Expert Blogs | Mental Health
How to Prepare Yourself for a Tough Season
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I doubt any of us could have predicted how tumultuous 2020 would be -- and the most difficult months may well be ahead of us. Experts are warning of a COVID-19 surge as the weather turns cold and social distancing is being relaxed. Protests continue throughout the country.

The election season promises to be brutal, with tremendous anxiety on all sides about the outcome, as well as the process. Will it be a free and fair election?

And now conflict over a Supreme Court vacancy is fanning the flames of political tension.  Amid all this unrest, the holidays are coming, which can be stressful enough in the best of years. How can we prepare ourselves to be tossed around and challenged like never before?

1. Focus on What You Can Control

When we watch the news, we get the message that everything important in the world is outside our control. Don’t believe it. It’s true that none of us as individuals can, on our own, determine the outcome of an election or stop a pandemic. But you do control the real essentials of your life: Where you place your attention. How you train your mind. The quality of presence you bring to each moment. Your willingness to stay in reality even when you want to run away. Remember that there’s a lot happening in your life that isn’t affected by the latest headlines -- and that peace of mind ultimately is a choice.

2. Stay Physically Active, Even Indoors

It’s going to get cold where many of us live, and the few remaining outdoor activities may no longer be available. Find ways to move. Do a calming online yoga class. Try high intensity interval training. Dance with your kids. Invest in a high-quality stationary bike. Pent-up energy can morph into anxious agitation. By discharging it through exercise, you’ll be triggering the release of endorphins, which can have a powerfully positive effect on mood. Taking charge of our physical health can also help us feel mentally and emotionally strong. I recall many mornings during graduate school when I felt anxious and uncertain before a workout, and confident and optimistic after.  It’s amazing how many things seem better after we’ve broken a sweat.

3. Make Sleep Sacred

Your sleep may be more disrupted than usual during this time, so make space for adequate rest. We’ll need sound, restorative sleep more than ever. Allow your time in bed to be a sacred pause between days, letting go of cares and concerns as an act of faith. Let sleep be a time of physical, mental, and spiritual renewal.

4. Stay Close to Your Experience

Life is almost always better when we’re closely connected to it -- and especially when times are trying. That means being in this exact moment. You can start right now, even as you read this. Be right here, with each word and punctuation mark. Dropping into yourself. Going deep into your experience. Whatever you desire in your life is right here. Stay close. Come home to yourself. Set a daily practice of reconnection -- a few minutes of quiet reflection first thing in the morning, reading sacred scriptures or an inspirational book for a few minutes a day, prayer, or meditation. Partner with a loved one if you like, as you spend regular time in connecting to what you value.

5. Practice Recognizing the Mind’s Stories

Your mind is very creative and is probably telling you scary stories about what’s to come, which can seem like true forecasts. Some of them may be right, some may be worse than what will actually happen, and there will certainly be surprises we aren’t anticipating. What we know is that right now, they’re all fantasies. None of them is real. So we don’t have to live in that imagined future. We can’t solve it in advance, anyway. We can influence our personal future, of course, but most of what we worry about is beyond our sphere of control. Start recognizing and naming the mind’s predictions as stories, that may or may not come true. We don’t have to live as if they’re already happening.

6. Decide Who You Will Be

Instead of dwelling on what might happen in the coming months, let’s focus on who we will be.

  • How will we meet any challenge we face?
  • Where will we find strength?
  • How will we care for ourselves so we can care for others?
  • How can we maintain our integrity even if the ship is going down?
  • How can we love others, no matter what?

7. Look for Love

There’s more love in our lives than we realize. We’re surrounded by it. We receive innumerable gifts of love every day from those around us -- the driver who lets us merge, the meal our spouse prepares, the walk we take with our beloved dog. There’s love in every bite of food we eat. Each breath we draw is a manifestation of our love of life. Open to these experiences of love, which are stronger than fear and hate.

8. Draw Close to Those Dear to You

Speaking of love, we need each other now more than ever. The tragedy of our times is that the biggest challenges we face are due to our alienation from one another. It’s heartbreaking to realize that we could solve so many of the problems we’re facing if we somehow managed to come together. If we have any prayer of healing this world and our nation, it will be through connection.



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Seth J. Gillihan, PhD

Seth J. Gillihan, PhD

Clinical psychologist

Seth J. Gillihan, PhD, is a licensed psychologist who specializes in cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and mindfulness-based interventions. His books include The CBT Deck and A Mindful Year (co-written with Dr. Aria Campbell-Danesh); he hosts the weekly Think Act Be podcast, featuring conversations on living more fully.

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