situation with an unknown, or unclear, result, our minds may tend to go to the most catastrophic outcome. The professionals advise that this type of thinking often results in increased fear and thoughts of despair. So keep in mind that many of the ideas that come into our heads are inaccurate and harmful — some use the term stinkin’ thinkin’ to describe this phenomenon. For example, it’s easy to have thoughts like “there is nothing I can do,” or “I won’t be able to cope.” These thoughts can be so strong that you believe them to be true. However, thoughts are not necessarily facts!
So, as the cognitive behavioral professionals teach us, challenge these destructive, and often debilitating, thoughts. Ask yourself: is this thought a “truth?” How do I know it’s true? Is it 100% true, and always true? What is the evidence for it? What is the evidence against it? Has the thing I’m worried about ever happened before? What actually occurred? Is worrying actually helping me, or is it keeping me stuck and feeling anxious?
After asking these kinds of challenging questions, see if you can come up with a more balanced thought. For example, “I am elderly, and I’m terrified of getting ill,” could be replaced with “I am elderly, but I am also taking all of the recommended precautions, I have a good support network, and I am taking steps to stay healthy. I am extremely likely to get through this and be fine.”
It’s also helpful to seek out credible information — for example, the Health Canada website is reliable. Avoid unfamiliar websites, or online discussion groups where people post information from non-credible sources or share stories which may or may not be true. Be wary of what is posted on social media. And consider checking the news no more than once a day, or less if you can. You might consider setting aside some time to unplug from all electronics, including phone, tablets and computers. Do something fun and healthy for yourself instead (e.g., read, work, exercise.)
There are a multitude of virtual options available too: visit museums and galleries online; learn a new hobby; read a new book; learn a new recipe; commune with your friends and family using apps such as Zoom. Consider scheduling calls and virtual visits with friends and family at regular and specific times.
Relaxation strategies and meditation can help, as can healthy eating, good sleep hygiene, and working out. Don’t be hard on yourself if you forget to do something, or if you are not feeling better right away. If you still can’t cope, you may need extra support from someone like your family doctor or a psychologist, psychotherapist, social worker or other health professional. Many are working remotely and will be happy to schedule a call or virtual face-to-face meeting. There’s no shame in reaching out.
The writer and theoretician David Kessler talks about the pandemic in the Harvard Business Review, describing a sense of “collective grief” now in the air. “We know this is temporary,” he says, “but it doesn’t feel that way. Our primitive mind knows something bad is happening, but you can’t see it. This breaks our sense of safety.”
One thing to avoid is what Kessler terms “anticipatory grief,” which is really just anxiety. “Our mind begins to show us images, like our parents getting sick,” he explains. “We see the worst scenarios. That’s our minds being protective. Our goal is not to ignore those images, or to try to make them go away — your mind won’t let you do that, and it can be painful to try and force it. The goal is to find balance in the things you’re thinking. If you feel the worst images taking shape, make yourself think of the best images, such as: we all get a little sick and the world continues; not everyone I love dies; maybe no one does, because we’re all taking the right steps. Neither scenario should be ignored, but neither should dominate either.”
Another good remedy is to try coming into the present moment. “This will be familiar advice to anyone who has practiced mindfulness meditation,” Kessler explains, “but people are always surprised at how prosaic this can be. You can name five things in the room: there’s a computer, a chair, a picture of the dog, an old rug, and a coffee mug. It’s that simple. Breathe. Realize that in the present moment, nothing you’ve anticipated has happened. In this moment, you’re okay. You have food. You are not sick. Use your senses and think about what they feel. The desk is hard. The blanket is soft. I can feel the breath coming into my nose. This really will work to dampen some of that pain.”
You can also think about how to let go of what you can’t control, he adds. “What your neighbor is doing is out of your control. What is in your control is staying six feet away from them and washing your hands. Focus on that.”
Finally, it’s important to keep in mind that this is temporary. “It helps to say it,” says Kessler. “I worked for ten years in the hospital system. I’ve been trained for situations like this. I’ve also studied the Spanish Flu. The precautions we’re taking are the right ones. History tells us that. This is survivable. We will survive.”
We are in this together. We will survive this together. Stay safe, stay healthy, and stay connected!
For advice on family law issues and fertility law issues, contact Shirley Levitan.