By Josh Harrison, PSYD, HSPP
Each of us has been impacted in some way since social distancing protocols from COVID-19 took effect nearly two months ago. Most of us are grieving our previous lives of hugging loved ones, eating without hesitation at our favorite restaurants and gathering for birthdays, weddings and graduation celebrations. Others have faced even greater devastation having lost loved ones during COVID-19, robbed of the basic ability to gather for a funeral and mourn together.
Our grieving is indefinite. What we expected to happen in the past and what we expect to happen moving forward is in question. Although we can’t change any of it, we can adapt mentally and emotionally to withstand the uncertainty.
As the Serenity Prayer states, “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can and the wisdom to know the difference.” Let’s lean into courage as we change what we can with wisdom and practice acceptance as a path to peace.
Changing Our Reactions to Emotions
Instead of resisting an emotion when it arises, allow the emotion to come by following these seven steps:
- Name the emotion you’re experiencing (fear, sadness, guilt, anger, etc.).
- Rate the intensity of the emotion on a scale of 0 to 100.
- Lean into the emotion by giving it space through observation instead of resistance.
- Observe the bodily changes taking place while experiencing this particular intensity of the emotion. Notice your breathing, the feeling in your chest, your hands, heart rate, etc.
- Notice the changes in motivation while leaning into the emotion. What actionable urge goes along with the intensity of the emotion? Observe the urge, but DON’t act. Instead, let is pass without judgement.
- Pay attention to any changes in thoughts or thought patterns going along with this intensity of emotion. Let go of your judgments. Don’t push your thoughts away or cling to them – simply just let them pass.
- After several minutes of leaning into your emotion, re-rate the intensity. Notice how the emotion didn’t stay at the same intensity over time. Emotions tend to ebb and flow just like waves in the ocean.
Changing Our Expectations
Pain in life is inevitable. Suffering (or struggling) is optional. Suffering stems from our insistence that things out of our control ‘should’ or ‘ought’ to be a certain way. When we begin to create expectations in our minds of how things ‘should’ or ‘ought’ to be, we mentally create a false reality that doesn’t exist. This happens a lot in the news or on social media. It’s easy to find the opinions of others on how things ‘should’ be during the pandemic. If we buy into these ideas, it can result in frustration or anger because true reality doesn’t line up. These ‘should’ or ‘ought’ stances generally do us more harm than good.
Here are three practical tips to reduce vulnerability to create our own ‘should’ and ‘ought’ suffering:
- Put limits on social media time.
- ‘Unfollow’ people with frequent ‘should’ or ‘ought’ posts.
- Limit time viewing or watching news outlets.
Accepting Reality as a Path to Peace
It’s important to define what acceptance isn’t: Acceptance isn’t approval. It’s not enjoying, agreeing with or loving what’s happening. Acceptance is personal acknowledgement of what truly is. It’s also important to recognize is a daily practice and not a one-time fix.
Accepting reality starts with surrendering our ‘shoulds’ and ‘oughts.’ Once we stop resisting reality, we can start to accept it. Accepting reality can bring pain because it can prompt feelings of sadness and can initiate grief. Accepting reality all at once can, at times, feel intensely painful, but it alleviates unnecessary suffering. Start by accepting reality in small bits using self-statements of acceptance. For example, “I am practicing acceptance today by by accepting I had to change my routine,” or “I am practicing acceptance today by accepting I an not able to hug my friend when I see her.” While both of these realities are painful, the practice of acceptance reduces our suffering.
As you increase your ability to fully accept where you are in this chapter of life and focus on going through acceptance, you will find peace.