Tips for Creating and Practicing Positive Habits During Challenging Times
“Life is not the way it’s supposed to be, it’s the way it is. The way you cope is what makes the difference.” – Virginia Satir
How are you coping right now? In the midst of COVID-19, or any crisis, difficult situation, or challenging circumstance, are you being reactive, or are you being responsive? It's a powerful question, and one that - especially during challenges - requires us to get present and check-in with ourselves.
Reaction is automatic. It's uncontrolled, and often uncontrollable. Reaction is usually full of tension, or aggression, or fear. It is based on past experience, emotions, and stories. It's knee-jerk, unconscious beliefs driving our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. It is based, quite literally, in survival.
Response is choice. It is experiencing the NOW, and choosing an action, behavior, thoughts, or feelings based on the present moment. It is being present enough to weigh creative choices, options, and see longer-term results. It is vision-based, that is, it is based on the bigger picture of what you want to create for yourself in your life, rather than what you are simply feeling at the moment. While things may feel upside-down, topsy-turvy and out of control right now, the truth is, YOU are -- and always have been -- in control. While life may feel out of control, the truth is that you are in control of your life, because you are in control of your mindset.
The other night I had a full-on meltdown. Anger and tears and frustration and waves of hopelessness - really, ugly crying. I had not experienced that yet in the 4 plus weeks I’ve been in quarantine. I’ve had moments of irritation or frustration or concern, but this was a doozy. And I’m not even sure where it came from. I’m not even sure that that matters. We are in a crisis, afterall. We have completely shifted our world. Our relationships are not behaving the same way. Our work like doesn’t look the same. We can’t even leave the house without being conscious of what is happening around us and who is getting within 6 feet of us, and trusting that they’re in agreement to take the necessary action and follow the protocols of safety in this current climate. It has caused a major shift in how we operate, how we think, how we relate, and how we connect. It would make sense that it might take a different way to cope.
It could be very easy to cope with destructive behaviors. Lord knows, I was the queen of self-destruction. But I am aware and conscious that that’s not going to get me anywhere but more depression and anxiety and anger in the long run. I really do want to eat pizza and drink Stella every night…but I really don’t want to deal with the 10 pounds and depression, and that little o'l thing called teetering on the verge of addiction. We go to places like the bottom of a bottle of wine, or the whole box of Oreos when we are experiencing lack of control, or when we are experiencing hopelessness, or anxiety.
FEELING ALL THE FEELS
It is absolutely critical to start paying attention, asking yourself, “What am I really feeling right now?” or, “What am I experiencing?” Note what you’re feeling and address that, rather attempting to numb out or stuff it into ignorance. To be with what you’re experiencing in that current moment, and recognizing that you have a choice to move on, or stuff another Oreo in your mouth (literally or figuratively), is powerful. Moment to moment, making the choice to stay present with what you are experiencing. And being OK with it…and moving on to the next thing to fully experience that.
But what also can be very powerful are creating rituals and practices, so that when you find yourself experiencing these feelings, you have some solid tactics and grounded habits to get you through, especially when you "don't feel like it."
I want to make a distinction here that I’m not saying anything like “just be positive” or “think positive” or just “be happy.” That would be irresponsible, even if we weren’t in the middle of a pandemic. There is nothing wrong with being in breakdown. There is nothing wrong with experiencing sadness and anxiety, and loneliness, there is nothing wrong with feeling out of control, or lost, or angry, or irritated. All of these are absolutely normal and appropriate human emotions that we all experience. The key is to notice and manage where you are putting your energy: c onstantly looking and noticing and managing your energy.
The more we focus and put our attention, our thoughts, our words on the anger, frustration, and sadness that’s literally where our energy in our body clings to. Like a magnet. We are sending little neurons to focus on these things, and what happens is that the more energy we put on something, the bigger and more pronounced it gets. It works with thoughts, too. That’s when we start to spin out of control in anger and sadness and depression, and we get more of the same anger and sadness, and it gets harder and harder to dig ourselves out.
Instead, choose what you want to put your energy on. Yes, you get to choose. You can even choose right now. I chose love. I choose calm. I choose productivity and creativity. I choose to chose the words that will have a profound impact on those who are reading this. This is what I’m choosing. Has the world changed? Well, no…not really “out there,” but I can tell you that my little world right now has. I choose to not let the anger about politics, the sadness this destruction of human life take me over. Instead, I choose to consciously stay productive and uplifted and connected, and support others in doing the same. And I’ll have my moments like I did the other day, for sure. But at that moment, I can also ask “Is this what I want to put my energy on?” And then I can begin to take steps of healthy habits and practices that are in my tool belt.
POWERFUL AND POSITIVE HABITS
1) THE FIVE-SECOND RULE
The 5 Second Rule is from Mel Robbins and it has literally changed my life. To move yourself into action, count down from 5…. 5…4….3…2…1 and then move. Go. You can use this with anything. I started using it just like she said how she originally came up with it: getting out of bed in the morning. 54321 and out of bed. Throw in all the stuff about what happens to our brains when we slap the snooze button and fall asleep , and I became terrified NOT to get out of bed in the morning immediately! It is awesome, and I can tell you that I practice it, and it totally works. It’s a mindset of action…of forward movement - and this is the MOST IMPORTANT part - when you’re not feeling like it. And this habit has come in handy for me for even the roughest moments, and I now practice it with other things to get "unstuck."
2) MAKE YOUR BED
In a commencement address in 2014 at the University of Texas, Austin, Admiral William H. McRaven talked about the power of this simple habit. He said “If you want to change the world, start off by making your bed.” Now, not all of us are about changing the world, especially right now from our living rooms, but there is more to this. What I see is even bigger. If you want to change YOUR WORLD, start off by making your bed. It’s a brilliant speech, and I encourage you to watch or read it in it’s entirety, as there are more golden nuggets he gives. But what happens here is significant, and here is the point he was making: You’ve got to learn how to do the little things with consistency and pride in order to do the big things right. This sense of accomplishment will carry you, and before you know it, you will be operating in a whole new way. I started doing this a little over a year ago, and before this is NEVER, I mean NEVERRRRR… made my bed. Since then, I can’t go even a day without making my bed. Even when I sleep in from sickness or something like that. Even when I have already decided I’m taking a nap later. I am compelled to do it. Because it’s not just about the bed. I know it's a part of something bigger. And I am committed to driving forward, everyday in my vision, and this small step is a significant part of that bigger picture. Do yourself this favor.
3) GET PRESENT
Practice being mindful, which requires being present. I mentioned this at the beginning of this article, with the distinction between reaction and response. Noticing what is occurring, in that moment, and then choosing where you want to put your energy, your attention, your words, and your heart requires being present. Being mindful about what you put your energy on and making positive and productive choices in that moment will have a profound effect on you - and others. So what does this look like?
First, when you find yourself beginning to bubble up, experience it. Feel your anger, disappointment, sadness, frustration in that moment. You'll notice that when you're not forcing it, each emotion actually only lasts a second or two. Emotions come and go. It’s when we choose to stay there that we are no longer experiencing that emotion, but putting energy on it, and choosing to stay there. Letting emotions come and go, ebbing and flowing like waves, takes practice. As I mentioned at the beginning, I lost my shit. I was being present with my anger and sadness, and chose to stay in it at that moment. At the time, I wasn’t even present enough to be aware that that was what I was choosing About 20-30 minutes later, noticing that that was what I was putting my energy on, I chose to move on.
And again I will say, this takes practice! When you notice something bubbling, stop. Experience it. Breathe. Then experience the next emotion that comes up. Then the next. Keep breathing. All the being conscious to choose calm, choose peace, choose compassion in your mind and heart.
When you find yourself in these moments, another practice you can try is doing a “5 Senses Check” to check in with yourself. This can be done very quickly, in 10-15 seconds, or drawn out to a 5 minute check - or longer. Whatever you feel you need to ground yourself in the present moment, this 5 Senses Check I created will support you.
- Close your eyes.
- TOUCH - Notice what your body feels like. Where there is tension. What feels tight. What your breath feels like.
- SOUND - Notice the sounds around you. Are there any that stick out? Any that are annoying? Any that are soothing? Simply notice the sounds around you.
- SIGHT - Notice the images that are coming up in your mind’s eye. What do you see? Is it real? Or is it made up? Notice any images, without judgement.
- TASTE - Notice any tastes in your mouth. Is it bitter? Is it sweet? Do you have a dry mouth? Notice anything.
- SMELL - Take a deep breath in and notice any smells. Do you smell the smells of cooking? Of leaves? Of cold, sterile air? Notice any smells and simply be with what you notice.
If you’re really “in it,” ask yourself “What is really going on?” “What would support me right now” “What do I really want to put my energy on?” Asking yourself these powerful questions will help to support your energy shifting to something positive and forward-moving, rather than staying stuck. Then go back to 5-4-3-2-1 and take a step of forward movement.
4) GET AIR AND LIGHT
This is exactly how it sounds. Open the shades, open the windows. Take a walk outside. Get air and get light. Nature has healing powers that we may never truly understand, but it is scientifically proven that breath and light increase our serotonin. Add in a walk or run or stretch, and we are also increasing our endorphins.
I encourage you to do some more research on habits - there are so many articles out there that can support you with a daily routine. Drinking water, meditating, daily journaling, yoga, daily gratitude practice, listening to music are all powerful daily practices. Most of all, be kind and compassionate to yourself, and keep reminding yourself that this too will pass.
If you are interested in doing more with this, here are some things to think about or to journal:
- What are the triggers that make me lose my cool?
- What practices or habits can I begin to practice that will support me in staying out of the funk?
- What one or two habits can I start to integrate into my life that will support me in staying centered and mindful during challenges?
What habits or practices keep you grounded during challenging times? Feel free to share!