By: Rachael Sullivan, PsyD
Finding Balance in Unsteady Times
As we all attempt to adjust to this “new normal” with no playbook, our mental health is undoubtedly impacted. Collectively, our baseline anxiety levels have risen in the face of uncertainty and forced adaptation. Whether we’ve dealt with anxiety for years prior or are struggling with worrisome thoughts for the first time, we’re all looking for effective ways to cope and find balance.
Balance. A small word with incredible meaning. While we have heard before that a sense of balance in our lives is recommended (e.g., “work-life balance”), the COVID-19 pandemic drives home the importance of balance in a way previously unknown. This unique balancing act has multiple components: balanced routine, balanced emotions, balanced perspective, balanced information – just to name a few.
Fifty plus days into our new normal, you likely have had to adapt and find new routines. Balancing our routines does not mean we have to schedule out every hour of the day or strive towards unattainable ideals for what we could be doing with our time. Rather, balance in our routines means doing what we can to fulfill our roles and responsibilities, while also ensuring we are caring for ourselves.
Self-care has become quite a “buzz word” over the last few years, but it is more important than ever. Self-care means being intentional about taking time to engage in activities that bring us pleasure and increase our mood, without the notion that we need to “earn” them. Self-care will look different for everyone (e.g., a favorite cup of tea, a long bubble bath, a hug from our child, a call with an old friend, an early morning hike) and it is often helpful to make a “Self-care List” so you can experience a variety of ways to care for yourself. Ultimately, despite who else in our life may depend on us, we must care for ourselves in order to be able to truly care for others. See if you can show up for yourself by incorporating one self-care activity each day.
For many of us, balancing our emotions is the most difficult component of this balancing act. How we interact with our emotions is unique to us – our background, our experiences, our personality. Many of us were sent messages about emotions from a young age, and many of those messages we now recognize as unhelpful: “Don’t cry.” “Get over it.” “Someone has it worse.” These types of messages often result in attempts to “stuff,” or avoid, our emotions. While this may feel as if this has some utility in the moment, we know this is not a sustainable or effective practice.
To move towards emotional balance, start by paying more attention to your emotions. This may be facilitated by practicing more frequent, intentional “emotional check-ins”: times during the day where you stop and ask yourself, “How am I doing right now?” The next step is when you notice a distressing emotion, try to create space for it and allow it to be there, rather than push it away. Try to practice mindful emotional awareness: when your mind tries to take you away from your current emotional experience, gently bring your attention back to what’s happening in the present moment. (If you have not tried practicing mindfulness before, there are tons of great electronic resources available!)
As you create space for your emotion, try to name the feeling. Notice how you are experiencing the emotion in your body. You may find placing a calming touch on or trying to “breathe into” the area of your body in which you feel the emotion helps to increase a sense of being grounded and present. Remember: the emotional wave will pass and you are not the emotion. If we don’t fuel our emotions with negative thoughts, they won’t last more than a minute or two. Lastly, once you feel you’ve ridden the emotional wave, ask yourself what you need in that moment and try to respond in kind.
The above process in practice may look something like this: “I’m noticing I’m feeling different than I was. I’m feeling anxious right now. It’s ok to be anxious, I’m allowed to feel this way and I don’t have to push it away. I’m noticing tightness in my shoulders. I notice sweaty palms. This feeling will pass. I can use my breath to help myself through this difficult time.” (Take some deep breaths for a few minutes, place a light touch on your shoulders, stay present). “The feeling is less intense than it was. I rode the wave and came through the other side. Now, what do I need? How can I nurture myself?” (Respond to the need with self-care)
Attempting to have a balanced perspective during stressful times includes understanding the power our thinking has on our mood. It is normal that we aren’t going to be able to always be in a “glass half-full” mindset, especially in the face of such fearful times. However, it is often helpful to identify and verbalize (even if only in our own heads), the positive aspects, or “silver linings,” when we become aware of them.
I’m sure we’ve all noted some silver linings since the start of this pandemic – more quality time spent at home with those we love, feeling as if we finally have time to read the books on our shelves, seeing the encouraging changes staying-at-home has on our environment, experiencing the simple joys that can come from cooking a meal, and many more. While there is no changing that we are enduring a notably negative time in our history, that does not mean there is not positivity to be found.
Another way to increase positivity and decrease anxiety is gratitude practice. Practicing gratitude (e.g., identifying three things you are grateful for before going to bed) has repeatedly been shown to have a positive impact on one’s mood state. Next time you find yourself “going down the rabbit hole” of anxiety, try to stop, take a deep breath, and ask yourself what you’re grateful for in that moment. There’s certainly no harm in trying it out!
Additionally, many of us have a long-standing habit of being self-critical. Just like avoiding our emotions, being self-critical and engaging in “negative self-talk,” does not serve us any psychological benefit. We can also work towards a balanced perspective by trying to change the way we talk to ourselves. Rather than working against ourselves by being self-critical, what might it be like to practice self-kindness and self-compassion? Is it really such a radical notion that we could be on our own team?
Next time you identify a self-critical thought, challenge yourself by asking yourself how you would respond if your best friend or your child said that same comment to you. Now try saying that same response to yourself and notice how it feels. It might feel weird, or even “wrong.” But logically, we know being self-critical is just a habit and there’s nothing wrong with being kind to ourselves. Just because something feels uncomfortable, doesn’t mean it’s bad – it might just be a new experience.
Everyone has their own preference for how they obtain news and information during this time. Regardless of the medium you prefer, try to be cognizant of the impact of this information on your mood. Whether scrolling through updates from a reputable news source or your social media news feed, it is often the case that the longer we scroll, the greater the likelihood of a decrease in mood.
If you’re becoming increasingly agitated, anxious, or angry over certain articles or social media posts, it may be best to establish boundaries surrounding consuming this information. Try setting an alarm so you don’t lose track of how much time you’re spending on these sites, or you may need to take an extended break from media consumption. Also, in the vein of balanced perspective, try looking at websites and applications designed to share positive, uplifting news (e.g., Good News Network), and see if incorporating a positive news source into your routine also has a positive impact on your mood.
In summary, balance is a state of mind, a state of being, and one that no one does perfectly. We’re all going to fall occasionally, and these days we may find ourselves unsteady more than ever before. That’s ok – we will get back up and re-center ourselves. And you certainly don’t have to do it alone. If you would like additional support or to talk with someone about any of the concepts mentioned above, please reach out and know that we at the Metis Center are here to assist you in finding solid ground again.