Moving Forward: 3 Ways to Set Realistic Expectations for Better Mental Health

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The mental health costs of COVID-19 and related crises have been staggering. According to the CDC, in the U.S., the number of adults with anxiety or depression has risen from 8% in September 2019 to 41.5% in February 2021. Neuroscience says there is every reason to be optimistic about turning the tide back and achieving resilience, the ability to thrive amidst adversity.

How we manage our expectations as we move forward is a critical component of restoring our emotional wellness.

The moment the pandemic became real for you, your amygdala took your entire body to a state of hyperarousal and kept it there. It flooded your body with cortisol and other chemicals that led it to a stat of exhaustion. This created a toxic stew of emotions, ranging from sadness and anger to frustration and feeling isolated. Anything you experience for 60 to 70 days has the potential to rewire your brain. During the COVID-19 pandemic, your amygdala has likely kept you hyper aroused for far more than 70 days, rewiring your brain to make disturbing emotions your automatic reaction to any perceived threat.

Here are three ways to re-rewire your brain as we move forward and put COVID-19 in the rearview. Practice them consistently to restore your sense of calmness, confidence, and ability to peacefully thrive.

  1. Practice Acceptance

Accept that developing anxiety, depression, and burnout are natural responses to new and challenging environments. That’s why so many of us are experiencing anxiety and depression disorders. It’s very disturbing and it interferes with our ability to function well. It’s not, however, a sign that there is something inherently wrong with you or those around you.

By accepting that your current mental state is a natural response to the experiences you’ve had as of late, you can eliminate any negative self-talk you might be experiencing:

“What’s wrong with me?”

“Why can’t I handle this?”

You restore room for helpful, hopeful thoughts, creating a space to see that you will gain the ability to not just survive, but also thrive.

  1. Move Forward and Don’t Return

COVID-19 has severely impacted everyone’s life. We can’t go back to the way things were before everything unfolded. It’s just not possible.

Talking about going back to normal, returning to school, and going back to work is like giving a booster shot to your amygdala. Doing so gives it more power to continue the neurological hijacking of your emotions and thoughts.

For example, a local school district just ‘reopened.’ From the moment kids stepped on the bus wearing masks and sitting in every other row, there was nothing about it that signaled or resembled a ‘return’ to normal. Sitting behind plexiglass, kids struggled to hear both their teachers and fellow classmates. Hallways were disturbingly quiet as anxious kids scurried to get to their next class.

At the end of the first day, one 17-year-old senior said, “I don’t know what that was, but it wasn’t school.” The talk of ‘returning’ had set hopeful expectations for the enjoyment of some senior year rituals – like field trips to amusement parks, proms, and graduations filled with hugs. Students’ actual experiences crushed those hopes and shattered the dreams of those few meaningful lifelong memories they had waited so long to create.

Talk about moving forward into new ways of working, learning, and living. Don’t talk about ‘returning’ and focus on creating a new and improved world.

  1. Build Your Pragmatic Optimism

Take control of your expectations by consistently answering the following three questions for yourself, family, friends, and co-workers.

Will this last forever?

No. Every trusted expert agrees COVID-19 will be driven into submission. We will create new and better jobs. In fact, the rest of this decade has already been termed the ‘Soaring Twenties.’

Will we lose everything?

We have all lost a lot. We lost many people to COVID-19. Jobs have been lost and family businesses have shuttered. Yet we gained some important things. Overall, we are more empathetic with each other. Some of us have become closer to family and friends. What’s really important in life has become much clearer.

How can I use my experience, talent, and motivation to move forward?

Find a way to make things a bit better with each day that passes. Some days it will be big things, like helping someone find a new job. Other days it will be small things, like helping your 80-year-old neighbor take her garbage out. It’s not the size of the deed that counts, it’s the intent.

Together, we will move forward and thrive!

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