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Coping and Mental Health during the Pandemic: 

Acceptance & Self-Compassion

March 25, 2020

Dr. Thomas Lindquist, Psy.D.

Licensed Clinical Psychologist

Recognizing and acknowledging the impact of the pandemic on our psychological self is essential to coping with stress and maintaining calm in our relationships.

Coping with the ongoing stress and uncertainty of today can lead to a number of symptoms that can impact our daily functioning and relationships. It is important to recognize and acknowledge such symptoms and work to take an accepting approach to ourselves and our loved ones. We are all going to be at least “a little off.”

Common reactions you might experience to varying degrees include:

•Difficulty making decisions or concentrating

•Feeling numb or emotionally detached

•Reoccurring thoughts about the pandemic

•Intrusive thoughts involving worst-case scenarios

•Derealization or a sense that you are living a dream or movie

•Irritability or anger

•Grief about what is being missed or lost

•Loss of control and disconnection

•Feelings of powerlessness or helplessness

•Sudden or unexpected waves of emotion

•Sadness or depressed mood

•Difficulty sleeping or falling asleep

•Increased alcohol or drug use

It is helpful to recognize if you are experiencing these reactions and realize that you are not alone. It is likely that most people are experiencing at least some of these reactions to varying degrees. In addition to acknowledging and accepting your reactions, there are some things you can do that can be helpful:

•Ask for support and talk about how you are feeling

•Find others who can provide empathy, rather than problem-solving or giving advice

•Practice self-compassion and give yourself time to adjust to the many changes that continue to occur daily

•Focus on the present moment and practice mindfulness throughout the day

•Take it one-day-at-a-time or one-hour-at-a-time

•Do things to take care of yourself and find time to exercise or get outside

•Look into a new interest or take time to do things you enjoy

•Engage in the arts by creating art and playing or listening to music

•Incorporate elements of your previous routine when possible; such as taking a morning shower, getting dressed for work, eating a particular weekday breakfast, or exercising at a certain time of day

•Take time to imagine what life will be like when we are able to spend time together again; imagine yourself going to a move, eating out with friends, or shopping in your favorite stores

•Seek professional support through online counseling. Many therapists and psychologists have moved online. Some may even offer reduced fee sessions or pro-bono counseling services for first-line medical professionals and busy workers in life-sustaining industries.

Social support is key. We are social creatures and our mental health is largely connected to a sense of social connection and social interest. Be creative with technology and use online video chats to connect:

•Start a support group amongst your friends

•Screen-share a movie together with family or friends

•Begin an online chat or group text message with your close friends

•Have an online social hour and share a glass of wine together

•Share jokes via text

•Think about what skills you can share with others online

In review, it will be helpful to acknowledge your reactions, practice acceptance and patience, and creatively engage in self-care and social connection. There is a lot happening in our world today and nobody can be expected to handle it perfectly. Show yourself the same compassion you would show your best friend, your grandmother, or your own small child.  

This Moment, This Moment

March 16, 2020

Dr. Thomas Lindquist, Psy.D.

Licensed Clinical Psychologist

It can easily feel overwhelming when we are faced with uncertainty and an unknown future.  There are many questions that cannot be answered as we deal with the current crisis around the world and in our communities.  We are likely stressed and fearful because of these many unknowns.  In the face of so many questions and persistent waves of anxiety, it can be tremendously helpful to practice focusing on the present moment.  This can be practiced in a number of ways.  Try some of the following approaches to see which might work best for you.

1) Focus on the current hour.  Rather than focusing on the week ahead, or even the entire day, try focusing on what you can do in the present hour and allow yourself to let thoughts of the future pass.  Notice when you feel anxious and ask yourself what you are thinking about.  Chances are you have drifted back into a space of uncertainty while thinking about the future or perhaps the past.  Kindly bring your attention back to the present hour.  

2) Similarly, you might try focusing on one current task or activity, and practice directing you attention back to the present activity when your mind wanders forward or into places of uncertainty, such as when we experience ongoing "what if's."  Focus your attention on accomplishing this task in this moment and you will experience a greater sense of control.  

3) Focus on the moment by connecting with your breath.  We all have a natural means for centering ourselves by using our breath as a steady and regular point of stillness.  This can be perhaps the most challenging when we feel very anxious, but even focusing on your breath for a few moments or practicing slow, deep breathing can make a major different in calming our nervous system and grounding our attention in the present.  Your breath is always ready for you to pay attention to it and ground yourself in the present. 

4) One-day-at-a-time.  This is likely the easiest place to start.  Focusing on the present day or taking your life one day at time has a long history of helping people cope with difficult feelings and urges, such as anxiety or addiction.  Taking things one day at a time allows us to focus our attention on a more manageable context, allowing us to feel less overwhelmed by what we cannot predict and cannot control. Try taking it one-day-at-a-time.  

Shifting into Gratitude

March 8, 2020

Dr. Thomas Lindquist, Psy.D.

Licensed Clinical Psychologist

A number of things can be helpful when dealing with fears or tolerating the uncertainty that fuels anxiety. We know that attention plays a significant role in perpetuating anxiety and fear. The more we pay attention to fear by allowing ourselves to focus on irrational thoughts, the more anxious we feel and the more evidence we look for and find to confirm our fears.

What is the bigger picture? This can be a powerful question when we feel overwhelmed with fear and find ourselves ruminating on negative and often irrational thoughts. Rather than jump around from tree to tree, step back and view the entire forest.

Gratitude can be a great place to shift our attention when we feel overwhelmed. Take a moment and reflect on the people in your life you care about and the things that you have and appreciate. Think also about the basic things that are often taken for granted, such as a roof over your head and healthy food to eat. Shifting our attention to gratitude can be an excellent way to take a break from "feeding the monster," or focusing attention on our irrational fears and the uncertainty we face daily.

Overcoming Fear: Walking with Anxiety

March 1, 2020

Dr. Thomas Lindquist, Psy.D.

Licensed Clinical Psychologist

Anxiety is the most common presenting concern for people seeking any form psychological help. An estimated 19.1% of U.S. adults experience an anxiety disorder in a given year. Past year prevalence of any anxiety disorder was higher for females (23.4%) than for males (14.3%). An estimated 31.1% of U.S. adults experience any anxiety disorder at some time in their lives (Harvard Medical School, 2007).

Before you read any further, it is important to know that anxiety is a normal part of human experience. In fact, some amount of anxiety is adaptive and important for optimal functioning. In moderate amounts, it can actually provide motivation and improve concentration. When anxiety reaches the point of causing significant distress or work/educational, social, or personal impairment, it may be classified as an anxiety disorder.

The experience of anxiety can range from persistent or excessive worry that is difficult to control and involves a wide range of everyday concerns (Generalized Anxiety) to acute anxiety that is often experienced as coming out of nowhere and is often triggered by physical sensations (Panic Attack) and can reoccur with ongoing fears of reoccurrence (Panic disorder). Some people experience intense anxiety across a range of public experiences (Social Anxiety), and others are fearful in places where they believe it would be difficult obtain help if they become anxious (Agoraphobia). The experience of anxiety can be highly specific (Phobia) or it can involve obsessive thoughts and behaviors (Obsessive Compulsive disorder). Anxiety can also be related to medical concerns, substance use, or experiences of trauma. People may also have a combination of these experiences and not every experience of anxiety can be easily classified into these categories.

Worry forms a foundation for anxiety (and often depression for that matter). When our rational, normal fear crosses over to worry, it begins to feed our anxiety. Worry can involve a range of persistent thoughts and images that tend to build or grow, often without our complete awareness of what is happening or the negative impact our worry is having on our bodies and minds.

The central problem in overcoming anxiety is largely related to our cultural norms around getting over problems or fighting off negative influences. For example, people frequently talk about fighting off negative thoughts or getting worries out of their head. Unfortunately, this approach only causes more anxiety. The more we try to fight anxiety, the stronger it becomes.

The key to feeling better is to walk with your anxiety. Of course, your ability to walk with your anxiety and feel better will likely be much greater if you seek support from a credentialed therapist. Nevertheless, you can also begin to take steps on your own and with the support of others in your life.

This may sound counterintuitive, but the first step in coping with your anxiety is to accept that it exists and to step back from the fight. This first step is often difficult and requires ongoing attention as you must continually work on this acceptance. During this time you can also begin to practice simply observing your anxiety. Notice what you are thinking and how your body feels. Some people find it helpful to write down their thoughts or worries. Although challenging irrational thoughts can often be helpful, it is best to focus first on observation and acceptance. In the end, if you are able to accept the discomfort of anxiety and allow yourself to step outside of the fight, it is likely that you will experience a reduction in your distress.

The second step involves practicing new coping skills based on acceptance. The most helpful and common skills involve breathing and grounding exercises. Skills based on mindfulness or directing your attention to your present thoughts, feelings or other experiences as they arise or occur with a non-judgmental attitude are also tremendously helpful to most people. There are many excellent resources with examples of these skills.

The third step to feeling better is to continue to find opportunities to practice the first step. Prior to this step, it is important to feel you have made progress with the first two steps, so that you are better prepared to cope with situations that can increase your distress. You will need to face your anxiety and learn to walk with it by putting yourself in situations where you feel anxious. This also seems counterintuitive, but it will be important for you to practice your new relationship to anxiety.

These three steps can be helpful in reducing your overall anxiety. However, it is essential to understand that the goal is to change your relationship with anxiety, not to fight it off or eliminate it altogether. As described earlier, anxiety is part of the human condition and healthy levels of anxiety can be beneficial. Changing this relationship will take patience, acceptance, and practice, but it is entirely possible to reach a point where anxiety is no longer your enemy.

Happiness & Resilience

February 2, 2020

Dr. Thomas Lindquist, Psy.D.

Licensed Clinical Psychologist

Many of us strive for happiness. Yet, it is not arriving at a point of complete joy that is most important. Rather, practicing a life of contentment involves a daily decision to commit oneself to basic beliefs or personal ideals and to engage deeply in the potential meaning that comes from life itself. Life is not always a happy or easy place to reside. Nevertheless, it may be helpful to consider the awesomeness of existence itself.

Mindfulness in daily living has much to offer in this area (see Jon Kabat-Zinn). Ultimately, it is when we realize that happiness and sorrow both reside on the same plane of human experience and when we embrace all states of mind and heart that we finally arrive at our most authentic existence. It is not to strive, but to continually arrive with an open heart that we might find a sense of connection to our humanity – and a sense of authentic happiness.

10 tips:

1) Develop a set of believes and values aligned with your truest self

2) Try to find meaning in whatever stressful or difficult

3) Try to maintain a positive outlook

4) Take cues from someone who is especially resilient

5) Don’t run away from the things that scare you

6) Be quick to reach out for support and keep you support network close

7) Learn new things whenever you can

8) Find a healthy and reasonable exercise routine you can impliment

9) Don’t beat yourself up or dwell on the past – practice self-compassion

10) Recognize what makes you uniquely strong – feel proud and own it

These tips highlight many useful considerations when it comes to living a healthy life and provide important implications for maintaining psychological health as well as a sense of authentic happiness.

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