The Pandemic “Shoulds” and Other Unhelpful Ways of Thinking
Despite the reopening of most businesses and greater flexibility with respect to our social lives (here in Atlantic Canada, at least) many of us are still wading through a plethora of emotions triggered by the pandemic. Our circumstances are unpredictable. Work likely feels different. Even when you’re able to spend quality time with loved ones and engage in hobbies that normally help you to unwind, you might be conscious of a little voice in your head reminding you that you’re on borrowed time, given the predictions of a second wave happening in the fall. Under stress, our brains have a way of adopting a variety of unhelpful strategies related to the way we process and perceive things. Here are a few you can work on identifying… and ditching!
What’s wrong with me? I should be enjoying this time at home with my kids/spouse. Did you feel guilty about not having a “Rainbows and Unicorns” experience suddenly being at home 24/7 when the pandemic began? How about this one: I just spent months working from home. I should feel grateful and excited to be back at work! Transitions, especially sudden ones, are tough and there’s no right or wrong way to feel. We can’t predict the experience we’ll have when change is forced upon us, and telling yourself you should or shouldn’t feel a certain way usually just prompts more stress. Remind yourself that nobody feels completely positive in the face of change 100% of the time.
Raise your hand if you’ve been ticked off at COVID-19 and the imposed restrictions over the past few months (and if you didn’t put your hand up, please fill the rest of us in on your resilience tips in the Comments section below!). Even when the rational part of your brain fully understands the reasons for having to quarantine, wear a mask, wait in line for longer than you’re used to and a thousand other things, it’s OK to feel frustrated. You’re allowed to be upset about having to cancel that vacation you spent months planning prior to the pandemic. Many of us deny or negate our frustrations which usually triggers guilt: an unhealthy, unhelpful cycle. For example: “I can’t believe I have to go back to work when I was just getting used to working from home! It’s so unfair!” might be immediately followed by thoughts like, “I’m being ridiculous. I should feel lucky to have a job at all when so many people got laid off during the pandemic.” Denying your anger may end up having the opposite effect, instead prompting you to stew or fixate on the negative. Acknowledging that lots of things about the pandemic are frustrating will help you to get past it.
We’ve all heard lots about the “new normal” and how well everyone’s adapting to the changes in our work and personal lives brought on by the pandemic. That doesn’t mean nobody’s feeling anxious, though. Stress is a natural response to change and unpredictability. You may find yourself feeling a bit more settled now than in previous months but it’s very reasonable to expect some peaks and valleys now and in the future. There are still a lot of unknowns and trying to keep up on new information can feel overwhelming in itself. The expectation to adapt has been constant and it takes time to adjust. If you’re feeling fearful about the future and/or anxious about the “what ifs”, remind yourself that as things continue to change and evolve your stress level probably will, too. Invest some time and energy into figuring out what tends to help reduce your anxiety when it’s at the higher end of the spectrum, and be diligent about monitoring your stress level and practicing self care when you need it.
The Comparison Game
“Jared got so much work done in our first week back at work and I feel like I’m barely keeping my head above water.” “How has Catherine been able to keep her cool so well during all this, when I’ve been such a wreck?” “I’ve had to pick up Alex’s slack for weeks now. Our co-workers and I have all adapted to the ‘new normal’. Alex needs to get it together!” Whether it’s judgments about ourselves or others, comparing feelings and behaviours isn’t usually a useful exercise. The way a person feels is the way they feel, period. Comparing ourselves to others (or, more accurately, our perception of others) can leave you feeling bogged down with a sense of inadequacy, guilt and frustration. Judging and inwardly criticizing others by contrasting their behaviour with how you think they should be acting is unfair, and there are almost certainly factors you’re not aware of. Now is the time to be compassionate to ourselves and others. We’re all doing our best to get through each day, using whatever tools we have at our disposal at any given time.
Yes, the pandemic has been a rollercoaster – but remember, the ride will eventually end (thank goodness). If you’ve had a hard time managing stressful, unhelpful thoughts there’s lots of help out there. Check out WellCan, a fantastic resource hub developed to support the mental health of Canadians during the pandemic, or tap in to your organization’s EFAP (visit your workplace’s HR department for details).
Elizabeth Eldridge is a Psychological Health & Safety Consultant based in southern New Brunswick, Canada. In addition to keynote speaking and corporate training on workplace mental health she is the owner/operator of Arpeggio Health Services, Atlantic Canada’s largest provider of public mental health trainings. Learn more at elizabetheldridge.com, summitcorporatewellness.com and arpeggiohealthservices.com.