That’s not a misprint or a joke. I’m not sadistic (as far as I know), so please bear with me. To briefly set the stage: it is October of 2020, and the dizzying array of stressors associated with 2020 continues unabated. COVID-19, political unrest, racial tensions, economic insecurity, and their downstream consequences have resulted in a significant surge in overall psychological distress.
These statements are unsurprising for anyone not living under a rock; 2020 has been quite the year.
I initially set out to write a blog about healthy stress management techniques, but that topic has been covered ad infinitum, particularly within the past nine months. Much of the suggestions have been centered on self-care, limiting exposure to toxic individuals/situations, mindfulness meditation, and acceptance strategies. All of these recommendations are useful tools and helpful for a good deal of individuals. However, it is also possible that these options fall short for many, particularly given the breadth and depth of distress in these times. These are generally the healthiest of stress management strategies, but of course, there are also the less helpful strategies people commonly resort to as well.
In much of my recent observations, the stress levels of individuals have been staggeringly elevated. A good portion of the distress has been related to novel concerns pertinent to 2020 in particular. Much of these items look like the following:
- What happens if schools close again?
- What’s going to happen if there is another virus surge?
- Politics in this country is driving me crazy.
So, what to do?
Shifting your mindset may be a good start. According to a recent New York Times
article summarizing research on stress, shifting one’s perspective may be a useful tool in directly combating stress and anxiety. Essentially, your viewpoint on stress makes a significant difference in your response to stress, even when stressors are similar/identical.
Given that concept, my recommendation is to add stress. As paradoxical as that may sound, I sense that a tremendous amount of stress is passively imbibed unless we take active steps to do something different. We are so inundated with information that we have little to no ability to shut off and have little to no impact directly. Years of research have validated that feelings of despair can develop related to hopelessness and helplessness about the world and the future, mainly if our perception is that we have failed to change those feelings. As a result, adding on a stressful activity that we can be successful with may be a worthwhile endeavor. This is akin to the idea from positive psychology, in which you may not change the number of negatives in one’s life, but changing the proportion of positives and negatives in one’s life can be beneficial.
One major caveat to the recommendation to add stress is to add stress in the right way and with the right mindset. I believe there is some significant power in removing uncontrollable events from your description of what happened in 2020. Make 2020 about the political cause you got involved in, the dog you were able to train, the marriage vows you renewed, the home purchase you made. It won’t change the fact that it was the year of COVID, but it may help you get through it and potentially change how you look at the year in retrospect.
Please note: The traumatic consequences, particularly of COVID-related death/illnesses, long-term unemployment/economic ramifications, and racial aggression, inherent to the past year, are essential to mention and not gloss over, but not the focus of the blog. These issues can cause significant physical and psychological damage; if any of these items are at play, visiting a mental health professional is indicated.