By Elizabeth Jennings, Deputy Director, National Disability Institute (NDI)
In April, I shared that I was going out on medical leave to complete treatment for a rare (but treatable) cancer. I am thrilled to be back at work and doing well after an extremely challenging year. Many people have asked me how I managed emotionally. As a student of positive psychology, I was fortunate to have a lot of tools or actions I could take to help me. Actions that can help you, too. This month, mental health month, consider the following three actions that you can take now to combat the impact of COVID or anytime you are facing a challenging situation.
Action #1 – Grieve.
Each of us has experienced loss this past year. The loss of loved ones, of jobs, of school, of fun with friends and even of our freedom to engage in the world. Grief naturally comes in waves and needs to be felt to pass. I accept grief when it comes. I long to be out in the world. I ache to be with my loved ones. I feel angry. I miss feeling in control of my health and my life. I cry and cry and cry. And in doing so I come out the other side feeling a bit worn and a bit better. Not grieving traps the emotions within us which can result in maladaptive coping behaviors like overdrinking, drug abuse, escapism, emotional outbursts and taking it out on others. I use my healthcare benefits to meet with a therapist regularly. Therapy can help when grief feels overwhelming or when you worry that if you give in to grief you will fall apart. You can access a therapist by calling 1-800-662-HELP (4357).
Action #2 – Hunt for the good.
Optimism is an outlook that good things will happen by your own hard work and effort or by chance. Research shows that optimistic people are more likely to recover from illness and surgery and live longer. One way to keep an optimistic outlook is to hunt for the good. Actively look for good things that are happening to you or around you. Make good things happen yourself. And predict what good can come from challenging situations.
I’m optimistic about the state of the world, my own health prognosis, and what lies ahead for me and for you. I cannot find good in every situation, but that’s okay because that is not the goal. I do hunt for the good in every situation to shift my mindset and see where I can take action. In having cancer, I have been shown incredible love and support in ways that I never expected. I have learned to set limits at work and reduce my work stress. And I was forced to realize that I cannot control everything which actually reduced my anxiety. One way you can hunt for the good is to argue the other side. If you are feeling that nothing good can come out of a situation, argue the other position and see what you find to win the case for good. Hunting for the good can give you a boost of optimism which increases your well-being. You can keep those boosts of well-being going by signing up for NDI’s text message campaign or by texting RESILIENT to 833-632-0273. You will receive two science-based text messages each week – Tuesday and Friday – that will give you a boost of positivity.
Action #3 – Use your strengths.
We each have 24 strengths we can call upon at any given time. Did you know that? YOU have 24 different strengths that are so a part of you that you may not even realize that you have them. Luckily, there is a free survey to learn the ranking of your strengths and which are your top five – your signature strengths – the ones you use the most even without knowing.
I think about my strengths and how to use them to cope and to survive and even to thrive during these challenging times. I use my judgment to stay focused on the facts of my illness and the high possibility that I will be cured. I use my gratitude to thank the doctors and nurses and others helping me fight cancer and to give thanks to the many people at work and at home that have shown me kindness and loving support during this time. And I use my perseverance to push past the discomfort of today and work towards a future in which I am healthy and many good things are happening in my life. Best of all, research shows that you get a boost of well-being just from knowing about your strengths and additional boosts for using them.
This month and every month, tune in to what’s challenging you in your life. Try the tips mentioned in this blog to better manage how you react to adversity. Grieve when you need to. Reach out for help. Hunt for the good. And use your strengths to help yourself. None of us can escape the twists and turns that life brings. However, all of us can work on how we handle them.