Mental strength in challenging times
Many of you are probably in the exact same position as me: You are stuck at home 24/7. Cooped up – in many cases with children who are supposed to be doing home schooling but need help even though their parents need to work. Add to that the uncertainty about the impacts that the coronavirus could have on our health, our financial situation, and the economy and society as a whole. Is there something that can help us to get through these challenging times?
My life has changed beyond all recognition in the last few weeks. There are four of us at home (my daughters, aged 8 and 10, my husband and I – and of course our two cats). Things get a little tense at times, since we are living on top of each other. My workshops have been cancelled until the middle of the year, I am only offering coaching online, and new clients are few and far between. Until recently, I had so much work to do that I had to turn down assignments – and now this! The value of our investments has also declined. Additionally, there is the worry that we or other family members could potentially get infected. We now only see my 79-year-old mother and my 89-year-old mother in law when we communicate online.
This is a frightening situation. A whole series of different concerns are coming together, with the inevitable consequences. After all, these various worries create fertile ground for arguments. In China, which is a few weeks ahead of us in terms of the development of the corona outbreak, the number of household disputes and divorces has soared. Patrick Fassbind, who heads the Child and Adult Protection Authority of the City of Basel, summed up the situation when he told the newspaper Neue Zürcher Zeitung that the potential for disputes is, in some ways, currently twice as high – since many people are coming under greater pressure and the impacts are almost entirely focused on their home life.
Tips for mental strength
People behave very differently when they find themselves in a crisis situation. Some are in denial about the situation (“It’s not really that bad”), others are resigned, and some panic, become aggressive or take more addictive substances – losing some form of control. However, none of these are effective coping strategies to help us get through the current situation in the best way possible. So what options are available to help us deal constructively with these developments? The most important thing is mental strength – in order words, it is about finding the right attitude to adopt in the current situation:
- First and foremost, you need to understand that it is up to you how you deal with these circumstances: Do you battle against windmills or do you accept the situation and try to make the best of it? One of the clients I coach has adopted the very appropriate motto: “It is what it is”. This also means that you should not complain about the situation or play the victim. Being mentally strong is about positively influencing your own emotions and recognizing what you can change and what is beyond your control – as Reinhold Niebuhr said: “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”
- Write down your fears. When you do so, they will seem less threatening. And write down the things you look forward to doing once the lock-down is over. Then try to visualize these wonderful things – imagining with all your senses what it is like to be able to do them. The brain does not distinguish between when you do something or just imagine it vividly. Many people find that their mouth begins to water as soon as they think about eating something delicious.
- Do things that you always wanted to do but never found the time for, such as reading a book, going for more walks, playing board games with your children, etc. By doing so, you will also see the positive side of this difficult situation. Several people from my professional and private life have told me that they find the current slowdown very pleasant. Personally, I appreciate the fact that the four of us can spend more time together – naturally with the cats too, who are very happy that we are spending so much time at home… Also, think about what you want to learn from this challenging situation and what you want to do differently afterwards, e.g. to enjoy a slower pace of life now and again.
- Consider what other difficult situations you have overcome in the past and what skills or approaches helped you at the time. These are resources that you can draw on again today.
- A valuable tip from the very experienced crisis manager Nicole Brandes, who now works as a coach and speaker: Look for room for maneuver to reduce your financial down-side. Are there new business opportunities you can seize in the current situation? Together with one of my largest clients I have developed short online coaching sessions for employees who are stressed by the current situation and will be offerring them from today.
- Nicole Brandes also showed me how to do good in crisis situations and empower others to deal with the situation better. For example, last week she gave a free webinar on the topic I am writing about and that inspired me to write this blog. And we are doing the shopping for one of our neighbors, who is almost 87, and for other neighbors who are not in good health. It is great to see all these expressions of solidarity in Switzerland! We can all help each other.
- Humans are social beings for whom it is very important to have a sense of belonging. We need contact in order to be able to deal with stress without becoming ill. At the moment, we are cut off from almost all physical contact. However, that should not prevent us from engaging in a professional or personal dialogue – we should simply do it online. Or perhaps one of your loved ones will be happy to receive a card from you, since this has become so rare nowadays.
- A great tip also comes from the trainer and coach Antje Heimsoeth: Keep up the team spirit. One of my corporate clients has introduced online coffee breaks for the individual teams. And the insurer Allianz Suisse now makes daily radio broadcasts for its employees so they know what’s going on in all areas – thus strengthening team spirit.
- Structure your life and create a routine as this gives you a sense of security; it makes you feel as if you are in control of the ‘mini life’ you are leading. Get up at the same time as usual each morning, have breakfast, get dressed (don’t stay in your pyjamas!), work at the same times, eat three meals a day and go to bed as normal. Set deadlines for the completion of certain tasks and plan when you are free. Self-discipline is very important in this context. And plan one highlight to every day that you can look forward to.
- Each evening, write down what you have done well that day and what you are grateful for, even in these difficult times. In doing so, you are shifting your focus from the negative to the positive.
- The same goes for brooding. Don’t lose yourself in an endless stream of negative thoughts or obsess about bleak future scenarios. Here are some mental tricks: Limit the amount of time you spend thinking about negative things, e.g. to a quarter of an hour (set your alarm clock). After that, make a conscious effort to think positive thoughts again and focus on things you can change. If negative thoughts start running through your mind ago, hold a stop sign in front of your inner eye or try to imagine that your thoughts are clouds simply floating past you.
- Strive for a combination of tolerance and clear rules at home. Try to understand when others react irritably. Talk about your fears and those of others. At the same time, it is very important to be well organized in your household and to define clear rules for living together as smoothly as possible. For example, my husband and I have agreed that if one of us has to make a phone call or take part in an online meeting, he or she will shut themselves in a separate room to avoid disturbing other family members while they are working.
- Don’t check the news every quarter of an hour; look for updates only a few times a day. Make sure you consult reputable media and don’t be unsettled by conspiracy theories and fake reports.
- Set aside some time for yourself each day and do something nice on your own, whether it is reading a good book, taking a warm bath, doing a relaxation exercise or something else that will do you good.
- Humor is good for us in such difficult times. I have received many funny videos and photos on the topic of corona lately and I am always impressed by the creativity of people, even in times of crisis. Here are two examples that I love: IMG_4340 and https://youtu.be/8KPbJ0-DxTc.
- Exercise every day, ideally out in the fresh air. I have been going for a walk with my husband (and sometimes with our girls) every afternoon for a few days now. Exercise breaks down the stress hormone cortisol and has a positive effect on your immune system and also on your psyche. You can find plenty of videos online, showing you how to keep fit at home. Maintaining an upright posture also has a positive impact on your mental health.
- Strengthen your immune system in other ways as well, e.g. through a balanced diet, taking vitamins and minerals (especially vitamin C and zinc), getting enough sleep, keep your mucous membranes moist (e.g. with sea salt sprays), etc. A good immune system makes us more resilient when we encounter infections. “This also seems to be true with the corona virus”, as Professor Sarah Tschudin Sutter, Senior Physician for Immunology and Infectious Diseases at Basel University Hospital, told the Coop newspaper.
- Ask your children to help with the housework. Since we are not allowing any non-family members into our home at present (including our cleaner), our daughters have already vacuumed their bedrooms and cleaned their bathroom twice.
- If you can’t cope with the current situation despite all these tips, please turn to others for help – either by contacting friends or asking for professional support.
Thomas W. Albrecht, an Austrian coach and speaker, aptly summed up the situation as follows:
“The problem is usually not the problem itself but the way we deal with it.” I hope that you have enough tools to help you take the current matter in hand. There are so many things you can do to master this challenging situation as effectively as possible. Fortunately, mental strength is a something you can learn.
© Claudia Kraaz