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A Hitchhiker's Guide to the Pandemic: Three Rules for Maintaining Mental Health During the COVID-19 Crisis and Beyond

  

2020 has put on quite a show thus far, amirite??

Any other year, massive wildfires in Australia and horrible locust plagues in Africa would have dominated the world news. Not this year, says COVID-19! Every single one of us is affected by the pandemic in a significant way, and we are having to navigate uncharted waters—not unlike a certain Arthur Dent when he is swept off the planet against his will in A Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy.

Just consider all these new phrases that have become commonplace in our daily routine: pandemic, quarantine, lockdown, virus, isolation, economic collapse, and many more. It’s enough to drive anyone toward a nervous breakdown.

As employers and employees trying to remain productive despite the unknown, it’s high time that another phrase enter our daily lexicon: Mental health. This is a word many of us as individuals (and certainly many companies) have been afraid to embrace. Studies show that anger, worry, and frustration were globally on the rise before the pandemic. It’s frightening to think how quickly these events may accelerate an already negative trend—and how that acceleration will affect us personally and professionally.

The bottom line is that we no longer have the luxury of ignoring mental health. We must overcome the stigma that has surrounded mental health in the past. If we are to weather this crisis, we need to equip ourselves with a new perspective, and we need to help our colleagues and employees see that perspective as well. We need to follow a set of rules that will act as an anchoring force for our wandering minds.  

What rules, you ask? We interviewed Phil Herndon, a well-known therapist in the Middle Tennessee area and the clinical director of Sage Hill Counseling. Phil has brought hope to thousands of individuals who have lost their way due to anxiety, depression, addiction, and other struggles that are common to the human experience. Phil has generously offered that same hope and wisdom to us, in the form of three simple guidelines, which I’ve summarized below:

Rule #1: Never Travel Alone

“We were not made to live in isolation” says Phil. In fact, most of us work very very hard to avoid any form of solitude for a prolonged period of time. The longer we are alone, the harder it is to keep the demons of our mind at bay.  

When we dig into the pain of our childhood, the most vivid memories we have are almost always related to separation from our peer group. The idea of being ostracized from our community is terrifying...yet it is exactly what is happening in the midst of this pandemic.  

As we make the difficult choice to retreat into the solitude of our homes, we lose so much more than our favorite Starbucks drink. We lose connection to the very things that help us believe the world is still spinning.

We MUST maintain a sense of connectedness. Have that conversation with your neighbor over the fence. FaceTime your Grandmother. Attend an online church service or virtual hangout. Dig deep into the relationships in your home, perhaps with a level of intentionality that you’ve not had for years.  

It’s so easy for the distractions of life to obscure and make shallow even those relationships under our own roof. If you have the good fortune of living with others, use this time to see them as a gift and deepen that connection. However you do it, make sure you find meaningful human-to-human touch points on a regular basis.

Rule #2: Don't Panic

“The advantage of emotions is that they lead us astray.” - Oscar Wilde

THESE ARE SCARY TIMES. Period. No person on this earth knows how all this is going to unfold and what the ramifications will be. It’s okay to be afraid. In fact, it would be kind of odd if you weren’t. Strong emotions are being generated, and there is nothing we can do about that. What we can do, however, is work to control what those emotions grow into.

These heavy emotions have to go somewhere, and there are two basic routes they may take.  One is healthy, managed fear; the other is anxiety. Let’s look at the difference:

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It's  critical that we manage our emotions down the path of healthy, managed fear. But how do we do this? I’m not in anyway saying it’s easy, but the following techniques are sure to help:

Speak The Fear: Say it out loud. Inventory the fears and seek to understand their origin.

Undergo Cognitive Behavioral Therapy: Cognitive Behavioral Therapy or “CBT” is a controlled process by which unhelpful ways of thinking are identified and modified. As we learn to recognize distortions in thinking that cause problems, we can evaluate them using the lens of reality. This will require a professional therapist, but it can be remarkably helpful.

Curate Information Sources: There is A LOT of really bad information out there. Be your own guardian when it comes to the data you are exposed to. This applies to people as well, not just media sources. Your cousin on Facebook who runs an exotic pet store is not a medical expert. Conversely, speaking to other positive and well-informed people about your emotions is one of the greatest things you can do.

Rule #3: Break Negative Cycles

Our brains are amazing in so many ways. In other ways they are...well...not so amazing. But they are at least predictable.

When we give energy to something, our brain will continue to think about it even as we sleep.  Neurotransmitters pull things out of our brain that we’ve deemed to be irrelevant, making room to “double-down” on those things we’ve selected as important. Very soon a habit or pattern emerges when we continue to focus on that thing.

Phil’s first two rules are all about being selective about what we deem to be important, so that we can form healthy habits and patterns. This third rule is all about breaking the cycle of negative thought and giving ourselves the best chance for a healthy mind.

Every single one of us, especially right now, will be turning to things that make us feel a certain way to help navigate these emotions. Many of these things are destructive...and we know it. Fueling addictions is giving anxiety a foothold that is incredibly difficult to break. It’s stealing our true joy and replacing it with a fleeting sensation of “okayness.”

When we are tempted to give in to negative thoughts or destructive addictions, we have to make a better choice. It will take time, and it will be hard, but we “must allow ourselves to self-care” as Phil would say. We need natural sounds in our lives. We need physical activity. We need good healthy foods. Deal with the emotion first, but when it comes time to making a decision, replace the negative feeling with a positive one. As they say in Red Rising, “break the chains” that bind you!

It should be said that breaking an addiction or negative habit pattern is exceptionally difficult to do without external help. Thankfully, there are great organizations out there dedicated to helping us achieve freedom and mental harmony. Some examples include The Adult Children of Alcoholics World Service Organization, the National Eating Disorders Association, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, and the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. All three of these and many others have virtual and over-the-phone options that can be utilized from home.

*****

In a way, this pandemic has revealed how far away many of us have gotten from simple, healthy habits. We can return. We navigate for ourselves a path not only through this crisis, but a path to stronger mental health for the rest of our lives.

To listen to the full podcast episode featuring Phil Herndon, click here.


Nate Brown is a perpetual student of the world’s greatest experiences and the people who create them. He was dubbed the “CX Influencer of the Year” by CloudCherry in 2019, as well as being named a top CX thought leader by TruRating, Qminder, ProcedureFlow, LifeHelpNow, ICMI, and Exceeders. Nate serves as the Chief Experience Officer for Officium Labs and can be found at a variety of conferences speaking and training on the CX topics he loves.


Phil Herndon
is the clinical director of Sage Hill Counseling, a social impact organization offering counseling, teletherapy, events, resources, and training focused on living fully from the heart. He holds a master’s degree in marriage and family counseling from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary.

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