If you’re anything like me, at this point you’ve probably felt your jaw physically drop at the absurdity of a year the world is experiencing. Its like someone had taken plot lines from every single one of our favorite binge-worthy drama series, threw it all at 2020 and said “this should be interesting.”
As someone who has dealt with anxiety for most of their life, I can say that this hodgepodge of random, scary, and uncertain information is not so far off from the chaos that someone with a mental health disorder may experience in their own mind.
For me, living with obsessive-compulsive disorder is like having your brain flash through all the terrifying and confusing news headlines of your personal life.
On bad days - these headlines act as a puppeteer - guiding me blindly through life against my own “wise mind.” Trying to navigate this chaos is exhausting, – being pulled in so many different directions and spread so thin that life can be anything but enjoyable.
Allow me to share one of my more interesting experiences. It was senior year of college – a regular night out with my friends. While waiting in line to get into the bar, I had leaned on the brick wall in the alleyway. No big deal, right? Nope – my brain decides to throw me a curve ball. “Why did you just put your head against that wall – someone could have urinated on that wall and now you have pee in your hair. You need to go home and shower.” Okay then???
In wise mind I think, well I’m about 5 feet tall so realistically that doesn’t seem possible. My brain: “Nope, it’s possible, go home and shower now.” I’m imagining that same person in charge of 2020 being like, “lets just throw this thought in there – that’ll make things interesting.” Of course this wasn’t 2020, but you get the analogy.
Thankfully, I was encouraged to find the resources to ask for help; to ask someone else how I’m supposed to deal with my mind because I sure as hell couldn’t figure it out. What I found extremely useful was cognitive behavioral therapy, or CBT. Quick psych lesson: CBT is a form of therapy that helps you understand how thoughts and feelings influence behaviors. Basically, I was able to understand why my brain was so cluttered with upsetting thoughts, and how my behaviors perpetuated these unhealthy thought patterns. This starts a vicious cycle of bad habits all around.
Now, in college, I had not yet seen a therapist – so obviously I listened to the OCD and went home to take a shower like a good puppet would. If I were to go back in time, I would do things a little differently.
One of the most effective things I have learned in therapy is distancing. And no, I don’t mean social distancing. I mean putting distance between yourself and your mind; stepping outside of your mind to see it more clearly. If you asked me about this 4 years ago, I would wonder, “how does one separate themselves from something that is literally inside your skull and attached to your shoulders?” Well, to answer my past self’s question, it takes practice.
Instead of running home to take a shower, I would have paused, taken a deep breath and noticed the thoughts in my mind without reacting to them. I would let myself feel whatever emotions came up: fear, frustration, sadness. I would accept the fact that life is filled with uncertainty and that I may or may not have pee on my head from leaning against the wall. (Yes, I’m aware this sounds ridiculous).
I would sit with that fact, no matter how uncomfortable it made me. When these feelings have passed (which they will) I would reassess the situation and align with my truths – realistically, what are the odds that someone had peed exactly where I put my head. If I had learned the tools that I know today, I might have been able to stick it out and enjoy my night instead of ending it early based on a random, intrusive thought.
How does this apply to 2020? Though it can be overwhelming, you cannot and should not shut yourself out from the chaos that is happening in the world. What you can do is acknowledge that this world is chaotic without trying to figure it all out on your own. Allow yourself to feel scared, sad, or confused. Accept that life can be unpredictable and is filled with uncertainty. Align with your values - take the information that you are bombarded with everyday and decide what is useful and what is not. Think about how you can proceed rationally, either by informing your own life or by helping others.
When you put some distance between yourself and your mind and take a look at what is going on from a new angle you can shift your unproductive thinking and, as a result, live more peacefully, productively and presently.