In the midst of some serious re-planning, canceling events, and thinking of how I can be of service to my immune-suppressed friends and neighbors in the past week, I’ve been thinking a lot about how lucky I am.
In a lot of ways, I’ve been living as if a pandemic were about to hit for most of my life. Having OCD and health-related anxiety makes this time tough, sure, but I’m also prepared in a way a lot of folks aren’t. Stock up on nonperishable food and cleaning supplies? Check — I’ve got four kinds of spaghetti and a Sam’s Club package of Clorox wipes in my apartment at all times. Wash your hands several times a day and keep your hands off your face? On it.
While this time can be particularly difficult and triggering for someone whose health concerns are always a little heightened, that experience has also given me an understanding of the best ways to cope when health fear hits. After all, I’ve survived personal freak-outs of this magnitude over the flu. And while this is no flu, the lessons I’ve learned to cope with fear over everyday health-related scenarios are what are getting me through these days. Maybe they can do the same for you.
Follow cognitive behavioral therapy tips to cope with unhelpful thinking patterns.
Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is a form of talk therapy that focuses on the ways our thought patterns and behaviors affect our emotions and how we see the world around us. One big part of cognitive behavioral therapy is recognizing the unhelpful patterns of thought that might be at play in your mind, and then interrupting those thought patterns to reframe situations and relationships in a healthier way.
One of those unhelpful thought patterns that I fall into quite a bit is called catastrophizing. That means my brain goes straight to the worst-case scenario — or further, to something with no statistical possibility of happening.
The first therapist I went to in college liked to ask me, “What’s the worst that could happen?” But that technique didn’t work on me because I was happy to tell you exactly what the worst possible case was. I had to learn to look past that.
So if you find yourself these days jumping straight to the worst-case — things like, I’m going to get sick and die; or, I’m going to lose my job — take a breath and break down that thought.
You know what’s possible and what could happen. But what’s the likelihood of that actually happening? And if it does happen, could you tolerate it? Sit with that uncertainty. Give yourself the grace to not know the answers and remind yourself that thinking about what could happen won’t make an impact on whether it does.
If you can’t get those thoughts out of your head, write down that path. Make a chart, or a picture, or write yourself an essay: What’s the thought I’m having that’s causing distress? Where might I be catastrophizing? What’s a more helpful way to frame this thought?
Once you’ve thought it through and written it down, set the thought down and walk away. You’ve been through every angle and there’s nothing more you can do.
Tune out when you need to.
When I was growing up, I used to latch on to every single bit of information I could about viruses and cleanliness. I can tell you exactly how long a germ can live on most surfaces, the most effective methods of cleaning, and the way each popular virus spreads.
Some of that information can be helpful. It’s genuinely good to know how you can stop or prevent a disease from spreading. It becomes unhelpful when the information becomes a source of obsession where you’re trying to learn as much as you can to convince yourself you’ll be okay and control your outcome, or when you’re going into a panic spiral as you learn more and more scary things.
Take a break from the TV and from the internet when you need to. Don’t read every single story of someone getting the virus. Don’t look at the empty shelves too long. Know what you need to know, and understand what you don’t.
Seek out helpful coping mechanisms.
When we’re going through stressful situations, our bodies and our minds find ways to help us feel less scared and more comfortable. We learned these coping mechanisms to survive, but sometimes they can impact us negatively in the long run. Maybe we turn to alcohol, or mindlessly snack. Others might experience compulsions, pick their nails, or even lash out at those around them. These are all ways we’ve found to help ourselves survive — but we were made for more than survival.
If you find yourself feeling stressed and anxious, know that just trying to “quit” unhealthy coping mechanisms cold turkey isn’t going to work. You need to find a new, healthier, more sustainable coping mechanism that helps your mind and your body know you’ll be okay.
There are a lot of coping mechanisms that work for different people, so it’s important to find the one that’s right for you. A healthy coping mechanism will be something you enjoy doing and can feel accomplished in doing. For instance, I love to exercise and to cook. Journaling can help some people get their thoughts out on paper, while others might find solace in talking to a close friend. If you’re not sure what to do to, therapists are a great source to help you walk through what a good coping mechanism might be for you.
Get help when you need it.
I married a psychologist, so I might be a little biased here, but I cannot stress enough how much therapy changed my life. If you are trying your best to cope with this scary situation and you can’t wrap your head around it — or if you know you’re not being rational and you just can’t convince yourself to think otherwise — it’s time to reach out and seek help.
Therapy isn’t about just talking about your childhood and venting about your feelings. It’s an evidence-based, practical way to change your thought patterns and behavior to improve your life. And it’s not something that has to last forever, either — many therapists will work with you on a short, maybe six-week plan that sets you up for success.
So don’t let your pride or your fear get in the way of living a full, happy life. You are worthy of joy and peace — even when things are really scary.