Kyle Haney, Ph.D. | Staff Psychologist:

Covid-19 has put our world in a place of upheaval. It is completely understandable to worry “how is this pandemic going to affect me and my mental health?” and wonder “when we can start to return to normal?” The research tells us that most individuals who experience an unintentional traumatic event, such as a natural disaster or health crisis, will never meet criteria for PTSD and improve on their ownᵃ. However, there are a number of strategies in cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) that you can use to bolster your resiliency and buffer against any negative outcomes.

CBT strategies help you directly address unhelpful thinking patterns, avoidance behaviors, and deficits in pleasure or accomplishment that may contribute to current anxieties and future mental health issues. It is not uncommon for us to ruminate about or to overthink upsetting situations. It’s how the brain thinks it’s problem solving! However, ruminating can often have a detrimental effect, and cause more distress because it keeps the upsetting situation at the forefront of the brain. Mindfulness strategies can be very effective in helping the brain “unstick” from upsetting thought patterns and refocus energy on the present. You can imagine a blue sky with clouds floating by and place your thoughts on the clouds as you watch them go in and out of sight. You could also state “I’m having the thought that….” in order to break the running loop. It may also be helpful to evaluate your worry or negative thoughts like a scientist, looking at all of the evidence both supporting and not supporting your worry. This way you can help your mind identify alternative ways of viewing these difficult times. For instance, if you’re thinking “I was so lazy today; I can’t do anything,” you might notice that while you did sleep later than you would have liked, you also cleaned your dishes and responded to two emails. So perhaps a new way of viewing your day might be “I accomplished a few tasks even though I slept late.”

It is also important to approach the situations that you might be inclined to avoid because of COVID so that you have opportunities to adapt to the new normal. Our goal is to learn that we can tolerate difficult emotions. Also we may find that we experience more joy and less discomfort than initially predicted for an event. Try taking a walk with a mask and social distancing a few times a week instead of avoiding outside and friends all together. Or perhaps you log onto the Zoom call with your extended family that was planned a week ago even though you do not have the energy to do so. Social connection and engaging with situations that we fear can help teach our brains to move toward courage and resilience rather than avoidance.

Throughout the week, we can create a buffer against negative experiences and emotions by making sure that we have a reserve of positive emotions based on pleasurable activities and feelings of competence by engaging in mastery tasks. Each day try to plan to do at least one thing, even one small activity, that brings a sense of contentment. This could be watching the next episode of your favorite comedy show, trying to cook a new recipe, sending a goofy email to a friend, spending a little extra time in the shower or bath, or reading a new summer book. It’s also important to incorporate activities throughout the week that makes us feel accomplished and successful to balance out the joy. We want to make sure these tasks are somewhat difficult, though achievable, and we don’t want to base what’s easy or hard in comparison to others! Each person is his or her own point of comparison. So a mastery task could be washing, drying, and folding your laundry for the past 2 weeks. This also could be starting to learn a new language, learning to sew masks for donation, or making a budgeting sheet in excel.

By incorporating any or all of these CBT-based strategies into your weekly routine, you can help increase the likelihood that your resilience in a post-Covid-19 world will buffer against possible PTSD or other mental health difficulties. If you would like to learn more about Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, PTSD, or preparing to integrate into a new normal during this pandemic, please contact us to schedule a session today!

ᵃ Santiago, P. N., Ursano, R. J., Gray, C. L., Pynoos, R. S., Spiegel, D., Lewis-Fernandez, R., … & Fullerton, C. S. (2013). A systematic review of PTSD prevalence and trajectories in DSM-5 defined trauma exposed populations: intentional and non-intentional traumatic events. PloS one, 8(4), e59236.

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