Cabin Fever. You're probably feeling at least a little bit stir-crazy at this point. I know I am. Most of us are several weeks into some type of job furlough, quarantine, stay-at-home order...and we can likely anticipate several more weeks of this to come. In fact, it wouldn't surprise me if you were feeling more irritable, agitated, bored, and even feeling the first signs of depressive symptoms. It's incredibly important to be very intentional about self-care strategies. Notice the word intentional...if you take a passive approach to self-care, you're going to struggle.
Last week we talked about the psychological process of cognitive rumination that underlies experiences of anxiety, worry, and depression. One antidote prescribed are flow/absorption creating activities. Flow states are incompatible with active rumination and are also associated with overall emotional well-being. This week we're going to introduce a basic coping skill and the practice of mindfulness.
Behaviors<--->Emotions. Cognitive behavioral therapy suggests a link between our behaviors and emotions (as well a links with our thoughts/cognition). The link is bidirectional, meaning that our emotions can affect our behaviors AND our behaviors can affect our emotions. If we're not careful however, times of emotional difficulty can lead us to engage in ineffective behavioral patterns (inactivity, overeating, substance/alcohol use, zoning out in front of the TV, mindless internet surfing, etc). These ineffective behavioral patterns have a feedback effect on our emotions, making us feel worse in the long run. On the other hand, if we're careful about engaging in positive activities, the opposite effect can happen and we can experience a boost in our mood and emotions, or at least a stabilization. A more complicated and nuanced application of this concept is a research proven treatment for depression (Behavioral Activation).
Building Positives. While we're stuck in quarantine, it is very important that we deliberately schedule daily activities to build positive experiences. In the self-care skill we're teaching you today, there are two classes of activities to schedule daily: pleasurable/relaxing activities and mastery building activities. Pleasurable/relaxing activities are pretty straightforward - do something every day that is fun, enjoyable, or relaxing. I suggest that you stay away from using TV, social media, mind altering substances, and highly passive activities for this. Mastery building activities are things you can do that give you a sense of accomplishment, satisfaction, achievement, or competence when you complete them. These can be as simple and mundane as making your bed or chores around the house, but they can also be so much more.
Variety is Key. One danger however, is getting in a rut or routine with doing the same self-care activities every day. If you do the same pleasurable/relaxing or mastery activities daily, is doesn't matter how great they are, eventually they will lose some of their payoff and you won't enjoy them nearly as much. We can actually blame this on how remarkably adaptable the human body and brain is. In particular we're referring to the concept of hedonic adaptation or the hedonic treadmill. Simply put, we get used to repeated pleasurable activities/experiences and begin to experience them as less enjoyable. So if you click into a repetitive routine of scrolling Facebook and watching Netflix during this quarantine, it may seem fun and enjoyable at first, but sooner than later it's going to feel pretty blah and your mood will start to drop. Try to build regular variety into your daily positive building activities.
Mindfulness. We're going to introduce one more concept to this week's quarantine coping skill - mindfulness. Mindfulness is a concept originally developed in Eastern meditative practices that has been clinically researched over the last several decades. Separated from any particular worldview/religion, mindfulness can be viewed set of psychological skills or processes which research has shown to have a number of benefits (increased positive emotions, improved affect regulation, decreases in anxiety and depression, improved brain health, to name a few). Mindfulness has been incorporated into a number of evidenced based therapies (Dialectical Behavior Therapy Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy, Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction, Mindfulness Based Relapse Prevention, etc).
A Simple Definition. Mindfulness can be broadly defined as "Paying attention, on purpose, to the present moment, with an open, accepting, nonjudgmental, or curious attitude." When we do something mindfully we direct our full attention to doing that one thing in the moment. When our mind wanders, we don't berate ourselves, we just gently guide our attention back to the experience. We experience the moment as it is, without judging it, trying to control it, or pushing unwanted experiences away. Mindfulness is really something to be experienced and practiced rather than just read or talked about. So whatever your pleasurable/relaxing or mastery building activities are each day, the goal is to do them mindfully.
Practice, Practice, Practice. Mindfulness is not really something to read or talk about, but to be experienced and practice. As a skill, it is something that you can get better at the more that you do. Also, like most skills, you probably won't be very proficient at first and may not experience huge benefits. I encourage you to stick with it! The benefits are often dose dependent. The more you practice the more you reap. To give you some exposure and ideas for how you can apply mindfulness to your daily building positive activities. Try the guided exercises below. Do each one in a quiet, private location where you won't be interrupted.
Intro to Mindfulness
Suggestions. Here are a few ideas for pleasurable activities. Soothe yourself with your senses: hot bath/shower, scented candles, soothing music. Do a home workout, exercise routine, yoga, tai chi, etc - there are lots of free videos online. Get creative - woodworking, painting, drawing, writing, poetry, etc. Play video games. Play board games or card games. Do a jigsaw puzzle. Plan a future vacation. Plan a future birthday party. Watch funny videos or standup comedy online. Write someone a card. Call friends or family to tell them how much you care about them. Cook a favorite meal or snack. Make a nice cup of coffee or tea - drink it with your favorite feel-good music playing. Read a book, magazine, or comic book. Do a crossword puzzle.Go for a walk. Watch the sunrise or sunset. Watch the birds in your back yard. These are just to get you thinking.
Here are some suggestions for mastery activities. Make your bed. Clean the house. Create a new budget. Update your resume. Update your LinkedIn profile. Workout and push yourself. Learn yoga online. Start learning a new language. Learn a new creative, artistic, or craft skill. Do yard work or gardening. Write a poem or short story. Start your own blog. Learn computer programming skills. Take an online course (photography, creative writing, history, etc).