A psychologist shares relaxation strategies for calming unpleasant thoughts.
Even if you’re not in a high-risk group for COVID-19, you might be experiencing a lot of fear and anxiety during this pandemic. After all, everyone knows someone who is in a high-risk group, which for many people includes family members like parents and grandparents.
You might even feel powerless: Perhaps your grandpa is “not afraid of this virus thing” and keeps meeting with his friends for coffee, or maybe your father is an “essential” worker and can’t stay safe at home. You can try to influence your loved ones to make good choices during the COVID-19 pandemic, but ultimately, you can’t control their actions.
All of these factors can result in a lot of fear, especially because researchers are still trying to learn all the facts about this novel coronavirus. “Little research has been done to shed light on how exactly it is transmitted, [and] new research comes out every day adding confusion about the pandemic,” says Lauren Gorog, PsyD, psychologist specializing in mindfulness-based cognitive behavioral therapy at Gorog Health in Denver, CO.
“What we do know is that [COVID-19] is painful, it will disrupt your life, [and] you could give it to someone who is in a high-risk group,” says Dr. Gorog.
Cognitive Defusion: How to Cope with Your Fears
For dealing with fears of this type, Dr. Gorog recommends a skill known as cognitive defusion. This is an approach and core principle of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, which helps people learn to open up to unpleasant thoughts or feelings instead of avoiding them or allowing them to dictate your behaviors.
Cognitive defusion “is a skill to help you separate a thought from a belief,” says Dr. Gorog. “It is akin to going to the movies and seeing something scary, but leaving the movies knowing you were watching a movie rather than being inside the movie.”
Dr. Gorog suggests three tips to put this into action:
Place “I am having the thought that …” in front of your thoughts. Sure, it sounds too simple to work, but words really do have an effect on your thoughts, and tacking on this little phrase is a way of acknowledging a thought without judgment and separating your assumptions from facts.
Use leaves on a stream imagery. “Imagine yourself walking down by a river and one by one choosing to place your unwanted thoughts on a leaf and watching it float down the river before it disappears out of sight,” says Dr. Gorog. “Repeat until the thoughts no longer cause distress or disappear altogether.” You're acknowledging the thought, but not letting it fester inside you.
Ask yourself if there’s anything you can do to protect loved ones. “If so, do it, and then if the thoughts continue to come, remind yourself you have done everything you can do within your power to help your loved ones during this time,” says Dr. Gorog. This might include introducing your grandmother to a grocery delivery service so she can stay out of the store, or gifting your parents some cloth face coverings.
Finally, don’t let your fears pull you into emotional isolation. Take advantage of technology and schedule phone calls or video chats with your loved ones, especially the ones you worry about. Learn more about finding emotional connection during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Coping with coronavirus: managing stress, fear, and anxiety. Bethesda, MD: National Institute of Mental Health, 2020. (Accessed on March 30, 2020 at https://www.nimh.nih.gov/about/director/messages/2020/coping-with-coronavirus-managing-stress-fear-and-anxiety.shtml.)
COVID-19 resource and information guide. Arlington, VA: National Alliance on Mental Illness, 2020. (Accessed on March 30, 2020 at https://www.nami.org/getattachment/About-NAMI/NAMI-News/2020/NAMI-Updates-on-the-Coronavirus/COVID-19-Updated-Guide-1.pdf.)