For me, emotional health is something that needs attention during the pandemic arrangements. We’re fortunate here in Australia to be comparatively low in infection rate, with few deaths and relatively relaxed restrictions. That doesn’t mean that world-changing times aren’t tough to deal with, from social distancing and home schooling to serious economic consequences for many people.
I’ve whittled my thoughts down to the three top considerations that support my emotional balance: flexibility, empathy, and creativity. Today I’m going to unpack just one of these a little in case something is useful for you too. You may have your own go-to places that give you comfort and strength. I’d love to hear your tips!
Disclaimer: despite my excessive education, I am not a psychologist. These tips are from lived experience – age and the school of trial and error – plus a few years of studying psychology, communication, management and history…
Clare’s Flexible Thinking Tips
This year, we are all travelling in a vehicle that hasn’t yet been fully described, let alone having a user’s manual. That makes it even more important to be flexible. Rules change more often than I find comfortable, and that can increase my anxiety. Without certainty about what will happen next, it’s easy to become stuck in my thinking.
Stuck thinking increases anxiety – you know that feeling when your usual chair in the lecture theatre is already taken? – while flexible thinking entertains the possibility of difference without stress.
You may have heard my long-time mantra: I can’t do everything, but I can always do something. These days, many of my usual activities and routines are no longer possible or are radically changed. I try to cultivate a flexible mindset to help deal with the frustration and sadness about what we’ve lost. Here are four strategies I have used lately to promote and strengthen my flexible thinking.
I hope you can share some others to build my store of healthy thinking habits.
Ask what if?
This is a regular trick of writers: what if someone ordered a coffee and found a tiny poodle in their cup? That’s OK for stories, but for everyday we need different what ifs. I use this these days with cooking ingredients (what if I use peanut butter in this cake instead of marmalade?), household chores (what if I don’t iron anything?), desk work (what if I turn off emails until after lunch OMG!!!), exercise (what if I walk anti-clockwise around the block today?). What if we have our main meal in the middle of the day? What if we eat on the verandah? What if I read a story to the dog? What if I move that painting into the other room? I like the way this activity changes up my mind set.
Say there might be another way.
And then look for it. Of course, this depends on the task that you are tackling. In writing, I sometimes get out of a stuck place by leaving a large blank space and creating a “final” sentence, and later trying to make the two ends meet. Putting a task aside and doing something different for a while helps too. It’s also helpful to ask for a second opinion when something isn’t working out right – another brain will probably have another mindset. I also like to think about the past and the future – history and possibility – by wondering how this task was done in the old days, or how it might be tackled next century, or on another planet (yep, too much imagination!).
Take a breath and think what’s the worst that could happen?
This can seem a dangerous ploy, but often I find myself stressing about something that, in the bigger scheme of things, just isn’t all that important. My sense of perspective can get seriously askew when I’m trying to do something that needs concentration and keep getting interrupted (EG: self-imposed writing deadline + barking dog). Breathe IN-2-3-4, HOLD-2, OUT-2-3-4, HOLD-2. I do that a couple of times. That gives me space to recalibrate. In my example, the worst that could happen is that I miss my home-made deadline. The best that could happen is that I actually get a new storyline out of the situation: hmm, busy writer ignores barking dog and misses the moment when the zombie breaks down the door…
Weird, I know. This is related to the ‘what if?’ strategy, but uses a physical cue to change up my mindset. It’s kind of like playing a prank on myself so I get jolted out of my usual thinking rut. I have often used this trick in the past to mix up my routine thoughts on purpose. For example, I used to deliberately choose the longest queue in any circumstance, telling myself to use the time for taking notice of where I was, the people around me, and the mood of the place – all useful exercises for writers at any time, and quite good mindfulness exercises for anyone. These days I avoid queues completely, so I try other things like putting my phone at the other end of the house, taking the long route anywhere, reading and writing in unusual places like the garage or the back garden, and changing my furniture around. I do that quite a lot, actually! Last week, I turned my desk 180% so that I now face the door not the window. Is it better? I wouldn’t have thought so, but for the first time since the pandemic was declared, I wrote two new pieces of fiction. Was it the desk move that sparked me? Just maybe!
And I can’t wait to change my desk back again. 🙂
I hope some of these crazy ideas make sense and are helpful. In the meantime, stay safe and wash your hands. Next week, Last Word will return with another author Q&A. See you then.