How to stay mentally healthy when everything is out of control
Let me tell you about the time I bought my first new car. It was 1998. I was working my first nursing job and could finally buy a car that wasn’t older than me, one with heat. I was so excited. I went with Mark (my husband) and we picked a car fairly easily, a 1997 white Kia Sportage, price reduced since the owner had used it to commute and it had 1000 miles on it. It was a perfect day. Not only was I getting a new car, but I was also meeting a college friend and her fiance for dinner.
So we wrap up around 4 pm, one of us would drive the new car home and one would take the car we had come in. It was just enough time to drive the 30 min home, get cleaned up and drive the hour to meet my friend Maureen at the halfway point between our homes, a cool restaurant on the river that we both had wanted to try, but didn’t know the name of.
“Go ahead,” said the salesman. “We will do the final detailing on the car” (since it had 1000 miles on it) “and get you out of here right away.”
I hope you see where this is going. We had already been there for hours, how much longer could it take?
So I get home and get all ready to go. One hour passes, no Mark. Two hours pass, no Mark. I go from aggravation at my husband (natural first inclination) to fear. Keep in mind, it is 1998. I had a cell phone for emergencies, this is back when you would pay per minute of use, but neither Mark nor Maureen had a cell phone. Ironically, I only had a cell phone because I drove such crappy cars my dad was afraid I would get stranded somewhere (which had happened). So I hear nothing from Mark. I call the dealer, it’s closed. Nothing to do but wait,and wait some more.
My thoughts start going crazy. Something terrible has happened. The dealer is closed, he isn’t there. Mark either stopped somewhere to show someone the car, no respect for me at all, or worse yet he was in an accident. I can’t reach Maureen because I don’t even know the name of the restaurant. Understandably, she is going to be furious and hurt. We had this planned for a long time. Another hour goes by, it’s now 9:00. I start calling emergency rooms. For real. I called all 3 of the local hospitals asking if he had come in. I was freaking out. Mark was dead, I would foreclose on our home because I couldn’t swing the mortgage myself. I couldn’t pay for a funeral. I would die old and after being alone for years, AND my friend Maureen would never talk to me again (although maybe she would forgive me since I was now a widow).
At 9:40 Mark walks in the door. In one piece. ALIVE. He had been waiting in the service department of the dealership which apparently was open well after the showroom closed. The detailing took hours and he had to wait, with no way to contact me.
As fate would have it, Maureen and I are still friends.
Why do I tell you all this? To illustrate a point that our thoughts dictate how we feel. Crazy, stressed-out thoughts make you feel awful.
It is easy to have scary thoughts right now. The medical crisis we face is a real one. There are a lot of things we have no control over. The good news is the one thing we do have control over is how we feel. Yup, I will say it again, you can control how you feel.
Feelings are always prompted by a thought- not the other way around. This is super important and a little counter-intuitive. We get confused because we are usually conscious of how we feel, good or bad, because feelings are accompanied by physical symptoms, tightness, heaviness, change in breathing, tears, palpitations. Our thoughts are sometimes a little harder to find.
So the first step is to see what you are thinking- I find I usually need to write it down, bullet points about my day, about my life, about my relationships, about my weight, my work, whatever I need to focus on. If you aren’t the writing type, another option is to have a conversation with a friend and listen to what you are actually saying. Try and find the rabbit hole story you are telling yourself and look for themes or major thoughts. Here are some of mine:
People should be staying home and stop endangering everyone
I am afraid the people I love are going to get sick
We can’t survive on just one income.
I always eat crap to cope.
Stay with me on this, your brain may be telling you right now that I am crazy, that thoughts are hardwired and can’t be changed. Here is my ninja mind trick for staying mentally healthy during times of crisis; try adding a modifier to the thought or rephrasing the thought. Here are some examples:
People should stay home, but no matter what I am going to do the right thing.
I am afraid the people I love are going to get sick. If they do get sick I am going to find a way to support them.
I am afraid the people I love are going to get sick, which is a totally normal fear right now. I am going to continue to show up as the person I want to be even if I am afraid.
If we have a change in our income we will figure it out. I am good at figuring things out.
I always eat crap to cope. Controlling what I eat is going to make me feel better right now, not worse. OR I am going to brainstorm ways to cope that don’t involve food and make a list. My food is not outside of my control.
You get the idea. Try it. You may need to play with some different thoughts to see what feels right or believable to you. What’s amazing is if you do this for a few minutes every day, the skill gets even easier and you can start to do it in the moment, when you recognize the thoughts in real-time.
All we can really control is how we think. You may argue that we can control how we act, which is true, but our actions are a reflection of how we feel, and how we feel is a manifestation of our thoughts. It all goes back to thoughts. Trying to act against how we feel is not sustainable, it’s way too exhausting. This is the key to staying mentally healthy and avoiding burnout. Manage your mind instead of letting it manage you.
Let me know if you try it and what you think (hee hee). Leave a comment below!