2020 has definitely been one for the books, and it isn’t even over yet. Amid a global pandemic, so much is uncertain and unknown. What will the future look like? What will tomorrow look like? What will the world be like after all of this is over? It is not surprising that so many people are struggling with anxiety, grief, depression, anger and loneliness—we have all experienced low moments over the past few months. Thankfully, there is a way we can calm the mental chaos we are experiencing and take back control. In this week’s podcast and blog, I speak with Harvard-trained psychologist and health coach Dr. Sasha Heinz about why we struggle to get a handle on our anxiety, how to go from knowing what to do to doing it, how we can unsubscribe from our thoughts, how to handle pandemic fears and frustrations and what we can do now to create our own future, even when facing the unknown.
First, when it comes to taking back control over our minds, we need to know the difference between knowing what to do and doing it. Everyone struggles with this intention-action gap. It is frustrating knowing what to do but not doing it, which is why we need to focus on our thinking. As Dr. Sasha notes, to go from knowledge to action, we need to close the mindset gap. Our actions follow our thoughts. If we don’t change how we think, we cannot change our behavior.
This is especially true during the current pandemic. It is easy to feel like our minds are racing and all over the place. This mental chaos will make us anxious, even if we don’t know the source of our angst, especially when we are stuck at home for long periods of time! The key to controlling this is to see our anxiety, fears and worries as signals to redirect and refocus our mental energy. We can do this by:
1. Giving our minds something to focus on.
This can be any skill or activity that requires some learning and skill-building, such as a sport, a hobby like cooking or knitting, or even a simple task like organizing the kitchen cabinets. This activity should not be too easy, or our mind will start wandering again, or too difficult, which can make us more stressed out. It should just allow us to lose our sense of self (or “get in the zone”), which, in turn, calms down the mind and nervous system and allows our mental energy to flow normally. This is a way of getting “unstuck”; it gives the brain something to focus on so it can relax within a structured and controlled environment.
2. Avoiding too much passive entertainment.
Although watching a movie or TV show now and then can be a good way to relax and unwind after a long day, during the current pandemic we need to be careful of not falling into the trap of the “extended weekend”.Passively watching TV or consuming entertainment will not get rid of that nagging sense of anxiety that comes when we are in a state of mental chaos. In fact, it can be emotionally numbing, like an atrophy of the muscles, putting fuel on the fire when we start experiencing anxiety and stress again.
3. Getting to the root of the issue.
If we ignore or try to supress our feelings, especially the uncomfortable emotions we do not want to face, we can end up making things worse—as I always say, suppressed emotions eventually explode and can take over our mental life. We have to get to the root of what is going on in our life. What are the thoughts behind the uncomfortable emotions we are experiencing? What is the underlying cause or causes of our anxiety?
As we do this, we are using the mind to get to the root of what is going on and changing the brain—we start changing our cognitive interpretation of what is happening to us and around us. By examining our reactions, thoughts, emotions and actions, we can find the thoughts that are creating our feelings, actions and reality and change them, thereby changing our future.
My app SWITCH may be helpful during this process, as it is a great tool for helping you learn how to manage your mind, deal with the roots of your mental chaos, and overcome negative thought patterns and behaviors that impact your mental health through the mental process of reconceptualization (it is now on sale at 50% off for a 3-month subscription).
4. Not suppressing our emotions.
Feelings like grief, anger, sadness and depression are normal parts of life. The capacity to love and feel deeply is what makes life worth living. Trying to suppress the negative will also suppress the positive, limiting our emotional repertoire and impacting our ability to truly enjoy life.
In fact, when we try to suppress our uncomfortable feelings and emotions, we can make them worse. This is what Dr. Sasha calls “dirty pain”, as resisting or fighting things like grief and sadness can make a situation more stressful, compounding our anxiety and mental distress.
“Clean pain”, on the other hand, is when we surrender to our feelings in the moment, embracing them and seeking out what they are telling us about ourselves. When we do this, we are better able to navigate our own emotional landscape, and can learn how to handle our emotions instead of getting overwhelmed by them.
When it comes your thoughts and feelings, you always need to remember that you have the power to control what goes on in your head. Every thought that you think is optional. Next time you find yourself in a state of mental chaos, imagine your mind as a buffet of thoughts. You have picked up certain thoughts, feelings and actions over time, but now you get to decide who you are and what you believe about yourself. What thoughts are useful? What thoughts do you want to keep? What thoughts do you want to unsubscribe from? Remind yourself that you are in control. You have cognitive sovereignty!
For more on controlling your thinking, dealing with the pandemic and improving your mental health, listen to my podcastwith Dr. Sasha (episode #189), and check out her website. If you enjoy listening to my podcast, please consider leaving a 5-star review and subscribing! And keep sharing episodes with friends and family and on social media (don’t forget to tag me so I can see your posts!).
2:00 The intention-action gap, and how to overcome it
7:18 How to get unstuck & control the mental chaos
24:11 The different components of wellbeing
27:30 Why we need to think about our thinking
32:50 How to deal with grief and negative emotions
36:40 The difference between clean pain and dirty pain
40:35 How to unsubscribe from your thoughts
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