How To Cope With Hope And Uncertainty: 'I’ve Conditioned My Brain Not To Get Excited About Things I Usually Look Forward To'
I was supposed to go to seven 40th birthday celebrations in 2020, one of them my own. I also had one wedding and two mini breaks in my diary by the time March rolled around and set fire to the idea of plans altogether.
Comparatively speaking, I know that’s nothing, but after nine long months of cancellations, lowered expectations and being unable to hug my shielding father, the ongoing pandemic has had a psychological impact even on people like me who count themselves among the fortunate ones. 2020 was the year of thinking small, and remaining ready for restrictions to tighten while staying vigilant (read: stressed) even during the brief periods we’ve been allowed to socialise or move around the country.
But with the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine already being rolled out and others on the way, the last few weeks of 2020 gave rise to an unfamiliar sensation: hope. After months of one step forward and two steps back, we were assured that change was genuinely coming.
So why don’t I feel, well, more joyous about it? Firstly, obviously because the news about rising cases and lockdown can make it feel like things are actually getting worse. But also because my overriding emotion is currently anxiety, the feeling that I shouldn’t be too optimistic lest I ‘jinx it’.
When in December I was invited to a birthday drink with a friend in February, what was my thought? Better not to make the plan because who knows what tier we’ll be in by then (turns out I was right). Recent research suggests 6 in 10 Brits were planning trips for 2021, but I can’t even imagine that. I’ve conditioned my brain not to get excited about the things I usually look forward to.
Maggie, a self-employed single mum in Bristol, feels the same. 'I struggled with feeling vulnerable through all of this, both financially and coping on my own with a young son,' she says. 'At first I got through it by thinking about it in chunks: 12 weeks of lockdown and then things will be better; get to September when the kids go back to school and I will have more availability to work again. We have got through each stage, but there’s always been something else to contend with, like the schools shutting at short notice when a bubble bursts. One of my clients is now considering placing everyone on furlough as their income remains depleted and I don’t know if they will keep me on. The sheer long-termed-ness of it mean I’m all about "head down and get through", which doesn’t allow for forward thinking or excitement.'
Whenever our brain focuses on things that are not in our control, anxiety is a normal side effect,' says Dr Gabija Toleikyte, author of Why the F*ck Can’t I Change?: Insights from a neuroscientist to show that you can (out 21 January; BookOuture). 'For example, focusing on climate change or whether the vaccine is going to be effective.'
And of course, there’s nothing inherently wrong with negative emotions, particularly when things are tough. The backlash against toxic positivity has taken the pressure off to emit ‘good vibes only’ because no amount of them can stop the spread of a highly contagious and deadly virus.
'Toxic positivity is basically denial,' agrees Dr Toleikyte. 'If we think too positively then we might not take the necessary precautions for how things are now. However, you can say "I hope I get to go to my friend’s birthday" while acknowledging we need to be careful. What’s not healthy is postponing your life until [you get] a vaccine, because that’s saying you’ll only be happy if this one thing happens. A better way around it is to focus on the steps you can control to keep yourself safe, adjust to change and be in the best position once the vaccine is [available to you] so you can take advantage of it.'
So what does that mean in practical terms? 'Getting into the habit of telling your brain when things are OK,' says Dr Toleikyte. 'A very simple way of doing this is asking yourself daily, "what went well today?" and writing it down. If yesterday you couldn’t get any work done because you were so anxious but today you sent two emails that’s a little reminder that actually things have improved, as opposed to "everything is shit".'
It’s also important to create 2021 goals that are not dependent on how the virus is going. 'It’s natural to ask for things we can’t have and to completely ignore the things we can, so we must reframe,' says Dr Toleikyte. She advises thinking creatively about how to fulfil our emotional needs without attaching it to a specific event.
So OK, that drink in future may well morph into a one-on-one walk or a phone call, but it could also, just maybe, become six friends meeting inside a restaurant. Either way, planning to make a connection with my friend of any sort on that date will provide a mental boost. And that’s definitely one for the ‘what went well today?’ list.
Article from GRAZIA - Original article
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Dr. Gabija Toleikyte is a neuroscientist, lecturer, and performance and wellbeing coach.