If you were asked to describe this season of your life, this year, what words would you use? Perhaps you’d call it challenging or exhausting or even malign 2020 with words not quite suitable for printing here. If we delved into the core of your description and your reasons for describing this time period as such, I believe most of us humans on planet Earth, for once, would come to the same conclusion about this year – it has been marked by extreme uncertainty and by the disruption of our typical routines.
And now, in England, the UK and much of Europe we have entered a second period of isolation, albeit in our case a lighter version than the ‘lockdown’ earlier this year. This second lockdown, again, is something that many of us didn’t quite see coming. The future remains uncertain – Will there be other ‘lockdowns’ in the future? Will a vaccine bring a sense of normalcy and how long will that take? However, we have the same fundamental choice in this period of uncertainty as we do in all things – to resist or accept. Resisting uncertainty and change – insisting that things remain the same, that our routines, traditions, and lives remain completely unchanged in this time, can only bring frustration and disappointment as the situation is so much larger than ourselves and beyond our individual abilities to control.
If you accept the changes, however, accepting that this year has brought us undeniably foul weather and may continue to do so, then you can instead begin to make the choice of how to plan and cope with this lockdown, the disruption of our routines, and the feelings and problems that may arise as a result. It’s important to acknowledge that ‘accepting’ does not mean agreeing with or giving up, but rather choosing to recognize that a difficult situation simply IS and focusing your attention to managing your reaction, your thoughts, actions, and feelings, rather than trying to push against the causal situation. The strength of this skill of acceptance is that it thwarts the feelings of helplessness and futility that can creep in when situations feel beyond our control. You may not control the larger situation, but you do have agency in regards to your reactions. Furthermore, the need for control of ourselves and our lives is not unique to the adults who may be reading this. Developmental psychologists have well-documented the emerging and increasing need for power and control as a key feature of healthy emotional development in childhood. Thus, strengthening children’s abilities to accept, while simultaneously acknowledging and validating their feelings, can be an important part in promoting their emotional health and growing independence as well.
So, now comes the challenging part. How does one ‘accept’ a challenging situation? It is not simply a matter of throwing one’s hands up, muttering “fine, that’s fine,” and pretending all is well. Acceptance is hard work! It requires a plan, paying attention, and practice. In this season of life – with likely even more change to come – perhaps we can think of learning to accept as a sort of preparing the mind for inclement winter weather.
With that analogy in mind, here’s how to weatherproof your mood during these trying times:
- Be prepared
Hopefully, the brief interim between lockdown periods allowed you to do some self-care, connect with others a bit, and return to at least some of your previous routines. Perhaps you felt slightly less drained and at least a bit more restored to your usual self.
Fantastic! Now is the optimal time for you to make a plan – while you’re still feeling OK. Take some time to reflect on the healthy things that you have found helpful in moving you towards positivity over the past few weeks and/or during the previous lockdown. Jot down 4-5 of these things (i.e., texting with a friend, dancing, exercising, a special meal, music, drawing, a luxurious bath, wearing your favorite outfit) – they now constitute your personal psychological first aid kit. Return to them whenever you notice yourself starting to feel low. Particularly focus on things that you are able to do independently, as this will further enhance your feeling of being in control of your mood.
- Stay warm
Continue to give and receive interpersonal warmth – especially if you really don’t feel like doing so. It is perfectly acceptable and healthy to appreciate a quiet moment to yourself, however, be mindful of social withdrawal as it can both herald and worsen a low mood. The ways that we normally connect (like that quick coffee and chat when you run into your friend on the high street) are disrupted right now, so connecting might take more effort than you’re accustomed to. However, it’s worth it! This season is chocked full of meaningful holidays, and understanding ourselves in the context of our connections to our community and others brings meaning to our lives. Not to mention that getting outside of your own head by focusing on someone else can do a world of good for you and them.
- Keep your defenses strong
The mind and the body work as a team. Keep this well-oiled machinery running smoothly by making sure that it’s in good condition. The same things that provide you some resistance to physical illness – getting essential nutrients, getting adequate sleep, managing chronic medical conditions, exercising, and hydrating – boost your resistance to psychological stress. These factors form the barrier between things happening and your (over)reaction to what happened. However, when stressors, nonetheless, begin to pile up and take their toll, act quickly to implement some of the mood-boosting strategies from your psychological tool kit (see #1).
These strategies may seem simple but they are both challenging and powerful when put into practice. During these turbulent times, I challenge you to give active, effortful acceptance a try. I sincerely believe that you’ll find yourself feeling lighter and more in control, no matter the weather.
Bobbi K. Isaac, PhD, Clinical Psychologist
For more information about promoting family and child psychological wellbeing during a pandemic, watch Bobbi’s presentation at the Friends of SCHS virtual parents’ evening at https://vimeo.com/462153158 (Password: friends).