I recently ran across an article at the Washington Post by Jelena Kecmanovic, founding director of the Arlington/DC Behavior Therapy Institute and an adjunct professor of psychology at Georgetown University, with some “science-based tips” for resilience during the coronavirus crisis.
I find her tips helpful, so I want to pass some of them them along here, as they’re easily summarized — and I want to push them further, to the level of a “cure,” as the psychologist Anthony de Mello often put it — not just “relief.”
Accept negative emotions
She points out that it’s skillful to not push away negative emotions that will naturally arise. These include (you can name them yourself by this time):
- feelings of helplessness
She recommends, rightly enough as far as it goes, to accept these negative emotion, and to not try to push them away or escape from them. “Notice negative emotions, thoughts, and physical sensations as they come up,” Kecmanovic says. “Look into them with curiosity, describe them without judgment, and let them go.”
By letting them arise and then depart, with simple mindfulness, we’ll see them leave more quickly, and remain with us a shorter time.
All too often, this common and useful advice isn’t taken far enough. We’re told to accept negative emotions, and not to try to fight them or escape them.
And that’s correct, but I think going one level deeper is helpful. Deep down, anyone employing this useful tactic of mindfulness is trying to escape the negative emotions. Is trying to fight them. So I think that is worth admitting.
All too often, people take the advice of “accept your negative emotions” as meaning: Your negative emotions are valid enough to hang onto. But this can lead to an endless dependence on others for emotional support, or an endless clinging to a victim mentality which leaves us paralyzed.
Some negative emotions are highly adaptable. They give you energy for taking an action that will reduce your risk. Anger generates an ability to fight, so that you’re more likely to win an important battle. Fear generates energy for taking precautions. And so on.
But once you’ve taken reasonable action, you can consider that negative emotion invalid, if it persists.
Your persisting negative emotions are not valid. That’s good news. Why would you want to validate them?
They are the result of irrational thinking. The result of wishful thinking. The result of illusions about the way the world “should” be. Or what you “must” have in order to feel ok.
You are valid. Your persisting negative emotions are not valid.
And so, I would suggest changing the label on that particular bit of advice from Kekmanovic:
Never accept your persisting negative emotions as valid. Instead:
- Observe your negative emotions by noticing how they feel in your body.
- Ask yourself if your negative emotion is alerting you to an action you should take to minimize risk. If so, then use the energy from that emotion to take that action as soon as possible.
- Notice the story behind a persisting negative emotion. (It usually contains an insistence that reality be different from what it actually is. “I can’t be content unless I’m not in the middle of this covid-19 crisis,” “I must never be subject to the danger of an infectious disease, or to financial ruin,” etc. ) (The fact is, millions of people through the centuries have been subject to all kinds of disasters, and have found ways to be content while they give meaning and enthusiasm to personal and communal effort. You can too. Simply by dropping irrational demands of reality.)
- Look for the “ought” or “should” or “must be / must not be” behind them.
- See through that unrealistic demand.
- Look around for what you can enjoy instead of focusing on the unrealistic demands which bring up the negative emotion.
Create new routines
Kecmanovic points out that routines that connect you to what’s meaningful in your life are helpful for good mental health.
“The most helpful routines are the ones that meet essential human needs for competence and relatedness,” says Joel Minden, a clinical psychologist at Chico Center for Cognitive Behavior Therapy.
I agree with that one. I might put it differently, less clinically.
I might say, “If you have some free time in your schedule, then create the routines you always wished you could.”
Kecmanovic points out how easy this is in the age of YouTube. You can learn anything. Gardening. Piano. Yoga.
You can learn Japanese. Or all the minor 7th chords on a guitar. Or growing tomatoes. And in a crisis, especially a slow-motion one like the covid-19 virus crisis, is the perfect time to learn emotional resilience.
I would re-label this bit of advice from Kecmanovic as well:
Gain new rewarding skills — and create regular “no-routine” time
I’d put it as “gain new skills,” because it’s not just a new routine you want — say, a new routine of polishing your shoes, or keeping the gutters clean now that you finally have the time to do it. Rather, it’s a new rewarding skill that you want. And those can only be acquired by a dedicated routine.
Looking at it that way — as gaining new, rewarding skills — will also give you much more enthusiasm and motivation. Consider the difference in how these two feel:
- Time to do my new routine of dancing on the hardwood floor
- Time to practice the ________ (name your dance) and get a little closer to mastering it.
The second results in focus. In enthusiasm. And in a much more regular routine — although that’s hardly the point.
I’d also add: more importantly, make something like birdwatching one of your “routines”.
It’s healthy, for most Americans reading this, to spend less structured time. Go outside in this Springtime of Covid-19. Focus on your breath. Focus on the birdsong you hear.
- Focus on the blossoms of a specific branch of a specific tree.
- Focus on an animal that you hunt and kill — or photograph — alone.
- Focus on a fish that you catch and eat — or release — alone.
- Focus on anything, singularly, long enough to begin to feel your own existence.
Your own existence as someone real, grounded, a being who can join with others, with institutions.
But a being who doesn’t need to be connected with your workplace, or your club, or your set, in order to feel perfectly real and perfectly full of meaning and contentment.