Do you know that moment when suddenly the air conditioning turns off and you realize that all along it had been making a noise, and now the noise is gone? You relax just a little more in the quiet. You did not even notice the noise was there, but still, the quiet is noticeable and beautiful. The fear that we have all been living with is like the noise of the air conditioner, almost imperceptible as we go about our busy days, but in the slower moments you can make it out, humming away just enough to steal the peace and quiet.
Perhaps, as you look back over the past year, the fear has changed. Last March, was the fear more like the roar of an engine than the hum of the air conditioner? When we had no information, no tools with which to fight back the pandemic loomed large, scary, and very present.
For me, last March was spent doing almost nothing but making soup. I had trouble focusing on work and I had to do something that helped me feel in control. The soup was something we would need if we became too sick to cook if we needed comfort or nourishment.
Slowly, however, as the masks started to arrive in the mail, as we gathered our PPE (our dining room is still a storehouse full of gloves, masks, and Purell), as I found a method to my shopping and my cleaning, the fear was pushed to the background. It never actually left me, it just got moved aside as I became used to the worry and the new ways of doing things. I was successfully building a safety wall.
Spring : A New Beginning
And now, as we arrive again in Spring more than a year later, people are getting vaccinated, and things are beginning to shift. The question we are all asking ourselves is, “Can we let our guard down?” As that answer increasingly becomes, “Yes”, it begs the second question, “How?” How do we begin to let go of the fear that has become a habit? How do we begin to tear down the safety walls?
Tear Down the Safety Walls Fear Built During the Pandemic
A habit is something we practice over and over until it creates a deep neural pathway in our brain and begins to show up in our lives without having to even think about it. In the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology Neal, et al, (2007) demonstrated that habits are ingrained based on the context cues in which they were formed. Well, in 2020 and into 2021 we have had plenty of context cues to build the habit of fear! If only we spent as much time exercising as worrying! Just think how deeply that habit would be ingrained!
It is difficult to undo learned habits. The goal is habit substitution. We need to replace the habitual fear with the habit of letting ourselves once again let our guard down and fully enjoy our lives. The more we experience pleasure, connection, enjoyable activities, the more we will turn down the volume on the fear and begin to relax into a fuller sense of well-being and happiness.
First, have you had your vaccine? This is step one. When you secure your vaccine(s) and follow the prescribed waiting period you will begin to relax. One friend told me she cried when she got her first shot. It took her by surprise! She did not realize the weight, from fear and isolation, she was shouldering until she took that first shot and was able to begin to lay some of that burden down. It was the first step she needed to take to lay down her pandemic stress and tear down the safety walls.
Next, realistically assess when it is time to begin to dismantle those walls, and where it is safest to start. Once you get your vaccine, get outside! Enjoy your friends and family on walks, on picnics, playing tennis, eating outdoors in restaurants. It might feel strange at first, but soon it will feel like old times.
Pay Attention to the Guidelines
If you are with other people who have been vaccinated, you can let your guard down a little further. The CDC guidelines indicate that in such a situation it is safe to spend time in each other’s homes. Go ahead and have your vaccinated friends over for dinner, watch a game on tv, even, dare we think it, give them a hug! These activities will help to tear down the safety walls and the light will once again shine through.
Finally, though it looks like mask-wearing, in certain situations, might be with us for a while, doing so does not have to ring the alarm bells. Knowing you are protected with a vaccine and a mask you can feel free to congregate anywhere. Having a mantra like, “breathe easy” or “I am safe” can help. Practice saying your mantra to yourself over and over at times when you feel relaxed and peaceful. When you are in a situation that is making you feel anxious, summoning this mantra will bring calm and help to remind you that you are safe.
Let Go of Pandemic Stress
If you have not yet received your vaccine or the idea of being social is too big a leap, here are some ideas you can use on your own to help you let go of your pandemic stress:
Let Go of the Stress
- Name that feeling! Acknowledge the negative emotion(s) you are having.
- Brain dump! Get ALL your worries and concerns down on paper. Then throw it away.
- Detox your news diet! Get the current facts, but limit how much time you are spending reading and focusing on the pandemic. Set a time limit and get on with your day.
- Catch yourself speaking negatively! How we speak is important! Our brains are listening, and our moods will match what we are saying.
Tear Down the Walls
- Gratitude Spending daily time focused on what you are grateful for changes your brain, reduces stress and breeds a positive attitude.
- Breathe! Flood your body with oxygen and help quiet your mind. Breathe in with a count of 4, pause for 4, breathe out for 6 and pause for 4. Practice for 5 minutes daily. Use whenever you are beginning to feel anxious.
- Music! Start with music that matches your current mood and slowly change it to music that matches the mood you are wanting. It works!
- Dance like it’s your last chance! Dancing brings joy. It’s a brain chemical thing. Try it!
Oh, and there is so much more
- Move your body! You can control how much and what kind of exercise you do. Make it fun. Make it easy to do every day. Explore online resources. Get outside. Need ideas? Call me!
- Eat good food! While the habit is to reach for the quick high that comes from empty calories, eating delicious, healthy food will fuel your body and brain in a way that sustains energy, supports a calm and controlled mood, and will make you happier with yourself in the long run.
- Reach out to others! Whether by phone, zoom, letter, or shouting across a yard – while still practicing physical distancing to protect your health, staying social will keep you happy.
- Have fun! With whomever, doing whatever, in any way possible. Make it a daily habit.
Soon most of us will be vaccinated, restaurants will open, and shopping in person will again be a thing. Venture out, dear one. The more you avoid social situations the more you reinforce for your brain that there is danger lurking. Start with whatever feels comfortable for you. Throw open the curtains of your stress and let the sunshine of life warm you and melt away the safety walls we all had to build. They no longer serve you.
I am Lauren Weinberg, a Nationally Board-Certified Integrative Health Coach trained by Duke University’s Department of Integrative Medicine. Originally a counseling psychologist, for which I studied at the University of Pennsylvania, I am following my passion to help people become their happiest and healthiest selves by looking forward to how they want to live their lives and to support the behavior changes they will make to get there.
With a whole-person approach to wellness, I believe that a healthy life is multi-dimensional and ever-evolving. Kindness toward ourselves and others, deep satisfaction with work and relationships, caretaking of our bodies and minds, and a sense of connection outside of ourselves can all be a part of helping us achieve well-being and happiness. Whatever your focus, I will help with an open heart, a playful spirit, and deep compassion for your personal journey.
As a working woman, a wife of a busy professional, a mom of two “almost grown” young adults, and a chronic community volunteer, I know what it takes to fit wellness into a hectic schedule. To be perfectly honest… learning to prioritize my own health and wellness was a journey that took years! When I was finding my way I had never heard of “health coaching!” So take comfort in knowing that I understand the challenges in making life changes even when we know it is truly important to do so. I will walk with you every step of the way.