For decades, Alison Holman has studied how people cope with disaster — firestorms, mass violence and epidemics.
“The past sort of slips away. The future slips away. And your mind is entirely focused on the present moment,” said Holman, a professor at the University of California at Irvine’s school of nursing. She called it “temporal disintegration”: the breaking of the chain of past, present and future that holds our lives together.
Maybe the world doesn’t end. But yours does.
Almost half of all Americans entered 2021 showing signs of clinical anxiety or depression, among the mental health issues that had already been rising among younger people. Racism and unrest drove steep increases among Black and Asian Americans.
“We don’t ever want to deny the negative feelings,” said Mary Alvord, a clinical psychologist based in Maryland.
But there are also ways you can keep those feelings from sticking you in time. “Being proactive is at the core of resilience,” Alvord said.
First, she said, acknowledge where you are. Many of us are already experiencing common signs of possible anxiety or depression, such as always feeling tense, or having difficulty sleeping or getting things done. You can also take more formal free screening tests through the nonprofit Mental Health America.
Some things are much easier to control with professional help. Here’s a great starting guide to finding therapy, including some lower-cost options, such as the Open Path Collective.
Short of that, lots of small practices can help you move forward and recover a sense of time (many of which we’ll keep exploring this week). Eventually, Alvord said, you accept what’s out of your control and look for what’s in your control, even if it’s as small as taking a walk.
I’ve often found myself falling into uncontrollable worry, for example — one of the most common problems during the pandemic, according to the census data.
(Magda Azab for The Post)
Alvord shared with me some of the thought patterns behind those worries, derived from her cognitive-behavioral workbook “Conquer Negative Thinking for Teens.” (They apply to adults too.) You can often identify them yourself. For example:
- The “I can’t” habit. You automatically decide you can’t meet a new challenge. You give up before even trying.
- The catastrophizing habit. You see disaster everywhere, and fall into what ifs. You spend a lot of energy panicking.
- The all-or-nothing habit. If something doesn’t go just one way, it’s wrong. You’re irritated with yourself and others.
Alvord also shared a few “challenge questions” to help break those patterns. Many start by looking for the evidence behind your thinking:
- The “I can’t” habit: “What is the evidence that I can’t do it?”
- The catastrophizing habit: “What are five other things more likely to happen?”
- The all-or-nothing habit: “What are some possibilities that fall between the extremes?”
When I did this, I found myself falling into the catastrophizing habit. It helped to ask myself a question Alvord especially recommends: “What would I tell a friend who had the same thought?” We’re often more helpful with others than with ourselves.
One of the most important things you can do is also one of the hardest: nothing.
“Give yourself an hour when you can not do anything, and you can just think freely,” Alvord said. Take a walk, sit with yourself, draw, or even nap — whatever can get you out of task-oriented, sequential thinking and into free-associative thinking. And do it without a podcast, audiobook or FaceTime call. Leave your phone somewhere else.
If you’re feeling brave, try scheduling that time to do nothing into the same day each week — a half-hour, an hour, whatever you’d like to start with. It can be a new anchor point.
I set mine up on Wednesdays — just a candle and weird stares from my roommates. At first I worried I’d focus too much on the minutes. But soon I looked forward to the breaks. They made me more comfortable with time passing and less afraid of it.
And if you’ve determined it’s right for you, regular therapy, or simply regular mental health talks with a friend, can also help anchor you.
This shouldn't stop you from taking breaks at other times, of course. But a new ritual at a set time can help you divide Tuesday from Wednesday.
Tomorrow’s newsletter: Our early pandemic coping strategies weren’t set for the long haul. How do we find longer-term fulfillment in chaos?