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Coping with Quarantine: Dealing with Worry and Finding Flow

The world we live in. As both mandatory and voluntary quarantines, social distancing, and shelter-in-place orders continue, many people are finding themselves in states of heightened emotional vulnerability, increased distress, and even experiencing increasing levels of anxious and depressive symptoms. This is normal and to be expected. What we have is a perfect storm for emotional struggle: high levels of perceived uncertainty (common thoughts "when will the virus pass, will I be safe, will I keep my job, how will I pay bills, what does this mean for my family" etc) coupled with decreased access to interpersonal, environmental, and behavioral resources that serve to up-regulate mood (we can't see each other in person, engage in normal social activities, engage in hobbies, etc).

Not surprisingly, many people are experience a mix of boredom, restlessness, loneliness, fear, anxiety, and worry. If this is you or someone you know be patient and compassionate (see last week's article on self-compassion). Hopefully this weeks article will give you another coping skill that will help you deal with both worry and boredom.

First let me introduce the concept of cognitive rumination. Refers to our thinking/thoughts. For rumination, think of cows, who ruminate (they have to chew on their food over and over to digest it). Cognitive rumination is basically mentally chewing on something over and over ...and it underlies several mental health issues (depression, anxiety disorders, PTSD, OCD).

Understanding cognitive rumination. Rumination is a normal psychological process that many people engage in when facing an upsetting experience. Typically it's short lived and does not cause a lot of problems. Just like many other things however, it can become habitual and unbalanced. This is where we start to have issues. To better grasp it, here are some more features of problematic rumination:

  • It's passive - we don't have to actively try to engage in rumination, it tends to happen automatically.

  • It's recurrent - it becomes a habitual ongoing response.

  • It's abstract - Ruminative thought tends to be more global, generalized, and focused on the why and the implications of the event.

  • It tends to be negatively focused - it focuses on unwanted feelings, problems, upsetting events.

Rumination is tricky and I often describe it like a mental or psychological mosquito/bug bite. When you have a bug bite it itches and you have the urge to scratch it. When you do scratch it, you often feel some immediate relief, but sooner or later, the itch returns even more intensely. The urge to scratch continues. If you keep doing it, the bite will get irritated, inflamed, and even bleed. Rumination is like the mental equivalent of this, we think it will relieve the problem and feel the urge to dwell on the problem, but every time we do, the itch returns stronger and we drive ourselves further into distress.

Effects of rumination. Research studies suggest ongoing and excessive rumination has many negative effects. It tends to make bad moods worse. It is accompanied by increases in negative thinking. High ruminators are also more likely to recall more negative memories. Ruminators have trouble focusing and tend to have more negative predictions about their future. Also, typically rumination is not concrete or action oriented, therefor it tends to make us feel worse AND doesn't lead to helpful actions to address our situation.

Finding flow. One possible coping response to rumination is flow state. Flow is a psychological state that is also referred to as absorption or being in-the-zone. Often athletes, musicians, professional fighters, artists, and surgeons have experience with flow and you may have too. When you experience flow, you're engaged in some activity and it's almost like you are experiencing pure awareness - it's just you and the activity, you're engaged, but not caught up in your head thinking. Although while in flow you don't typically experience strong positive emotions, flow is associated with overall positive emotional well-being.

Characteristics of flow. Flow state and the activities that lead to it have defined characteristics. Knowing this is helpful because you can begin to reflect on past experiences to identify memories of times you experienced flow. Flow is experienced as a "deep and effortless involvement in an activity that occurs when individuals are fully engaged and immersed in what they are doing (Watkins, 2016, p223). Characteristics of flow and flow activities:

  • Focused awareness of the activity in the present moment.

  • The activity provides more or less immediate feedback as to your performance and the effects of your actions (the musician hears how they are playing, the yogi feels the position of their body as they do the yoga poses). There is a desired outcome.

  • The activity is appropriately challenging. If it's too easy it won't be absorbing or engaging. If it's to difficult it will be irritating or frustrating.

  • There is an experience of limited thinking, analytic thought, and self-talk, often accompanied by decreased or absent self-focused thinking.

  • Time is experienced different, as either slowed down or sped up.

  • Flow activities tend to be intrinsically rewarding for the individual engaging in them.

Flow state or flow activities tend to be a good antidote for cognitive rumination. You cannot simultaneously engage in rumination and flow. Also, in general flow is associated with positive mood and well-being.

Resist the temptation. Right now many of us find ourselves stuck at home, bored, and worried, likely experiencing periods of rumination. It can be tempting to indulge the rumination, but remember that's the mental equivalent of scratching a bug bite - it may seem to feel better in the moment, but it will only make things worse. Also it can be tempting to engage in low-effort distractions and coping responses: watching TV/Netflix for hours, browsing Facebook, constantly scrolling Facebook/Instagram, constant snacking, etc. While many of these may offer some sort of short-term relief, none of them are likely help with rumination and boredom, or significantly boost your emotional well-being.

Instead, look for ways to find flow at home during quarantine. You'll need to self-reflect on past experiences or experiment with new ones to find flow. You may have to learn something new or dust off an old hobby/pastime/skill. Options to consider:

  • Playing an instrument

  • Learning a language

  • Anything artistic or crafty

  • Yoga, Tai-chi, Qi-gong

  • In-home exercise routines

  • Wood working

  • Gardening

  • Computer programming

  • Chess and other board games

  • Building models

  • Cooking

The list can go on and on! You will likely have to push through some feelings of listlessness, ennui, and distracting worry, but it's worth it! and the good news is that with the internet there are tremendous amounts of free resources online to learn everything on the above list and more.

Your assignment. If you're stuck working at home or not working at all, feeling bored, anxious, or depressed, commit to engaging some potential flow activity each day. Find the right match between your ability and the difficulty. Be patient with yourself. And see what happens to your mood after a week.

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