A Strategy for Surviving the COVID-19 Crisis and Social Distancing

A Strategy for Surviving the COVID-19 Crisis and Social Distancing

According to Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT), there are 5 ways that people can respond in a crisis situation:

Solve the problem

The first goal in any crisis is to solve the problem, if possible. For example, if the crisis is that your car broke down, you could solve the problem by calling a mechanic to look at and fix the car. However, in many crisis situations, there is no guaranteed way of solving the problem, which is certainly true of our current crisis. There is nothing we can do to make this go away and get our normal lives back at this time. There is nothing we can do to stop the pain and suffering that we and others will experience. There is nothing we can do to stop or change this situation from happening. That knowledge can feel very overwhelming and make you feel powerless.

In all crisis situations, whether we can fully resolve them on our own or not, we have the option of how we choose to respond. That is where the other four options come in. Right now, how we choose to respond can mean the difference between protecting ourselves and others or furthering the current crisis. It can mean the difference between falling apart during a difficult time or trying to use the time meaningfully. Let’s look at our other options below.

Change how you feel about the problem

When we are unable to solve the problem, we have the option to change how we feel about it. We can sit in negative feelings of anger, fear, rage, etc., or we can choose to focus our energy and attention on other emotional experiences. Instead of thinking about the fear of how this will end and the worst-case scenario, focus your energy instead on gratitude.

When life is chaotic, our brain tends to focus disproportionately on what is wrong and what we do not have. A small shift in focus to what is going well and what we do have can mean a big difference. Instead of thinking how you cannot go out, think about how you are grateful to have a roof over your head, electricity, access to clean drinking water, plenty of tv, movies, and books to read, etc. It doesn’t have to be the big things, right now focusing on the small things that you have can make a big change in mindset.

Today, I could have been irritated that I could not go to the gym, and just sat on my couch eating junk food, but instead I chose to be grateful that I had a small space in my living room, a yoga mat, and a few weights at home and was able to come up with a brief workout even while I did not have access to the gym.

Accept the situation

When we cannot solve the problem or change how we feel about it, we can practice radical acceptance of the current situation. What is radical acceptance, you ask? Acceptance refers to the idea of wholly and totally recognizing reality as it is, without attempting to change it. Acceptance does not mean that you like something, rather it is the choice to allow the situation to be as it is. Acceptance does not magically appear, it is a choice you have to turn to over and over (which in DBT is called “Turning your mind,”). Imagine that each time you think about the situation you are at a fork in the road, and you have the choice to accept or not accept each time you arrive at that fork.

To use my own example again, I had the choice many times today to sit in despair and fear, but instead time and time again I chose to accept the situation as it is and try to make the best of it in whatever way I can. I chose instead to turn towards something I care about, compassion and helping others, to write this blog post in the hope it may be useful to someone else.

Stay miserable

I know being miserable does not seem like a choice, but it is. We always have the power within us to choose how we respond to situations. We can choose to stay miserable, wallow in negative thoughts and feelings, and not do anything to change the situation. It is always an option for us, and it is always an option for us to actively choose something different. Just because we are miserable right now, does not mean it has to stay that way. Once you realize that you are in the “stay miserable” mode (which trust me, I am all too familiar with), you have the choice to do something different. Choose to take action, move towards something you care about, or find meaning in your current situation to help move out of the stay miserable mindset.

It is helpful to set a limit to staying miserable. Allow yourself a set amount of time, five minutes or so, to be fully, totally, miserable and let your negative thoughts run wild. When the five minutes are over, work to move on by focusing your energy on something else. This can be something small like doing the laundry or washing the dishes, playing a game, reaching out to see how a friend is, or working on a project you have been putting off. The point is, don’t allow the negative thoughts to take over and run wild all of the time, you can still do things you care about despite what your mind says.

Make it worse

Last but not least, sometimes in a crisis we do something that makes the situation worse. Often we are trying to respond, or solve the problem in some way, but it backfires. In this situation, you could make the situation worse by not following the recommendations and guidelines and going out into public because you were sick of staying home, but inevitably this only furthers the spread of the virus and the time we all need to spend isolated. You could obsessively watch the news to stay informed, which may only trigger further anxiety and negative thoughts. Or, you could sit on the couch for days on end and not have a routine, goals, or structure during this time. While that many feel nice for a few days it will quickly impact your mood, motivation, as well as physical and mental health.

So now what?

The most important thing during this time is to remember that you have choices. While life feels very small and limited right now and you do not have control over many things, you have control over your actions and responses. Each time you act, remember that your actions can fall into one of these five categories: solve the problem, change how you feel, accept the situation, stay miserable, or make it worse, and choose wisely.

*The following is adapted from Linehan, M., M., (2014). DBT Training Manual. New York, NY: The Guilford Press. Please see the full text for more resources*

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