How to Self Regulate in Times of Prolonged Uncertainty
These last few years have been a difficult and trying time for many of us as we have adjusted to a different world after the COVID-19 pandemic. You’ve undoubtedly felt the strain of having major changes in work, your kids' schooling, social activities, and daily schedules upended.
With this in mind, we’ve compiled a list of five different ways to take care of your emotional and mental health during these prolonged periods of uncertainty. These are easy-to-try strategies that can be used daily to cope with some of the strong feelings that are completely natural given the changes we’re all experiencing.
If you or your loved ones have been struggling with your emotions lately, rest assured you’re not alone. Here’s some ideas of what can help:
1. Name the Emotion
One tried-and-true technique is to name the emotion that you’re feeling. “I feel anxious about the future.” “I feel angry that this happened.” “I’m grieving the loss of my loved one.” It feels almost deceptively simple—but it works surprisingly well.
For whatever reason, we tend to think that putting any sort of label on the emotion we’re feeling could make us feel worse. We worry that if we acknowledge it, it might become completely unmanageable. So we learn to ignore that emotion and hope that it goes away on its own. In reality, it works the opposite way. In fact, if you identify and label the emotion, it lessens its intensity. Like Dorothy throwing water on the Wicked Witch of the West, giving an accurate label to what you’re feeling miraculously makes it melt away.
How do we know this? There was an experiment conducted at UCLA where researchers took 88 participants with fears of spiders and divided them into four groups. They asked each person to approach a tarantula in an open container—and even touch it if they could. You can imagine that this would send up quite the surge of emotion, right?
Each group was given different instructions before they walked up to the spider, though. Some were told to talk about their fear openly and label their feelings negatively, another group was instructed to downplay their description of how they felt, and the last two groups either didn’t speak at all or were asked to talk about something off-topic.
A week later, the researchers asked both groups to return and ran the same experiment. They looked at how close each person got to the spider, and then they tested each group on how sweaty their palms were as a measure of nervousness.
It turns out, the group who labeled their fear the first time had less palm sweat and got closer to the spiders than the rest. In doing so, the researchers were able to demonstrate that there’s some real benefit to accurately labeling emotions instead of downplaying or ignoring them.
Next time you catch yourself swept up in heightened feelings, try saying the name of the emotion aloud and watch what happens.
2. Feel the emotion
If just naming the emotion doesn’t seem like it’s doing it for you, you could also go the route of making time to really feel your emotions. This is another technique that seems counterintuitive, but it works.
The concept is somewhat the same: rather than pushing the emotion away, in this case you give yourself even more time let them out. Here’s how:
Pick two times a day and schedule out 10 minutes to worry, ideally for at least 10 days in a row.
Now, for those 10 minutes, set an alarm and resolve to spend the entire time with your negative thoughts. If you run out of negative thoughts, don’t just move to positive ones: instead, start again with the negative until your time is up.
Try to become as uncomfortable as possible during this time, and don’t judge what you’re thinking. Just make sure you are giving it your all.
Why does this technique work? Well, most people feel like their anxieties are constantly bothering them all day, with little escape. But when you give yourself the opportunity to exclusively focus on your worries, you’re able to discover that there’s only so much you’ve been ruminating over. When you’re forced to go back through your worries the second time, this really becomes apparent.
Some modifications to this exercise are: 1) saying your worries out loud instead of only thinking them, 2) making a recording of yourself so you feel like the worries are going somewhere, or 3) writing them down.
If your preferred method is to write, you can try the “worry drop” journaling technique. Basically the goal is to write (...and write and write) until your anxiety decreases by half.
3. Return to the present moment
Lots of our fears and worries come from looking into the future and feeling anxious about not being able to control what’s happening next. Finding ways to return your mind back to the present moment when you’re feeling overwhelmed can make you feel better. Here’s a few suggestions on how to do this:
Breathwrk is an app that offers a selection of free guided breathing exercises using colorful bubbles to cue your inhalations and exhalations. They have sessions for different functions, e.g. some are for focus, others are for anxiety, and even more are for sleep.
If you’re not into meditation, it’s a nice way to tune into your breathing without feeling like you need to close your eyes and be alone with your thoughts. Breathwrk is available on iOs and is coming soon to Android.
Insight Timer is another app that we like. It has over 30,000 free guided meditations. Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Eat Pray Love and Big Magic, recently uploaded a wonderful 22-minute talk about how you can face fear with compassion. It has over 107,000 plays and nearly 1000 five-star reviews, so why not give it a listen?
Try the 5-4-3-2-1 grounding technique when you find yourself thinking only about the past or the future. Use each number as a cue for each activity, like this:
5: Acknowledge FIVE things you see around you. What is immediately in your vision? If I do this right now, I see a fan, my wallet, my phone, a notebook, and my computer. I look at their shapes and colors when my eyes focus on them. 4: Acknowledge FOUR things you can touch around you. This can also be what you feel. Are you sitting? Feel your weight and where your body and chair meet. Are you at a keyboard? Feel the keys. Keep going. 3: Acknowledge THREE things you hear. Are there cars in the distance? Birds? Can you hear your breath or hear silence between breaths? 2: Acknowledge TWO things you can smell. You might not always find something that smells right away but try your skin, your deodorant, your hair. Or maybe you have a candle or some food around you. 1: Acknowledge ONE thing you can taste. Again, not the easiest thing to think of but that’s why it works. Just bring your attention to your mouth and tongue - what’s the last thing you ate? You can do it as many times as you need to until you come back to the present moment.
And finally, 1Hour Break, is a kava based blend of organic stress and anxiety reducers. By spraying it under your tongue, letting it absorb, and swallowing it, you’ll be able to feel relief in approximately five minutes. The non-addictive formula has been vetted by leading organic medicine specialists, and you can use it more than once if needed. Give yourself the opportunity to be present in your body after you spray it and notice how it makes you feel after each use.
4. Choose the "right" distractions from worry
Many of us are constantly involved in social media or watching the news to better understand what is happening around the world. But is there a point where it becomes too much? Consider bringing attention to what your media diet looks like, and resolve to choose the “right” distractions from worry instead.
Perhaps it seems silly or obvious, but finding ways to lift your mood can lead to less stress. And in turn, this leads to a whole positive spiral of being more open to resources and opportunities. This is different from toxic positivity (we’re not saying to just “stop worrying” or that you need to be happy no matter what)—rather, it’s a way to boost your emotional resilience.
Here’s two easy ways to do this, simply by changing the media you’re consuming. First, you can up your intake of positive videos—watch things that make you feel good and laugh! Second, spend some time looking at pictures of cute animals (preferably baby animals). That’s right, there’s no need to feel bad about spending some time each day with these things, because positive videos can have a large mood-posting effect, and looking at cute animal pictures reduces stress and can actually increase concentration.
You could also start channeling the time that you used to spend watching the news into returning to hobbies you enjoyed as a child. What did you spend hours doing, or what do you wish you could be better at? There are a lot of free resources and tutorials online these days for you to return to your former interests. Try to come up with 30 things you used to like when you were young, and see what comes up on the list.
5. Practice self compassion
Finally, one of the best things to do for your emotional health is to practice compassion with yourself while all of this is going on. We know that you may find yourself constantly comparing how you’re feeling against what you see other people doing. You may think that you’re failing yourself, your kids, or your workplace because you’re not accomplishing all the things you had planned.
But since we all respond differently to changes, it’s helpful to remember that everyone has their own journey and circumstances. For those of you stuck in the comparison trap, or trying to hold yourselves to standards from before all of this happened, it’s time to stop “should”-ing on yourself. It hasn’t worked so far, so why not try practicing self compassion instead?
One of the reasons that people are reluctant to do this is because we hold the erroneous belief that we need to be more strict with ourselves to accomplish things. But in fact, it turns out that individuals who are compassionate with themselves are actually the ones who can make better changes.
Becoming more aware of your self talk is one way to start practicing compassion toward yourself. Is the language you’re using the kind you’d be horrified to hear if you were giving advice to a dear friend who is going through a tough time? If you are, then it’s time to try the opposite tactic and talk to yourself like someone who needs some grace, empathy, and kindness.
Another thing you can do is use a self compassion loving-kindness meditation. It’s not complicated; all you do is repeat these words (or some variation of these words) to yourself:
May I be happy. May I be healthy. May I be kind to myself. May I accept myself as I am.
Some people prefer to do it with their eyes closed and hands over their heart.
We hope that you will have found these exercises helpful and are able to try them out. After all, there is practically nothing to lose, but there’s so much to gain if they work.