Nancy wept on the phone during her therapy with me.
“I am so scared. Ned insists on bringing our grown daughter into our house when she visits next week with her new husband, but I know they are really casual in managing the virus, and Ned and I are in the age range that jeopardizes us. My heart condition makes things worse.
“I just do not know how to convince my husband that our health dictates our instincts to welcome our grown kids into an area we have worked hard to protect from the virus. I even have masks to match my outfits. Can you help?”
My heart went out to Nancy. My husband, John, and I maintain social distancing with our kids and grandkids, as hard as that is. We do not want to look back and say, “We should have."
One of my favorites of my 44 cousins died of the virus, at 94, in a well-run nursing home, in the affluent Philadelphia suburbs. In the dozen years this column appears twice monthly, appreciative comments from readers affirm that we need to band together to make life work.
At 5 a.m. Oct. 2, I made my gigunda cup of blackberry tea and checked the news. We are 31 days away from choosing our next president, and Donald and Melania Trump both tested positive for the coronavirus. For my clients who are already worried, this news will increase their anxiety.
The world feels frightening because it isn't safe. Each of us must fight to win this battle, but how do we strengthen our mental health in the face of a global disaster?
Cape May County has suffered less than many communities but has treated more than 1,000 cases. Last month, I suggested that each of us maximize our health by finding a quiet place to breathe deeply and remind ourselves that we are safe. It's needed but insufficient in terms of the anxiety my clients express, but "better safe than sorry" is wise.
Because we must take action, I reviewed the classic book "Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy," by Dr. David Burns. He provides steps to remain psychologically strong amid the threat to our physical and mental health.
Three active steps lower anxiety without medication:
1. We become anxious when we interpret an event through the prism of our inner worries. We create an inner dialogue and distort the events by feeling worried or fearful.
2. Burns lists 10 ‘cognitive distortions,’ such as all-or-nothing thinking, overgeneralization, disqualifying the positive, jumping to conclusions, and labeling ourselves. If you perceive an event as negative, you create distorted thoughts, therefore creating unpleasant emotions and increasing anxiety. Teletherapy can teach easy coping methods without medication, but you must get lessons from an expert.
3. Below are practical strategies for dealing with these cognitive distortions:
a. Start being mindful enough to catch negative thoughts and write them down. Do not let them buzz around your head.
b. Precisely learn how you are twisting ideas and blowing them out of proportion.
c. Substitute a more-objective thought that counters the one that made you look down on yourself. If a thought says you are not good at doing anything, catch it, write it down, then write a logical, more realistic counter thought to it.
Try discovering the logical reasons that convey you are good at something, no matter what the thought says, so instead of weighing you down, your thoughts will start boosting your mood naturally.
Your emotions are created by thoughts, not events. Read the Burns book, or listen to an audio version. It is fun and easy to understand.
Review your cognitive distortions and decide how to intervene, or call a therapist and get expert help. You will need to fix those distortions by writing them and replacing them with more realistic logical thoughts, which, of course, you can do.
To Consider: Invest time to help your brain re-wire itself towards better coping mechanisms, which can become second nature. Is it worth it? Nothing could be timelier than pushing yourself to gain control over pandemic anxiety.
To Read: Dr. David Burns' 1991 classic, "Feeling Good." Find it at the library or listen to it online.
ED. NOTE: Dr. Judith Coche practices clinical psychology in Stone Harbor and Philadelphia. She invites responses through her website, www.cochecenter.com.