Sometimes the right question in the right moment is all you need. Once, when I was teaching a large group of people, a participant made a joking comment about me that got a laugh from the others. This joke sent me swirling down into a story about what kind of a person the participant was, what the people who overheard that comment must think of me and how that comment would surely undermine my credibility as a teacher. It was distracting and took energy away from my ability to be the teacher I wanted to be.
Thankfully my boss, who has an uncanny ability to know what to say asked me a question that immediately turned the whole situation on its head. “Could you think of any positive reasons the person may have said that?”
It took me a second to step out of my negative downward spiral, but I soon realized that the person and I have a congenial relationship and perhaps he made that comment because he knew I had a good sense of humor and was strong enough to handle the ribbing. Immediately I shifted from assuming everyone thought I was a rube to thinking everyone might see me as confident, funny and comfortable in my own skin. The sinking feeling in my stomach dissipated, and I could move on.
This story has been staying with me as I have been coping with the unknowns, fear, daily challenges and sweeping changes that come like waves day after day during this COVID-19 pandemic. During this time many opportunities to practice shifting my perspective have surfaced, and I have zeroed in on a few questions that have enabled me to pivot and see things in a different way.
Any one of these questions can shift a moment of despair into a moment of peace, gratitude or possibility. Try them out for yourselves and please respond in the comments if you have other questions that have been helpful to you.
What is ok in my life right now?
Everything is not ok, but everything is not terrible either.
Each time I get sucked into ruminating about the things I’m losing, the people who are losing even more than me or the fear of loved ones getting sick, I know I’m going down a dark hole. When I can shift my perspective and think of 10 things that are actually ok right now it’s like I’m throwing a rope ladder down that hole, allowing me to climb out.
I think of the unexpected gifts like more time with my toddler or mid-day workouts with my husband. I think of the fact that we have a home to live in and a job to do. I notice the grass here in Wisconsin is turning green and the birds are singing out my window. I think of my friendships, which are now both more robust and more virtual. I remember that I’m alive. Gratitude practices, like this one, have been shown to increase the feelings of well-being, reduce physical symptoms and increase optimism.
What is ok in your life? Take a moment to contemplate that now and often. If you want this to be even more impactful, write down your answer to this question.
What is the story I’m telling myself about this situation?
Our brains are designed to fill in the gaps with stories, and most of the time this is useful. This mechanism is helpful when you observe someone slip on the street and your brain tells you “careful, looks like a patch of ice”, or you see someone crying and your brain informs you that person must be sad.
However, the story telling can become problematic in several ways. Challenges surface when we either believe our stories to be fact or believe we have developed the ability to predict the future. Asking the question “what is the story I’m telling myself about this situation?” will make you conscious of your story, which is often hiding below the surface. When you are aware of the story you can begin to examine and question it.
Our stories are often fears in disguise. During this time, our stories may sound like “my whole family will get sick and I will lose my loved ones”, “I’ll never work again”, or “my kid is going to lose out on a whole year of education”.
Use this question to apply a bit of skepticism to your stories, and you’ll likely notice the stories you are telling yourself are as true as a Grimm’s Fairy Tale. You may fear you will lose your retirement funds, but that story is just as likely as the story that the economy will rebound and your retirement savings will be back on track. When we can look our stories in the eye, we can tell them we don’t need them, we can choose a story that supports us in coping and we can make the empowering choice to move forward in our lives, instead of stagnating. You’ll also likely notice your stories are mostly negative. We are wired to pay more attention to the negative thoughts, feelings and experiences, but that doesn’t mean we need to believe our negative stories.
So examine the stories you are telling yourself and notice how they make you feel. Ask yourself if you can be 100% sure that story is true. If the story makes you feel drained, anxious or down, and you can’t be sure it’s true, know that you have a choice and can choose to replace that story with one that serves you.
How can I help?
I don’t know about you, but every day I wish I could put on my superhero cape and start saving people, now more than ever. Helping others, even in small ways, allows us to feel more control over our lives. Research also shows that helping people lights up the reward centers of our brain. Helping others brings us the same pleasure we get from the gratification of our own desires.
Take power into your own hands and start finding creative ways to help during this pandemic. The ways that you will be helping will likely be small but know that they have a potentially huge impact. This is a unique time where we can see just how interconnected we are.
Here are ideas based upon what our family is doing:
- Stay at home if you are able
- Call elderly neighbors to check on them
- Learn how to wash your hands properly and do it often
- Check in with loved ones
- Do random acts of kindness
- Send cards to family and nursing homes (we created finger paint art cards with my toddler to send)
- Don’t hoard supplies
- Donate to a charity
- Support local businesses through gift cards, donations, streaming classes, take-out food, etc.
- Send boxes of baked goods from a local bakery to your neighbors
- Resist the urge to spread misinformation about COVID-19 on social media
- Donate blood (if you are healthy)
These three questions can help you recognize what’s good, fine tune your lenses of perception and help you cope. They will help you move from fear to possibility and will serve you long after the pandemic is over. Stress isn’t just an inconvenience, it can negatively impact our immune system, hormones, blood pressure, heart rate and more. These questions do more than help you feel good, they are good for your health.
In this video a few Promega employees share how they are coping with the COVID-19 pandemic.