Coping with COVID-19: Turning the Mind Towards Acceptance
Five million Americans have tested positive for COVID-19 and over 160,000 Americans have lost their lives. Unfortunately, these numbers continue to rise. According to the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center, recent 7-day average positive test rates by state were 17 percent in Florida, and as high as 20 percent in Texas. Additionally, the Bureau of Labor Statistics recently found the U.S. unemployment rate to be around 10 percent. The unfortunate truth is that hundreds of thousands of people worldwide have lost their lives and millions have lost their homes, businesses, and livelihood to COVID-19.
The COVID-19 pandemic is causing many people to feel more anxious, stressed, and depressed. We are experiencing stressors we have not had to confront before. With benefits running out and the increasing economic pressure on businesses, we are bracing for even more unemployment. And this will likely increase eviction and foreclosure rates across the country. Quarantine and isolation lead us to doubt to our financial security, the welfare of loved ones, and disrupt the timeline we expected that life would take.
As a pandemic that many thought would pass within weeks stretches on into the foreseeable future and becomes our new reality, we are faced with how to cope with the mental health effects. When life is not exactly as we want it to be, it can be helpful to turn our minds towards acceptance.
Ways to Cope
Mental health experts have offered many ways to cope with the pandemic. Dr. Marsha Linehan, the developer of Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT), suggests that although there are an infinite number of painful problems in life, there are just four main ways to cope with any problem: 1) solve a problem; 2) change how you feel about it; 3) accept it; and 4) make it worse.
Unfortunately, the pandemic does not appear to be a problem that can be easily or quickly solved and most of us are not in a position to solve it. However, we can change how we feel about it by changing how we are thinking. For instance, shifting thoughts towards those of gratitude can be helpful. Rather than thinking “I’m stuck at home,” think “I’m grateful to have this extra time to spend with my family.” However, toxic positivity, which is trying to see everything through rose colored glasses and changing all thoughts to be positive, is not helpful. Things are really hard right now and this means trying to change our thoughts may paradoxically make things worse. Given we cannot solve the pandemic and we cannot always change how we feel about it, acceptance of our current reality is a key way to cope.
Acceptance: What it Is and Isn’t
Acceptance is to simply acknowledge the facts of the world as they are and to acknowledge the demands of the present moment. It is the act of confronting the (un)comfortable truths of our reality. To radically accept is to acknowledge reality completely and totally with body, heart, and mind. To accept reality entirely and with every fiber of our being is what makes acceptance radical. Acceptance is not approval and it is not giving in or giving up. Acceptance is also not agreement. It is a choice that we make repeatedly to open ourselves to the reality of present moment.
Acceptance: Why it Helps
Denial of the pandemic does not actually solve the emotional problems that so many of us are facing. In order to solve those problems, we first need to acknowledge them. Unfortunately, problems intensify and ordinary pain turns into extraordinary suffering when we deny reality. Emotions that are suppressed and avoided only become bigger. No emotion lasts forever when it is fully accepted and experienced. Acceptance of our emotions, our thoughts, and our struggles is a powerful way to cope in the context of the pandemic.
Practicing Acceptance with Body, Heart, and Mind
With the Body
Try turning your hands upwards to accept reality with the body. This is called Willing Hands and it is essentially the physical position of hands unclenched, palms facing up, and fingers relaxed. Willing Hands really helps because the hands are communicating to the brain that you are working on accepting reality as it is.
Half-smiling is another way of accepting reality with the body. This means to relax the facial muscles first and then form a half-smile with the lips in a serene way. Importantly, Half-smiling is not tensing nor grinning nor masking emotion. It is not about signaling to others and may be so subtle that only you notice it. Like Willing Hands, to Half-smile is to communicate to your brain that you are practicing acceptance.
Try practicing Willing Handsand Half-smilingwhen you first wake up in the morning, when you have a free moment, and when you are struggling with the pandemic.
With the Heart
Acceptance involves opening the heart with compassion to this one moment. This means being willing to experience feelings and the feelings of others with kindness. Dr. Steven Hayes, developer of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), calls this Willingness. This means being willing to experience feelings of sadness related to ourselves and the state of the world and welcoming this sadness into our heart. Rather than attempting to escape from uncomfortable emotions, welcome these feelings with kindness and compassion. Willingness is the practice of saying yes to the universe exactly as it is from the depths of the heart.
With the Mind
Accepting reality is like facing a fork in the road where one path leads to acceptance and the other path leads to non-acceptance. Turning the Mind is actively choosing to walk down the path that leads towards acceptance rather than rejecting reality. In order to Turn the Mind, first look for signs of non-acceptance. For instance, notice if you find yourself saying “it shouldn’t be this way” or “why is this happening?” Then make an inner commitment to accept reality as it is. And do this again and again. Each of us will face many forks in the road as we continue to cope with COVID-19 and each time is an opportunity to Turn the Mind towards acceptance.
Mindfulness is the practice of accepting each moment as it is without pushing it away or clinging to it. Mindfulness can include a formal meditation practice where we set aside a period of time to do nothing but meditate and it can also include paying attention to something we are already doing such as the food we are eating. To practice mindfulness means to fully accept the reality of this moment and everything that is present here and now which includes the pandemic.
Turning toward mindfulness is a continual practice which takes effort. Each day that we practice acceptance with our body, heart, and mind we give ourselves permission to cope with the demands and realities of the pandemic. COVID-19 has affected us in ways that few expected; causing a great deal of pain and strife. However, acceptance of our present can prevent the pain from becoming worse and turning into suffering. Acceptance allows us to continue living a meaningful life aligned with our values, despite these difficult times.
Jared K. O’Garro-Moore, PhD is an Instructor of Medical Psychology (in Psychiatry) at Columbia University Irving Medical Center. Jeffrey M. Cohen, PsyD is an Instructor of Medical Psychology (in Psychiatry) at Columbia University Irving Medical Center.