This pandemic brings with it extended periods of generalized stress, uncertainty, and feelings of being locked-up with our thoughts, either alone or only a few other humans. We are all finding that it is lasting long enough that staying in a positive mindset can be a challenge. I have been looking at ways to help my patients and also myself, to get into a mindset that gets us to the finish line.
Fortunately, in my field we have been studying what makes people have the capacity to endure and keep a positive mindset. Spiritual traditions have been doing this for much longer than psychology became a “science.” So…how can we help everybody get into the right frame of mind?
My first idea was to look into track and field, a sport I used to practice. I used to run 800m races. These races leave you breathless and your whole body feeling like lead. I look around and see people doing basically that, leaving everything in the track. The race, unfortunately, may just have started, yet nobody knows when this will be over.
Spending all our strength at the beginning of a long race is nuts, because this pandemic is a long-term event. While this pandemic is obviously not a marathon, it feels like a marathon. The metaphor helps us realize that managing our energies and keeping a mindset focused on the long haul might be a much better idea than burning out right now.
Burnout is a condition that results from subjecting our bodies and minds to sustained high levels of stress. We talk about burnout a lot here at IHI, because burnout is the enemy of career enjoyment, good health and effectiveness. Burnout results in depression, anxiety and feeling that everything is wrong. We want to avoid burnout!
People who suffer from burnout tend to fall into states in which they start to make mistakes at work, loose sleep and suffer stress-related health problems. Staying healthy now is necessary to get to the end, both because we want to avoid COVID, and also because we want to enjoy the ride until it is over.
You will not be surprised that I have been encouraging everybody to start with the foundation: 8-9 hours of sleep, regular exercise and good eating. You also need time to recharge and enjoy leisure. I am sure you knew that! We know, by now, that the mind and the body are connected, so this is the scientific start of building a mindset for the long-haul.
Once your basics are in order, then you can move to strengthening your skills and using the pandemic as an opportunity to learn to have an even better mindset. Every problem has an opportunity for change connected to it. There is always something you can do to improve this moment or make the future better. Why wait?
The first powerful transformation skill is to change your mind from “this sucks” to “let’s see what I can do.” The first attitude breeds helplessness, and leads to depression. The second makes you feel positive and brings attention to what agency you may have to transform your life. If you look at the previous paragraph, you will notice that that is exactly what I did. It breeds hopefulness.
Another tool is a time-honored Buddhist idea called “Radical Acceptance.” The idea is simple: stop fighting-reality. Surrender. Stop doing the useless work of fighting the unfolding of the world. “Radical acceptance” saves your energy. This may sound a bit counter intuitive, since we are programmed to strive to better ourselves. Getting better at being in the-world-as-it-is can help us focus on what is important.
The whole world has been changed by a pandemic. How does one “radically accept” that? The trick is that accepting something does not mean liking it. You CAN go from bemoaning how much things have changed, to using what energy you might have for finding ways to improve the things that CAN be improved.
Science has only recently begun to figure out what Buddhists knew all along! Sonia Lubomirski’s research focuses on happiness. She shows that happiness results from many factors. The ones that we cannot change are circumstances and genetic make-up that is hard-wired. We can only be as happy as our genes allow!
The good news is that there is one thing that CAN be changed: attitude. Why does this matter? In her research she figured out that our attitude impacts 40% of our happiness. That is one big chunk! It is the ONE thing that we can actually have any influence on. Modern research agrees with Buddhist wisdom!
One way to build a positive experience is to expect that things will change. It is a given! Your cells changed since you started reading this. The world is changing and we might be missing the miracle. What if focusing on negatives only is distorting your perception?
Look around, there were amazing things already happening. Your new task is to go about each day finding out what they are. If you can’t, then you can take initiative and do something that makes a change.
When you get to the finish line, your life will not have been put on hold. You will have gone through the journey with a positive mindset, and this precious time would not have been wasted.
Ariel Blau has a formidable passion for helping his clients energize a joyful, loving and creative life. He has more than 30 years of experience helping people bloom. His formal education includes a Master’s degree in Social Work from New York University, a Master’s in Fine Arts from Brandeis University, and a great number of workshops, certificates and seminars. He has been studying mindfulness and how to bring compassion into the world for more than 15 years. His passion for helping others is matched by his enormous drive for continuous learning. Ariel completed his professional clinical training at Yale New Haven Psychiatric Hospital and served as Lead Clinician at the Jewish Family Service of Greater New Haven.
Book an appointment with Ariel here.