We Need to Learn How to Live Here Now
Daily insights on life in the face of uncertainty, by psychiatrist and habit change specialist Dr. Jud Brewer
Today’s column is about how to use this unusual situation we’re all living through to set good mental habits instead of creating or adding to unhealthy ones.
My wife and I live in Massachusetts, which has a shelter-in-place order in effect. We’ve been doing the right thing and staying home unless we absolutely have to leave the house. We went out to buy groceries the other day. At Trader Joe’s, the shelves were pretty bare. My wife asked the clerk why, and he said that the staff restocks every night, but people come in early and buy everything up. That’s a perfect example of panic buying. Although there is no food shortage, we create the illusion of one when we act like it.
Panic causes the thinking part of our brains to go offline. Panic puts us in survival mode. And panic is contagious. On the opposite end of the spectrum from panic buying is the practice of pandemic denying. This is also a fear response, but it takes the form of acting tough and saying that everyone else is overblowing this situation.
Sadly, both fear responses ignore the real danger — that there is a deadly virus spreading and we lack adequate testing and protections.
Though access to testing has slightly improved in the U.S., we’re still behind. Without mass testing in place, we have no idea how far the coronavirus has spread. It is critical for us all to work together to protect our families and communities by sheltering in place, even if we aren’t in an epicenter. It is also critical for us to keep our thinking brains online and thinking, so we prevent ourselves from swinging to either extreme panic or denial.
As with any new set of circumstances, our brains have to learn how to work in pandemic times.
Think of this as “good mental hygiene” which, like washing our hands, keeps us from spreading panic and denial to others through social contagion. We have to start practicing this today, not tomorrow, not when it gets worse, because the growth curves are showing that this virus is still spreading and the lack of testing almost guarantees that these curves will not flatten as soon as we’d like them to.
As with any new set of circumstances, our brains have to learn how to work in pandemic times. For example, when you move into a new house or apartment, it can feel overwhelming at first, as you try to figure out where everything goes. The first week of being in your new place is a critical period because that’s when you set up your new habits and routines. And those habits and routines stick with you for years, and sometimes the rest of your life.
We’ve all just experienced a forced eviction from our daily “normal” lives. Everything in our personal and work lives has been disrupted. So much about the world has been disrupted. We’re all in this critical period where a lot is uncertain and uncomfortable and yet we need to learn how to live here now.
What follows are five helpful habits to get you through — all of which you can start today. Feel free to review my last five columns for the science of how each one works.
1. Whenever you notice that something triggers stress or anxiety, nip it in the bud before it feeds on itself by doing two things. First, take a few deep breaths or ground your awareness in your feet for 30 seconds. Count up to 30 if you need to, to make sure you don’t cut this short. This will help you stay calm. Second, notice any urges to go on social media or call someone. Don’t pick up the phone if you’re freaked out. Prevent the spread of anxiety via social contagion.
2. Make connection the new infection. If you feel the urge to pick up the phone or go on social media, ask yourself: What do I need right now (not what do I want)? Often we simply need connection. Spread connection by giving your spouse or kids a solid hug, or cuddle with your pet if you have one or if you are feeling calm, call a friend.
3. I explained in an earlier column how your brain treats the news like a slot machine, so don’t get addicted to checking the news. Set limits of checking two to three times a day, and like cutting off caffeine and alcohol intake in the evening so you can sleep, do not check the news before going to bed. Also, just like smokers are deprived of nicotine after sleep and jones for a morning cigarette, if you find yourself craving news when you first wake up, don’t let it be the first thing you do.
4. Take it one day at a time. Remember your brain doesn’t like uncertainty, and it gets stuck in “what if” habit loops when it tries to plan for the future. You need information to plan. You probably don’t have enough information to plan for next month, or even two weeks from now. Practice taking life day by day, or even hour by hour, to keep you calm and thinking.
5. There’s a meme going around that people will either lose 50 pounds or gain 100 pounds when all of this is over. Make sure you nourish yourself with healthy food. If you need a new vice, turn to kindness instead of ice cream. It is sweeter and doesn’t give you a belly ache from eating too much.
As your new foundation starts to form, make sure you cement these healthy mental habits that will help you not only today, but for the rest of your life.
Onward together. I’ll have more to share tomorrow. If you’re interested in a video recording of this material, I’ve created one here.