Learn how to set realistic expectations for better mental health.
The mental health costs of COVID-19 and related crises have been staggering. According to the CDC, in the U.S. the number of adults with anxiety/depression has risen from 8% in September 2019 to 41.5% in February 2021. Neuroscience says there is every reason to be optimistic about turning this tide back and achieving resilience, or the ability to thrive amidst adversity.
How we manage our expectations as we move forward is a critical component of restoring our emotional wellness and ability to thrive. The moment the pandemic became real for you, your amygdala took your entire body to a state of constant hyperarousal flooding your body with cortisol and other chemicals that exhausted your brain and body. This created an on-going experience of a toxic stew of emotions from sadness to anger to frustration to feeling isolated and on and on. Anything you experience for 60 – 70 days literally rewires the brain. Our amygdala’s have kept us hyper aroused for far more than 70 days, rewiring our brain to make disturbing emotions our automatic reaction to any perceived threat.
Here are three ways to rewire your brain as we move forward. Practice them consistently to restore your sense of calm and confidence and ability to thrive.
1. Practice Acceptance
Accept developing anxiety, depression and burnout as natural responses to this incredibly challenging environment. That’s why so many of us are experiencing anxiety and depression disorders. It’s very disturbing and it interferes with our ability to function well. It is not a sign that there is something inherently wrong with you or those around you.
Accepting that your current mental state is a natural response means you cut off the negative self-talk:
“What’s wrong with me?”
“Why can’t I handle this?”
You restore room for helpful, hopeful thoughts, creating space to see that you will gain the ability to thrive—not just survive.
2. Move Forward, Don’t Return
COVID-19 has changed every aspect of everyone’s life around the globe. We can’t go back to the way things were. It’s just not possible.
Talking about going back to normal, returning to school, going back to work is like giving a booster shot to your amygdala. You are giving it more power to continue the neurological hijacking of your emotions and thoughts. A quick example. A local school district just “reopened.” From the moment kids got on the bus wearing masks and sitting in every other row—there was nothing about it that was a “return” to normal. Sitting behind plexiglass, kids struggled to hear teachers and classmates. Hallways were disturbingly quiet as anxious kids tried to get to their next class.
At the end of the first day, one 17-year-old senior said, “I don’t know what that was but it wasn’t school.” The talk of “returning” had set hopeful expectations for the enjoyment of some senior year rituals—like field trips to amusement parks, proms, and graduations filled with hugs. The actual experiences crushed those hopes.
Talk about moving forward into new ways of working, learning, and living. Not “returning”—creating a new world.
3. Build Your Pragmatic Optimism
Take control of your expectations by consistently answering the following three questions for yourself, family and friends, and co-workers.
• Will this last forever?
No. Every trusted expert agrees COVID-19 will be driven into submission. We will create new and better jobs. In fact, the rest of this decade has already been termed the “Soaring Twenties.”
• Will we lose everything?
We have all lost a lot. People were lost to COVID-19. Jobs and family businesses are gone. Yet we gained some important things to be mindful about: we are more empathetic with each other; some of us have become closer to family and friends; what’s really important in life is clearer.
• How can I use my experience, talent and motivation to move forward?
Each day find a way to make things a bit better. Some days it will be big things, like helping someone find a new job. Some days it will be small things, like helping your 80-year-old neighbor take her garbage out.