With months to go until certain restrictions ease, the pandemic may seem like a never-ending punishment. While staying home and avoiding travel is not even remotely like actual prison time, there is one thing you can learn from inmates who adapt best to long sentences: They define (or redefine) what matters, said Mitch Abrams, a psychologist who oversees mental health services for state prisons in New Jersey, US.
Abrams often asks his patients a series of questions, like what and who is important to you? What would you want your legacy to be? And what are you willing to do to make your reality as best you can under these circumstances? And this one: “We are social beings. Circumstances sometimes make it more challenging to build, foster and nurture relationships. How can you nurture your relationship with yourself, so that you can then do the same for your relationships with others?”
Abrams said working in prisons for 21 years has taught him two things. The first is that humans are incredibly resilient and adaptable; the second is that happiness comes from within. “The more you are able to appreciate what you have, the better off you’ll be,” he said. “I don’t necessarily mean material things. It could be your sanity, it could be your health.”
Stay in the moment.
Endurance sports psychology tells us that the body is capable of far more than the brain believes. (If someone had told you in March how long the pandemic would last, would you have thought you could handle it?) So focus on the moment, not the big picture.
Anxiety comes from casting yourself into the future, but “if you keep your energy in the present moment, and you’re not contemplating how many more miles you have, it can feel easy at times,” said Jo Daniels, a senior lecturer in clinical psychology at the University of Bath, in England, and an author on a study about what causes anxiety and depression in lockdown.
How do you stay in the moment? There are all kinds of mindfulness exercises, but one is to list five things for which you’re grateful, however small — yes, a hot cup of coffee counts. When you’re feeling overwhelmed, think only about what you need to do to get through the next hour or the next day — not the next week or the next month.
Daniels’ pandemic study found negative coping strategies — like repeatedly overeating and excess drinking — had more of an impact on people’s levels of anxiety and distress than more positive coping strategies, like seeking support. “The message is, ‘Try to do the good things, but definitely don’t do the bad things,” Daniels said. No one is suggesting your end-of-day cocktail or afternoon cake needs to go. Problems arise if you use these things repeatedly to change your mood — and you feel guilty about that afterward, she said.
If you feel as if you’re a hostage to the pandemic, well, that’s because it does have one thing in common with actually being held captive. It presents a fundamentally uncertain fate, said Emma Kavanagh, a former police and military psychologist in South Wales who has taught about the psychology of hostage negotiation. Those who mentally fare best in hostage situations often work to regain some measure of control over their environment, whether it’s declaring, “I will walk 100 steps around my cell today” or “I will do 50 pushups.”
“Having something we can decide upon and activate can help restore that sense of control,” Kavanagh wrote in an email. Exercise is a good choice because it boosts endorphins, but your something doesn’t have to involve sweating. It can be anything that makes you feel in control of your own daily experience, whether that is a routine or a small daily ritual.
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