“Denial is a defense mechanism for a reason,” Jor-El Caraballo, L.M.H.C., therapist and cofounder of Brooklyn-based therapy practice Viva Wellness, previously told me. “You just have to watch that you don’t use it at the exclusion of other tools.” If you need more convincing, read this article by my colleague Hannah Pasternak, where she dove into exactly why you shouldn’t feel bad about distracting yourself from the stresses of 2020 (and beyond).
5. But find some way to process all your emotions.
Which is easier said than done, I know. But it is and remains crucial. “When you’re busy numbing out your feelings, your feelings are in the other room doing push-ups,” Caroline Fenkel, D.S.W., L.C.S.W., executive director of Newport Academy, previously told me. “Then, when you’re done smoking weed or watching Netflix or whatever you were doing to numb out, and you walk into the other room, you’re like, Wait a minute. These feelings are worse than they were before. That’s because you gave them all that time and space to do push-ups.”
Which is all to say: If we don’t periodically give ourselves space to process and grieve and feel all the baggage that continues to come with this pandemic, we are giving that pain a shit-ton of time to do pushups. To learn how to process those emotions, read this article on emotional regulation, this guide to starting a journaling practice, or tbh…half the articles I link to throughout this post. We all process differently, and it doesn’t hurt to have plenty of ideas to choose from.
6. Cut “should” from your self-talk vocabulary.
This is another therapy trick that I’ve loved for a long time but that became even more relevant amid the pandemic. There was so much messaging about what we should and shouldn’t be doing during the pandemic (throwback to when I convinced myself I should use the pandemic to write another book, lol) and should and shouldn’t be feeling. And all that does is make us feel guilty and ashamed and inadequate—which is why therapists continue to recommend interfering when you catch yourself should-ing yourself.
There’s more to it than that, of course, including how to actually resist the siren song of should. I touched on it in this early pandemic article, right when my inner voice was full of shoulds.
7. Learn skills to deal with common cognitive distortions.
Humans fall into mental traps known as cognitive distortions all the time, pandemic or not, but oh boy did a few cognitive distortions have a field day in 2020. Namely, catastrophizing (when you assume the worst will happen), all-or-nothing thinking (when you think—and worry—in absolute terms), and future telling (when you convince yourself you know how things will work out despite not having proof). Just to name a few.
Why this year? “Because our anxiety baseline is so high right now, for understandable reasons, we are overestimating threat and falling into all-or-nothing thinking,” Andrea Bonior, Ph.D., licensed clinical psychologist and author of Detox Your Thoughts: Quit Negative Self-Talk for Good and Discover the Life You’ve Always Wanted, told me for an article about dealing with all our existential pandemic anxiety. “Even if there’s truth to a thought—like there’s a chance of infection if you go to the grocery store—not all thoughts that are partly true are functional and helpful.”
Anyway, these thought patterns are the target of cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) and let me tell you, CBT exercises came in real handy this year and I don’t see that changing. Incidentally, that article I linked to above is full of tips on getting started and there are a few workbooks in this roundup that can get you started, too.
8. Take things one day at a time if you need to.
Okay, I know that ~taking things one day at a time~ and ~focusing on the present~ are really annoying platitudes, and that’s not what I mean. I mean strategically ignoring the future so you don’t spiral out about all of the uncertainty in the world or all the ways COVID-19 has set fire to your life.