We’ve finally reached the halfway point of 2020, and I think I speak for just about everyone in saying that these past 6 months have felt more like 6 years. A global pandemic, widespread economic uncertainty, mass unemployment, and now, historic protests against police brutality and racial injustice in every major US city - all of which have already cemented 2020 as an infamous year in the history books. Although many of us have been privileged enough to stay healthy, employed, or out of harm’s way, that doesn’t negate the fact that we’re also human - which means that this constant uncertainty and chaos is bound to take a toll on our mental wellbeing.
Everyone has their own stories of how the pandemic has upended their lives. I’d like to share a bit about my own experience, as well as five insights that I’ve picked up along the way that have helped me stay resilient and adaptable in uncertain times.
Before we dive in, I think it’s important to first clarify that I have not lost a loved one to COVID-19, nor missed a major life milestone like a graduation or wedding due to social distancing constraints. I also haven’t had to worry about being racially profiled, nor had to fear for my life during a routine traffic stop. The people who have experienced these hardships have even more important stories to share, and I encourage anyone reading this to take the time to listen to those who have been courageous enough to speak up about those particular experiences.
To give you a brief background, I graduated from college in May 2019, and subsequently went through the scary (albeit age-appropriate) time post-graduation filled with job rejections, dead-end apartment searches, and the nagging worry that I was destined to be stuck at home unemployed forever. So when I finally landed a job in Manhattan and found a great apartment in Brooklyn that fall, I genuinely believed that things would be smooth sailing from there. Why wouldn’t they? I had conquered life’s seemingly most formidable challenge of finding a job after college!
However, as you may be able to guess, that was just a prequel to an entirely new story - and this next installment proved to have far more daunting challenges. I soon found that the new job was a stressful mismatch for my personality and interests. That great apartment? Let’s just say that the roommates it came with may have fallen short in the warmth and empathy departments.
Suddenly, most of my time was split between a job that felt unfulfilling and in an apartment that felt unwelcoming (and a good portion of the rest in a crowded subway). I also began having trouble sleeping and found myself in a mental health rut that seemed insurmountable.
But over the next few months, I began slowly but surely addressing the components of my life that were making me unhappy. I left the job after a few months to join Beyond BookSmart (a decision that’s been life-changing in its own right), found a new apartment with like-minded roommates, and sought professional help with my sleep issues. Although this was one of the toughest times in my life, I somehow got through it, and by mid-March, I was gearing up to move into the new apartment and start a job that I was excited about. Essentially, I was about to hit reset on my adult life.
Then COVID-19 hit.
Suddenly, New York was shut down to combat the virus’s spread, and the rest of the country soon followed. Within a week, I was back at my parents’ home in Massachusetts instead of my new apartment in Brooklyn.
Fast forward three months, and I am still at home. I haven’t returned to New York, nor do I have any idea when I will. The life I was beginning to cultivate for myself independently has been paused indefinitely, and I’m back to getting nagged by my parents about my room and competing with my brother for XBOX time, as if I’m somehow back in high school.
Yet, despite having to cope with the initial adjustment and disappointment, I have found that I’ve been able to adapt to this challenging time successfully and am feeling more happy and hopeful than ever. Here are some of the insights I’ve learned along the way that have helped me get here.
1. Do at least one thing that’s hard every day
It’s a struggle to get motivated to do anything when you’re overwhelmed, let alone something difficult or uncomfortable. Although that’s totally fine on occasion, regularly avoiding discomfort can become a bad habit. If we allow this habit to continue, we’re actually relinquishing our own agency and control, which tends to perpetuate the feelings that make us overwhelmed in the first place. The best way to break out of this mindset is to pick one thing to do each day that’s uncomfortable. This can be something as simple as organizing emails or contacting an old friend - or if you’re feeling up to it, something more ambitious like going for a run or learning a new song on guitar. Whatever it may be, overcoming that mental hesitation each day at any level is an excellent way to build up self-confidence and motivation.
It’s worth noting that our work and school lives are inevitably filled with tasks we probably don't want to do, so for this particular tip, I would encourage having your one uncomfortable thing be outside of that environment. For me, meditation was a tool that I always found incredibly helpful (and one that we’ll revisit later), but difficult to set aside time for. By making myself do it everyday, I not only reaped the benefits of mindfulness, but also of persevering through that initial resistance. As a result, I found that my self-confidence had grown and that I was able to slowly but surely add more beneficial but uncomfortable things to my week.
2. Set time aside for your interests & passions
As life becomes more hectic and our time more limited, it also becomes increasingly difficult to expend the mental energy towards the types of interests and passions that require it, such as practicing an instrument, reading a book, or playing a sport. Although it may feel good in the short-term to preserve that energy and watch Netflix instead, you’re likely not going to feel good about it or gain any benefits the next day. If you can get yourself to regularly push through that initial barrier, you’ll quickly find that the energy it takes to get started is returned ten-fold as you improve or get invested in what you’re doing.
One of the biggest passions of mine that I picked back up when I was having a tough time in New York was skateboarding. At first, it was a huge struggle to get myself back on my board, and when I was able to get out there, I quickly found that the tricks I had mastered when I was 15 felt brand new and draining to pull off. Yet, over the last few months, I’ve rekindled this passion by regularly making time in my week to skate. As a result, I’ve found that even though it can be exhausting and even somewhat painful to skateboard, there is never a day where I regret taking the time to do it (and as you can see from the GIF above, I’ve even relearned some of those old tricks, too!) So although you may never see me competing in the X-Games, you’ll certainly see a big smile on my face if you catch me skating around - and that is plenty to keep me coming back for more.
3. Start prioritizing self-care
This quote from Jim Carey says it best: “if you don't exercise, eat nutritious foods, get sunlight, and get enough sleep, then you aren't giving yourself a fighting chance." It may seem obvious, but self-care is actually the first area many of us fall behind in when things become overwhelming. When there are a million worries going on in our head, and our free time seems to be virtually non-existent, we may stop prioritizing things like sleep, healthy eating, going outside, or fitness. But when we neglect self-care, our mood, self-perception, and energy are all decreased exponentially, making it harder to cope in general.
No matter how busy your life is, try to set realistic goals each week around key areas of self-care. Some of these could include committing to going to bed 30 minutes earlier each night, spending two more hours outside per week, or having a salad for a certain number of meals. Oftentimes, focusing on one of these areas for an extended period naturally promotes a drive to improve upon the others. For example, I’ve found that by prioritizing exercise every week, I naturally sleep more since my body’s exhausted, and prefer to eat healthy foods as to not nullify the work I put in those days.
4. Develop a mindfulness practice
Even when we’re able to have some downtime after work or in between classes, we may find that it’s hard to quiet the multitude of worries that race around our minds. This is true now more than ever with the constant bombardment of frightening news stories on social media and the uncertainty many of us face around the future. However, even though our worries are valid and worth acknowledgment, they shouldn’t be all-consuming.
The best way to prevent this worry from morphing into full-blown anxiety is to develop a regular mindfulness practice through meditation. Typically, this means setting aside ten minutes a few times a week to sit down, close your eyes, and focus on the sensation of the breath and present moment. Although this seems simple, it may actually be the most powerful tool on this list, as countless studies have shown that regular mindfulness meditation actually decreases the size of our amygdala - the area of the brain responsible for the emotions of stress and anxiety.
This was one of the most difficult tools for me to implement as my ADHD brain hates the idea of having to quiet itself. Yet, by sticking through the initial discomfort, meditation quickly became a non-negotiable part of my day, as it’s helped train my mind to be less reactive to worries and uncomfortable emotions. With that in mind, remember to be patient - it takes time to retrain your brain, so consistency and commitment are key. To get started, I’d recommend trying one of the countless free guided meditations online, or purchasing a meditation app like Calm or Headspace.
5. Have regular, honest conversations with friends & family
Last but certainly not least, regularly talking to friends and family when you're struggling is an absolutely critical component to mental wellbeing, especially in stressful times. It’s no secret that socializing is one of the healthiest things we do, but with COVID-19 eliminating our collective freedom to regularly socialize in person, I imagine that we’re all struggling to determine the best way to replace that component of our lives. Even so, the important thing is that we keep trying (even if you’re sick to death of Zoom.) Additionally, when we become overwhelmed or preoccupied with our problems, sometimes all we need is someone who cares to listen and put things into perspective.
My brother, for example, has been a huge help when my healthy worries turn into unhealthy catastrophizing. Although I initially felt guilty about having to put my own problems on his shoulder, I quickly found that he was willing to talk through what I was thinking and help me deconstruct some of the things that were making me so anxious. If you don’t feel comfortable talking with friends or family about a particular worry or problem, or if doing so hasn’t helped sufficiently, remember that professional help is an excellent resource that’s widely available online, and that seeking help is truly a sign of strength, not weakness.
These are just some of the most helpful tools and strategies I’ve incorporated into my own life to adapt to these chaotic times. Hopefully, you’ve found a tip or two that you’d like to try for yourself. See what works for you, and over time you’ll build your own custom toolkit you can use when times get tough.
If you find that you like the idea of implementing tools and strategies to improve your life, but struggle to actually follow through with them, an Executive Function coach can be an excellent resource to help you get past the mental barriers that are stopping you. My experience working with an EF coach in high school was essential in providing me with both the mindset and skillset needed to actually execute on these kinds of tips and tricks in the first place. If you can train your mind to do that, you may soon find that your potential for making positive change is limitless!