Dr. Barling's Blog

Navigating These Unprecedented Times

We need to frequently remind ourselves of this — we are living in crazy, unprecedented times. But that does not mean that we are “crazy” or that we have to become “crazy.”

We’ve never been here before. Our world today is very different and in many ways, quite frightening. We’ve all heard it said in recent months that, “There are no rules anymore.” We don’t know what to expect today will bring, much less tomorrow. Our usual routines, habits, and social interactions are all changed. The resulting uncertainty is overwhelming and anxiety provoking.

We are creatures of habit and depend on predictability, structure, and the habits that provide routine. The human brain is an incredible information-processing organ. We seek predictability so we do not have to continuously analyze, evaluate, consider response options, and commit ourselves to a “reasoned” action. When we are faced with a new situation or learn new information, we have to go through this process. When we encounter a familiar situation, we respond with an automatic, mindless default response; this is the foundation of a habit. Responding with such a default action frees us to cognitively process more efficiently throughout the day. In the middle of this pandemic, we confront unfamiliar situations daily. Thus, old habits don’t work and we can be overwhelmed with the need to constantly analyze situations in order to choose how to respond.

Uncertainty is the primary result of these unprecedented times. Uncertainty creates anxiety. Tremendous uncertainty creates tremendous anxiety. Unfamiliar situations are fraught with uncertainty, causing us to proceed cautiously.  

During this pandemic, so many of our familiar situations have changed. Our familiar greetings for friends and family have changed. Shopping, banking, attending religious services, participating in and attending sporting and cultural events are all curtailed. Even the religious services themselves, which provide comfort and support for many, are not the same. Going to our health care providers is now a complicated, more formal process. For a very large part of our population, our jobs have changed drastically and, for many, have ended altogether. Many of us are now working from home, which confronts us with new situations, some subtle while others are dramatic. All of these and other factors have left all of us with more uncertainty in a time when our usual means of receiving support are greatly reduced.  

Prolonged anxiety is a serious mental health concern. As the uncertainty of today’s world continues, we all are at risk for developing depression, another serious mental health concern. As the pandemic continues, it is increasingly more difficult to maintain hope, optimism, and faith – all of which are buffers against the damage of prolonged anxiety and depression.

In such challenging and threatening times, what can we do?

1. Keep Perspective 

These are definitely crazy times. We need to frequently remind ourselves of this — we are living in crazy, unprecedented times. But that does not mean that we are “crazy” or that we have to become “crazy.” In our culture, we have a tendency to blame the individual, including ourselves, for the situation or circumstances we are in. In this pandemic, when we experience the growing anxiety and depression, it is easy for us to think “I’m doing something wrong…I must be going crazy.” We are not as prone to remind ourselves that we are living in “crazy, unprecedented times” and that is we may be so stressed. Our perspective is critical to our mental health in these times.

2. Limit News Media Consumption 

Research from previous public health crises tells us  when risk information is communicated in a consistent and authoritative way, people learn and benefit from it. In these highly politicized times, information can be greatly biased. We must evaluate the trustworthiness of the information we take in. Research also tells us that too much media of any kind can undermine mental health. So, limiting our consumption may help to reduce our anxiety.

3. Increase our Resilience

Psychologists define resilience as the process of adapting well in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats, or significant sources of stress. The following are actions that can increase our resilience: 

– Prioritize our Supportive Connections to Others

– Foster Wellness

– Find Purpose in our Daily Lives

– Embrace healthy thoughts

– Seek help when it’s needed

(source: American Psychological Association)

Indeed, these are unprecedented times.  Most of us have never been challenged so greatly before.  Even so, we must recognize that we can do something to help us cope. In doing so, we can experience influence over our circumstances and counter our feelings of helplessness. 

STAY MINDFUL…STAY HOPEFUL…STAY TOGETHER

– Dr. Barling

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