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Coping with Uncertainty in Troubling Times

Written by: Don Zaksek, PhD, LP

As a clinical psychologist who oversees a small practice, I’ve spent many hours over the past few weeks discussing COVID 19. People’s fears, frustration, sadness, loneliness, guilt and shame have been an ever-present topic and remain on the forefront of my mind. Sometimes my friends and family ask if I feel personally overwhelmed or discouraged as I spend my days immersed these topics. I honestly don’t feel that way. As I reflect on it, the reason is this: My job gives me the privilege to witness how people think and feel at the deepest level during a time of crisis… and its inspiring.

Elizabeth Kubler Ross, a legendary Swiss-American Psychiatrist, states “There are only two emotions: love and fear…. but it’s more accurate to say love or fear because we cannot feel these emotions at the exact same time…. when we’re in a place of love, we cannot be in a place of fear.” People are definitely afraid right now. Yet, in my patients I invariably witness a deep commitment and care for others- even though they often can’t see it in themselves. This love manifests as concern for a parent, for the vulnerable in society, for their children, for their friends or for their country or the world. This goodness is indelibly and consistently impressed upon my mind.

So my first recommendation for coping during these difficult times is this: Look inside yourself and acknowledge both the fear and the love. Quoting Kubler Ross again… “From fear comes anger, hate, anxiety and guilt.” These emotions are normal and present in all of us. Acknowledge them but don’t let them rule your decisions and actions. Now reflect at the love or care you experience inside. You may have to dig deep if you are currently immersed in fear or anger. Try to focus on a person, animal or cause for which you care. Then engage… do something positive to make your corner of the world a better place. Choose three to five acts or care or kindness per day. You will help those around you and also help yourself.

My second recommendation is a strategy to cope with worry. It comes from a philosophy that is deeply rooted in “Twelve Step” programs and has helped many to live meaningful and productive lives when dealing with a restless mind. This can be said as a prayer a philosophy depending on your spiritual beliefs. It states “Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” Look carefully at what is on your mind. If it is something under your control, develop a constructive plan to address it. If it is something out of your control, gently make efforts to let it go. It is very normal to struggle with this. When you find yourself worrying about something you cannot control, it may help to offer it up in prayer or to practice meditation. Two excellent meditation apps are the Headspace and Calm app.

My next recommendation is to structure your day. Science tells us that we all benefit from having a routine. During the quarantine, I recommend getting up at the same time every day, and to have a list of values-consistent activities. Get creative with this. Ideally, it will involve a physical activity, something social (distanced of course), something productive, and a personal or creative interest.

Finally, I’d like to emphasize the importance of remaining socially engaged during this time. An insightful patient told me this week… “You know, we really shouldn’t use the term ‘social distancing’ because that’s not helping anyone. Physical distancing is what’s needed.” He was absolutely correct. Stay social and get creative with it. Ideas may include texting, sharing a funny meme, phoning a loved one or meeting a friend outdoors while remaining physically distanced. A “drink on the driveway” or a hike in the woods with a friend can be very helpful at a time like this.

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