There is only one way to happiness and that is to cease worrying about things which are beyond the power of our will.
Moshe Ratson is a well-respected and sought-after marriage and family therapist and executive coach in New York City. He is a pioneer in anger management and has helped hundreds of clients transform anger into equanimity. Featured on TV and radio and in the New York Times, Huffington Post, and the Wall Street Journal, he lectures worldwide and coaches Fortune 500 companies, governments, religious organizations, and leading nonprofits.
He is also my friend. Someone I rely on to provide expert and nuanced information on a variety of mental health topics. Given the understandable psychological strain placed on so many during the COVID-19 outbreak, I asked him to share insights on how people might get through these challenging emotional times, and, in the process, contribute to the greater good.
Here’s his advice.
Be informed, but don’t obsess
Yes, we are experiencing a scary period in history. And so it is normal to feel uncertain and doubt there is the proverbial “light at the end of the tunnel.” Watching the news can often make us feel powerless, causing us to wonder: “What is going to happen next?” “When will it end?”
Since this virus is new, each day brings new information. It is critical to stay informed, to follow professional advice, and to take the necessary safety measures to protect yourself and not spread the virus. But you must also be prepared to be pushed and pulled emotionally by what you read and hear about the virus. And understand that, in some cases, not all information being disseminated is accurate. Therefore, it’s important to be discerning when it comes to the news. Try not to rush to conclusions, and try not to obsess about each and everything that is said. Educate yourself, and trust your instincts. Be patient and calculate the best course of action for you and your family to be safe and stay well during the crisis.
Focus on what is within your control
You might be familiar with the powerful serenity prayer “….grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference….”
Acceptance, embodied in this prayer, is something worth practicing during this time of great upheaval. The truth is that many things are outside of our control, such as how long the pandemic will last, how other people will behave, and what’s going to happen next. This unknown, actually, is what’s known. It is the new reality. And to fight the truth will only make you more exhausted, more anxious, and more overwhelmed. By denying reality, you only increase and prolong your suffering and, possibly, the suffering of those around you.
As a response, when you recognize you are focusing on things that are beyond your control, direct your attention to things that are within your control. For example, you can take the necessary steps to reduce your own personal risk by washing your hands frequently, staying home as much as possible, avoiding crowds and gatherings, and other recommended social distancing methods. While the situation still might feel upsetting, being proactive in this manner can help relieve some of your stress. Make an effort to focus on concrete actions you can do to solve the problem, rather than circumstances that are beyond your control.
If you find yourself “losing it” or spiraling down into negativity or panic, ground yourself in the present moment by bringing your attention to your breath and your body. Be mindful and place attention on the ‘here and now’ while breathing slowly until you become calmer.
Communities can learn to mutually lean on each other for help. Be proactive and plug into your local aid network. While we need to practice social distancing, we are still social animals. One of our core needs is connection. This is why isolation and loneliness can lead to anxiety and depression. Until is it safe to return to face-to-face socialization, remain in contact with others when possible by phone or online.
Social media, like Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, and other such platforms, is a great way to stay close with friends, family and acquaintances. The fact is we all need support during stressful times. If you are struggling with fear or loneliness, do not hesitate to reach out to people you care about, particularly those who are thoughtful, good listeners, non-judgmental, and level headed.
Take care of your well-being
Attending to your physical and mental health is an important aspect of constructive living. Try to eat nutritious meals, get enough sleep, and exercise (aerobic and anaerobic) when possible. Relaxing and meditating are also good ways to ensure self-care, especially when facing the unique challenges caused by the outbreak. And starting and/or following a daily routine can help to bring a needed sense of normalcy to your life.
Stephen Covey called it, “Sharpening the Saw,” and it means preserving and enhancing the greatest asset you have – yourself. So invest in self-renewal. Use this time to improve and grow in any domain you wish (physical, social, emotional, mental, and spiritual – personal or professional). Here are some ways to accomplish this:
- Have fun. Be involved with activities you enjoy such as reading, playing video games, painting, board games, creating a new dish in the kitchen, a piece of art. etc.
- The need to connect with nature is deeply ingrained in our being, so walk outside, feel the sun, see the blue sky, smell the greenery and breath fresh air. Spending time in nature helps people feel less isolated and makes them happier.
- Practice relaxation exercises to avoid buildup of stress. Practice the mantra of “prevention is better than cure,” and stay mentally strong by periodically engage with deep breathing, yoga and meditation.
During this time, it is easy to feel anxious and to get caught up in the emotion. Yet, one of the best antidotes to anxiety is to do the total opposite, which is to be concerned about/with the wellbeing of others and do something good for others. Remember that we’re all in this together and while we may be “standing” far apart, now, more than ever, it is a time for us to embrace each other.
True happiness is created by acting with compassion. Helping others makes your community better and stronger. It also enhances your mental health. In my therapy practice, I encourage anyone, especially people with low self-esteem, to volunteer and do good for their community. When they act in a manner of giving and from a place of abundance, they increase value in the universe and in turn increase their self-value. This naturally makes them feel better and increase their self-confidence.
You can change your disposition from powerlessness to empowerment by being kind and helpful. You can regain a sense of control over life, by adding meaning and purpose. Here are a few examples of acting with giving mindset.
- Be compassionate and be non-judgmental. With positive intention, you can ensure to spread kindness in your daily activities and spread charity throughout your community.
- Offer support to those that are isolated. Reach out to people that are having problems with their immune system, the elderly or the disabled. Perhaps an older neighbor needs help with groceries or fulfilling a prescription? In my community, a woman started a group to help with a childcare for hospital staff working in the emergency room. Many people who are isolated would love to hear a reassuring voice over the phone. Local social media groups can connect you with vulnerable people in your area.
- Give blood. Helping blood banks meet the critical need for blood, as uncertainties remain during this pandemic.
- Donate financially. Many families are having economic challenges. You can help older people, low-income families, and others in need by donating food, cash, cloths and any necessary items. You can also donate money to certain organizations that provide much-needed resources to individuals and families who may be economically disadvantaged.
- Be a positive influence. If friends or loved ones are “freaking out”, help them gain a wider, wiser perspective on the situation. Be a calming voice and stay positive, validate their stress, and be encouraging. Become an uplifting, constructive force that helps other people feel less anxious.
- Support local businesses. If you can, and when you can, shop in your neighborhood. While major stores and chains will most likely survive this crisis, smaller businesses are in dire trouble. If you can, buy food, toiletries, and medicine from your local grocery store. Consider getting gift certificates at coffee shops, spas, hair salons and other such places, for future use.
Cultivate Gratitude and Appreciation
Gratitude and appreciation are powerful antidotes to feeling anxious. “Too blessed to be stressed” is more true than you realize! Appreciation fills your mind and heart with a sense of being loved and cared for. Here are a few ideas on how to develop this “nurturing energy.”
- Practice present-moment gratitude. Notice all of the things for which you are grateful as they come up throughout your day. Allow yourself to be in the present moment and fully appreciate the things you are grateful for.
- Recognize strengths and achievements.When you or someone else has done a good job, acknowledge, compliment, and celebrate the event. Appreciate intention, effort, and progress—even small ones.
- Foster thank-yous. Think of happy moments that occurred during your day. Identify at least three things you are thankful for.
- Share the gratitude. Share the list of things you are grateful for. This sharing quality is motivating, especially when you’re not feeling at best.
- Generate a gratitude journal. Write regularly things you are grateful for, appreciate, and are happy about in your daily life. A gratitude journal is dedicated place to record all the things you are grateful for on a daily or weekly basis results in renewed health and fitness and more happiness and optimism.