As we enter the coming months as survivors of a year-long pandemic, you may find yourself having mixed emotions.
For many, including myself, the COVID vaccine means a chance to return to a more normal life. Our lives, though, will never be normal in the sense of returning to the pre-pandemic past. We were all forced to change by an invisible virus that took the lives of many of our friends and family. We were forced to change our work habits, life patterns, ability to socialize, and the chance to celebrate holidays and special occasions in traditional ways. This was a dramatic change that no one planned for.
At some point, hopefully, in 2021, we will be able to re-establish some of those previous patterns and resume visiting family, socializing in larger groups, and singing, dancing, and hugging those we love. However, it will never be "normal" in the sense of the normalcy of the past. We all have experienced some level of trauma, even if it was a disruption of our daily routines. Others have experienced more significant trauma with losing a job, family members' death, loss of a home, or ongoing health issues caused by COVID or made more challenging to manage because of COVID.
Even as communities and activities open up, you may find yourself struggling with intense or different emotions, including sadness and anxiety. Why would these emotions present at a time when things are improving? One answer is that you are finally letting yourself feel emotions that you have had for some time. Typically, in times of disaster or crisis (of which this past year has been for many reasons), we instinctively focus on dealing with the present problems. We need to do this to make sure we are physically and emotionally safe. There may not have been a time in the day to take an inventory of your feelings, nor the emotional support to feel them. Finally, when the chaos seems to lessen, you subconsciously allow yourself to begin feeling again. This often starts as reflecting on the last several months, how you survived, and how you plan to move ahead again, with even more changes. We tend to gravitate towards feeling comfortable, and although isolation from others was certainly not comfortable to begin with, you likely have adapted. Eventually, moving to more socialization (when the time is safe to do so) may actually feel overwhelming because it again presents another change in your life. The reality is that how we socialize in the future will probably be different than it ever was in the past, at least to some degree.
With these reflections, we may also experience intense grief. Even if you do not directly know of someone who died of COVID, you probably know someone who had a family member or friend that did. We are also grieving the loss of our previous way of life and time spent away from family members and friends. You may question if your grief is "warranted" because you may know others that have experienced worse, but grief is grief regardless of the extent.
Having an awareness of the stages of grief, including denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance, may help you recognize where you are in the grieving process and allow you opportunities to heal and move on in a healthy way.
You may also be grieving over lost opportunities, perhaps you had goals that you could not accomplish because of various circumstances, or you had to put plans and dreams on hold. When critically analyzing your situation, an important consideration is to add the phrase, "…in the midst of a pandemic," to your self-comments. It is not an excuse but a reminder that day to day life was more difficult because of the pandemic.
Remember, it is never too late to "begin" changes you may have wanted to make. Instead of analyzing what you "should or should not" have done during this past pandemic year, consider asking yourself, "Now that I am at this point, what do I want to happen from here?" Give yourself credit for surviving a year, the likes of which have not been experienced in over 100 years.
I share a personal story that has helped me to navigate through this past year. My grandfather survived the 1918 influenza pandemic while in France in WWI. He was a country farmer with only an 8th-grade education. He lived into his 80's with a family and multiple grandchildren.
Many people might have asked what his contribution was to the world. My answer would be, "He survived." He survived in a time when many his age died. He then survived through the Great Depression and another world war. His life was not easy, but he continued to live life to the best of his ability. Given what we have experienced in this past year, I have a new appreciation for what it took for my grandfather to survive.
We can take the wisdom of those that came before us and use it as fuel to continue our journey. Each day offers us an opportunity to keep moving ahead, even if it seems like small steps. Consider taking a personal inventory of how you have survived the last year and feel the feelings that come up. Talk to a supportive friend or family member, or therapist if the feelings are overwhelming.
There is healing to be done but give yourself credit for surviving this year. You are worth the investment.
©2021 Peggi White Behavioral Health
As this marathon pandemic continues, we face almost daily change and challenges that require us to adapt and respond in new ways. How can we develop resilience or the ability to persevere through adversity? We all have some level of resilience from the day to day challenges we’ve survived in the past. Reminding yourself of how you endured and dealt with those challenges might bring new insights for strategies that you can use now. Recognition that you have survived all your past trials may boost your confidence in taking on new ones. If you find that more skills are needed, or you simply want to improve your ability to endure and persevere in hard times, read on.
First, reflect on how you survived previous difficulties, even if they were not significant issues. Often it’s small steps that get you started. Make a list of “ways you got through tough times” and what worked best. Evaluate if those strategies had positive or negative consequences and whether they might be helpful in your current situation. If some strategies were particularly beneficial, try them again and adapt them to meet your current needs.
Most importantly, challenge negative thoughts that you “should” be able to deal with this. These are unusual and extraordinary times, so give yourself the benefit of the doubt. You are doing the best you can under the circumstances. Focus your energy on what you want to improve in your life. If negative thoughts pop up in your head, acknowledge the feeling, challenge the negative idea, and concentrate on a positive solution or action.
Consider utilizing and expanding your social support network. Just like reflecting on how you have made it through tough times, consider your friend group. Who leaves you feeling positive and energized, and who saps your energy? Consider your effect on others as well. Sometimes reconnecting with a friend or family member to touch base may rekindle a positive relationship and support. Even if all you discuss is how you are getting by, it opens the door to more meaningful situations in the future, and the result is both of you feel less isolated. Find fun ways to connect, such as texting a joke to each other daily or sending a coded message your friend has to decode. Spontaneous kindness is beneficial for the giver as well as the recipient.
How do you develop and strengthen your capacity for resilience? Janna Cachola said, “Resilience is not about being able to bounce back like nothing has happened. Resilience is your consistent resistance to giving up.” Resilience has a lot to do with your beliefs and the power of your everyday choices. Developing resilience means you continue to focus on what you can do instead of what you cannot. It’s taking a realistic look at your current situation and saying, “How can I make the best of this?” It is reminding yourself that you have survived tough times, and this time is no exception. It is looking within at beliefs and thoughts that might hold you back and how you can change those thoughts to a more positive and productive one.
I like this quote by T.B. LaBerge, “You’ll have moments when you feel like a lion, and moments when you feel like a mouse. No matter how you feel, you still have a heartbeat and a soul worthy of love. So roar when you are feeling small because you are more than the feelings you have”. Become resilient. You are worth the investment.
©2020 Peggi White Behavioral Health
Living Through the Coronavirus Pandemic
These last few weeks have brought about rapidly evolving change in our lives. We are facing obstacles and uncertainties unlike any other time in our experience. All this has left many at a loss of how to cope and brought anxiety and fear about the future.
First things first, focus on safety. Do what do you need to do to keep you and your family safe which includes distancing from others, staying at home if you can, and thorough hand-washing. Heed the warnings of those in charge and take their guidance seriously. You may not be worried about your own health but realize that you could carry the disease to others even if you don’t feel sick. Be especially mindful of those in your life who are at high risk and do what you can to protect them.
Pay attention to keeping a daily routine which will provide structure and a sense of stability. Try to get up and go to bed around the same times. If you need to, create a schedule for your day, even if it’s tasks around the house or calling specific friends. If you find it difficult to focus, eliminate distractions, only listening to the media or checking your phone every few hours. Turn notifications off of your phone if you must. If you are working “remotely”, make yourself a comfortable work area even if it means converting a table into a desk in the corner of the room.
Next, consider what options you have to limit your stress given the new restrictions. Try not to focus on what you are missing or what you can’t do. Focus instead on what is within your power to control. Consider what your needs are such as to be active, or to socialize, or to relax. Think creatively about ways you can meet those needs in new (and healthy) ways that work with your individual situation and restrictions. Try a new workout video, find a new hobby, create trivia games through social media with your friends to find out how well you really know them.
If you find yourself not sleeping well or becoming increasingly anxious, focus on your breathing, taking long deep breaths from your belly and slowly letting it out. Find videos on mindfulness and practice it, starting with just a few minutes each day, gradually increasing the time. Give yourself positive messages such as “We will get through this” or “I can handle what today brings”. Being positive doesn’t mean you are ignoring the obvious, it means you are choosing to look for the good.
If you are considering using substances to help cope, consider this. Alcohol and other substances (including marijuana) negatively affect your immune system. Right now, you need your immune system to work at its best capacity. So do everything in your power to focus on healthy self-care, good sleep, good nutrition, stress management and not using substances so your body has its best chance to fight the coronavirus if exposed. If you are struggling with staying sober, try online 12 step meetings or call a treatment center.
Lastly, consider doing something for others. Reach out to others who are struggling and help how you can in a way that doesn't compromise yourself. A simple phone call or text indicating that you care and are concerned for that person could make all the difference in someone's day. Be the light for someone else.
Try to live one day at a time, use the extra time you have at home to focus on you, your self-care, positive thinking and finding the good in each day. We will get through this. We are in this together. At the end of the day, you need hope and strength. Hope that it will get better and strength to hold on until it does. Be safe. Stay well. You are worth the investment.
©2020 Peggi White Behavioral Health
First Things First
Often when we are attempting to change thoughts and behaviors, we make long term goals and then become frustrated and disappointed when we aren’t able to effect change. Change takes time and it occurs sometimes in fits and starts (sporadically). We create expectations that we aren’t able to meet and that dashes our hopes of success. Sometimes we institute behavioral changes but don’t have the underlying infrastructure in place to keep the changes sustainable.
How can we incorporate the 12 step slogan “First Things First” into our thinking to help facilitate change? First Things First can mean focusing on self-care first. The flight attendant’s directions to put the oxygen on yourself first is an example of that. You can’t help anyone else if you don’t take care of your own basic needs. Some people spend a lot of energy taking care of others, which is honorable, but sacrifice their own needs in the process. Ultimately it affects their ability to meet the needs of others as well as their own needs. This means sometimes setting boundaries with others and saying “No”. When evaluating how you spend your time, take into consideration your needs and responsibilities before agreeing to a responsibility. Just because you are capable of doing the task doesn’t mean you should. Instead of thinking, “If I don’t, who will?” consider it an opportunity for someone to “step up to the plate”. Everyone needs to play a part and everyone needs to take responsibility. Sometimes people need help understanding that and may be enlightened when someone else takes a step back.
First Things First can mean preparing first. Attempting to change behaviors without the underlying infrastructure in place will create obstacles for success. A common example is when a person decides to quit smoking. Many people “just decide” today is the day to quit. They might have a motivator like a respiratory illness or guilt over the cost so they just decide to quit. The old adage from Ben Franklin, “When you fail to plan, you are planning to fail” says it best. You need to put thought and energy into setting up a plan (infrastructure). Refer back to the stages of change (see December’s blog) and put effort into deciding your motivators for change, prepare for the change by looking into what tools and resources you will need and what obstacles you may encounter. It will be well worth your investment to build a successful foundation.
Lastly, First Things First also means learning to prioritize. This means understanding the basic foundation everything else depends on. Ask yourself, “What is most important to me? What needs to happen so everything else can follow?” Then put those ideas down. What comes first? Sobriety? Family? Health and Wellness? When you clearly know your priorities, your decisions will become clear and choices will be easier to make using your values and priorities as your guide. So put your energy into making first things first. You are worth the investment.
©2020 Peggi White Behavioral Health
Knowing What You Can Change
The quote, “Accept what you cannot change, change what you cannot accept” is a variation of the “Serenity Prayer” by Reinhold Niebuhr. The Serenity Prayer is a three stanza poem although most people only know the first 25 words. Regardless of your religious or spiritual beliefs, the Serenity Prayer is packed full of guidance in figuring out what you can change. If the religious references don’t fit with your beliefs, I encourage you to forgo the “prayer” part and just look at the words.
Let’s break it down into smaller phrases. The first part goes, “Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change”. Serenity means an inner calm or peacefulness, even in a time of turbulence or trouble. How do you achieve serenity? Mindfulness is one way (a discussion for another blog). So what are things you cannot change? Things you cannot change include the past, past actions like things we have said or our behavior, other people (you can influence people but you can’t make someone do what you want), what other people think, and your genetics among other things. Why would we need serenity to accept what can’t be changed? As humans we like to think we have a lot of control over our lives, and to some extent we do. We tend to think that we can go back and fix mistakes or “make it right” and everything will go back to normal. And that just generally doesn’t happen. So a lot of angst, anger, and frustration occur when we expend our energy trying to change something we can’t change. It’s hard to accept we aren’t perfect. Our lives are a lot more peaceful though when we do.
The next section goes, “the courage to change the things I can”. Courage is mustering our strength to do tasks (mental or physical) that we are afraid or don’t want to do or merely the will to keep moving ahead when it seems everything is falling behind. What are things we can change? A lot actually. We can change our beliefs, thoughts and behaviors. Our beliefs are ideas we have about what is true. Our beliefs tend to be firmly held and are often related to beliefs we grew up with. Our thoughts come from our belief system, although we are capable of choosing different thoughts if we want. Our behaviors flow from our beliefs and thoughts. For instance, if one believes that working hard will end in success, one tends to think about how to accomplish working hard and our behaviors generally demonstrate that. So one way to think about changing a behavior is to examine the beliefs and thoughts that lead to that behavior. Deciding to change beliefs and thoughts often lead to different behaviors.
The last section of the poem ends with “and the wisdom to know the difference”. Wisdom refers to an inner clarity that leads us into making good decisions. Why do we need wisdom to figure out what we can or cannot change? It’s not always straightforward. We may be able to change one part but not another. We may talk ourselves into believing we can change something we can’t because we so desperately want things to be different. Using a guide of “what is possible for me to change?” and “what do I have to accept so I can move on?” can help you get in touch with that inner wisdom and move you down the path of serenity. You are worth the investment.
©2020 Peggi White Behavioral Health
How the Shame Game Affects Change
In an effort to change, many find there are obstacles that make changing difficult, sometimes overwhelmingly difficult. There are many factors that interfere with changing behaviors. One of the most common is what I refer to as the “shame game”.
Here is the best way to understand shame and guilt. When you do something wrong and feel guilty, you say, “I made a mistake”. However, when a person does something wrong, they may experience shameful thinking that leads to thinking “I am a mistake”. Shame is generally rooted in childhood when shameful messages were heard and internalized. Examples might be a caregiver saying things like “you are a bad kid” or a person judging themselves harshly in comparison to others. Once said or experienced, those thoughts are repeated internally on a regular basis reinforcing the shame. Often shame is triggered by certain emotions or events, like feeling unworthy, making mistakes, or being criticized (even with constructive criticism). A person experiencing a “shame attack” responds sometimes inappropriate to the situation and others are left wondering what brought on such a response. Often, it was shame, that overwhelming feeling that “I’m just not good enough”, that fuels the fiery response in an effort towards self-preservation.
How does shame affect changing behaviors? Changing behaviors requires a person to reach outside their comfort zone and that often leads to making mistakes. Understanding why a mistake was made can be very helpful in finding out what works and what doesn’t and can eventually lead to more successful behaviors. However, an individual that is shame based may fear changing any behavior due to the possibility it might not work out, even when they desperately want to change. If they take small steps to change that ultimately don’t work out, their negative self-talk reinforces the shame, thus paralyzing them in the same behavioral patterns, a very vicious cycle.
So how does one deal with shame? The first step is to recognize when feelings of shame arise and begin to understand the triggers. You may be able to avoid some triggers (like certain friends who make disparaging comments) but some triggers (like constructive criticism) you may need to learn to manage. Remind yourself that regardless of the trigger, you always have a choice how to respond. I often suggest that people imagine that someone else is explaining the exact situation you are experiencing and think about how would you respond to that person. In all fairness, resolve to talk to and treat yourself as well as you would a friend seeking your support and guidance.
Dealing with shame is a process so be gentle with yourself, focusing on what you can control, your beliefs, thoughts and actions. Take a few deep breaths and use positive self-talk to get through the attack. When those feelings have passed, work on your self-talk, reminding yourself of the positive aspects of changing behaviors. You’ll be well on your way to healing. And if you are struggling alone, remind yourself it is perfectly appropriate to seek out a therapist to help you through the process. You are worth the investment.
The Process of Change
At this time of year, people think about changing various aspects of their life. The question or concern is can that change be sustainable? Why is it so difficult to change?
Change is difficult for many reasons, it's uncomfortable, it takes effort, it involves planning, and the results are not always readily apparent. It's also difficult to maintain the motivation to continue with the changed behaviors, especially if the results aren't what we expected.
When contemplating change, it is beneficial to just sit and think about what you want to experience differently in your life and why. Analyzing your motivations for change can provide valuable insights into why and how you need to change. The first steps of changing involve contemplating what that change will look like in your life, including the pros and the cons.
If the decision is to proceed with change, the next step is preparing for the change itself. What tools and resources will you need? Read, explore, and get information about the steps you want to take. This step is often overlooked in the change process. Think about other changes you have made, even if they were very simple. What worked for you? What didn't work for you? How can you adapt those previous strategies that helped you change in the past to what you want to do now? Try some of those approaches and evaluate whether or not they were helpful. This helps you narrow down what is most likely to work for you to achieve success.
Once you have found what seems to be the best plan, begin in earnest to make the changes. Adapt as necessary to make it fit your needs. Realize though, that this is the uncomfortable part, and learn to be ok with being uncomfortable. In fact, incorporate into your plans strategies to deal with feeling uncomfortable, even if it is just reminding yourself that this is a normal part of the process and it will be worth it to make the change.
So on this last day of the year when so many are looking at New Year's resolutions, make your resolution simply be a commitment to making some positive changes in your life. The first step in changing is thinking about changing. If you have read to this point, you are interested in how to make change happen in your life. So there you go - you are already on your way to making positive changes in your life. Tune in for future blogs about changing and how to sustain change. You are worth the investment.
©2019 Peggi White Behavioral Health
Peggi White, MSN, FPA-APRN, CADC, MAC. Nurse Practitioner with 33 years mental health/addictions experience, helping people to be their best...