March 17, 2020

OLDFiveRsStress and Coronavirus Disease (COVID-19).


I just saw an article on Facebook that showed an elderly lady looking at empty supermarket shelves. How sad for the vulnerable elderly!

It is hard not to get stressed when we listen to the news, and I bet most of you have increased your news time over the past few weeks.  So how do we deal with this bad news, along with the ripple down effects? 

I am not sure if you know, but I am currently writing a book on overcoming the perfectionist myth ‘more, better, faster.’ The central emotion behind this myth is fear.  This fear makes us feel that we need to accomplish more and more, we are not good enough and need to be better, and we need to do it faster with little breaks for refuelling.  I have just finished a meta-review research paper on perfectionism, stress and burnout that discusses how the mental exhaustion of being always triggered by stress can take its toll.  Its central focus is on emotional regulation and how one copes with stressors.  Typically, an appraisal of a hassle results in an internal dialogue such as “I can cope,” or I can’t cope.”  Consequently, we then either pick helpful coping techniques such as planning, a useful temporary distraction to relax (e.g., going for a run, chatting with a friend, yoga). In contrast, when we feel that we can’t cope, we are more likely to choose unhelpful and ineffective coping strategies such as rumination, worrying, drinking, procrastination, and blaming others and ourselves.

Maladaptive perfectionists are typically very reactive to stress. What is alarming is that many of us don’t even know we are perfectionists or what is the difference between adaptive and maladaptive perfectionism. Never mind that there are massive correlations between both dimensions. What is also troubling is our already anxious-prone society. 

In my book, I have created the 5 R process for dealing with stressful and upsetting information that can be helpful to anyone wanting to improve one’s emotional regulation skills. I used it last night with my daughter after cancelling our trip to Mexico and her birthday party at a community swimming pool. 

5 R’s

1) Recognize that you are suffering, rather than suppressing your emotions and try to identify what you are feeling (Mindfulness). My daughter was feeling angry at the world for what was happening and missing out on things.

2) Relax and soften the stress response. 

a.    Part 1: Three deep breaths or try a simple Progressive Muscle Relaxation (PMR) exercise to tense up individual muscle areas such as shoulders, elbows, hands and then relax them. Seven ways to relax are listed here. Find out what works for you.

b.    Part 2: What would a good friend say to you right now? I know how much you were looking forward to these things. (Self-kindness).

c.    Part 3: You are not the only one; others are also having difficulty with this. So we are in this together with our friends, rather than suffering alone. She felt a bit better, knowing that she was not in this alone (common-humility).

3) Revisit – Now that you are feeling less stressed and reactive and your pro-frontal cortex is working again.     Ask yourself?

a.    What are you feeling? What does this tell you about what is important to you? Although her initial emotion was angry, she was sad and disappointed. It is essential to get beneath the surface emotion. Investigating her feelings told her that she was looking forward to these things. She had a calendar on the wall, counting down the days to her birthday party and trip to Mexico. 

b.   What are you thinking? Her thoughts were this sucks, and it is not fair.

4) Re-frame your thoughts

a.    What is the goal that you want? Her goal was to have something to look forward to in the future.

b.    Knowing that you have an element of choice and control over the things that you can control, how could you re-frame your thoughts in a more positive, optimistic way that would be healthier for you? She decided to re-think her party. She could still have it, just not in such a large public setting. Knowing that she still had choices made things easier.

5) Re-go – What action can you now take? My daughter decided to have a couple of friends over to our house instead of celebrating her birthday at a busy community pool. She got busy and felt hopeful and excited about making new arrangements for her party at home. She drew up a shopping list and put together a plan for her party at home. 

If you are naturally reactive to stressors or bad news, you might find value in trying this out as well. If you tend to feel anxious about all the bad news lately, read this helpful article on managing worry. Let me know if and how you found the article useful.