Three Positive Psychology Based Tips for Dealing with Uncertain/Stressful Times | Parent Wellbeing Blog
It has been truly wonderful to welcome back many students in person on the College campus at the start of this new Term. While familiar COVID-19 related challenges continue to test our resolve, the College is taking all the precautionary measures to ensure the safety of the community. The ongoing testing, contact tracing, and switching between online and in-person learning can surely add to the growing uncertainty and anxiety during this already difficult time. It is important that we continue to care for not only the physical health but also the mental health of all members of our community.
I have described wellbeing before as a state of both feeling good and functioning effectively. This part of functioning effectively doesn’t deny that often there is great adversity present, but rather emphasizes the importance of having the tools at our disposal to deal with life’s challenges as we face them and respond in constructive and uplifting ways. Positive psychology has some useful insights to offer in times like this. I’d like to share some well researched and useful tools that can help us cope during times of extreme uncertainty and stress. I hope they are as useful to you as they have been to me.
Put It in Perspective. One of the worst parts of uncertainty, in fact the one element that is most fear inducing, is the perception that things can always get much worse in any given situation. The lack of predictability about the future causes our minds to automatically want to imagine the worst case scenario. This is known as “catastrophizing” and it is believed to be evolutionarily adaptive, meaning that we cannot always control this impulse. What we can do, however, is a simple exercise to calm this mindset early on before it hijacks our emotional centre.
When we catastrophize, we lose critical energy worrying about the irrational worse case outcomes of a situation. This prevents us from taking purposeful action, while creating high levels of anxiety, decreasing focus, and increasing helplessness. The goal of the “Putting It in Perspective” exercise is to counteract this effect. In The Resilience Factor, authors Andrew Shatte and Karen Reivich describe it as a reframing of our perceptions about how an unknown event or failure will affect us. These are four steps to follow when you find yourself stressed about an unfamiliar situation or outcome:
- Stay Present. Most catastrophizing happens when we are thinking about the future. Part of staying in the present is focusing on “what is” instead of “what if”. Catastrophizing is based on fear rather than on facts. Think about the facts. Do you know what they are? Do you have all the facts? Is there evidence to support your belief?
- Think through your worst-case scenario. While it may seem counter intuitive, it is helpful to picture the very worst thing that could happen in order to take away its power. Try to think of the most negative outcome you can imagine. What would you do? Is there a possible future beyond this worst case event?
- Think through your best-case scenario. Now imagine the absolute best-case scenario, making it as extreme and dramatic as the worst-case one. If you are being creative, both the best-case and worst-case scenarios will seem highly unlikely. Reality is almost always somewhere in between.
- Think about the most likely outcome. Catastrophizing is a form of black-or-white thinking. The trick is to recognize that the most likely outcome is somewhere in-between the two extremes, and then make a plan for how you will deal with this outcome. This is more productive than spending energy on unlikely scenarios. With a realistic plan in place, we are also likely to feel more confident and empowered in our ability to cope.
Emotion-focused Coping vs. Action-focused Coping. This exercise is extremely useful when dealing with rapidly changing situations – such as COVID-19 developments – over which we have little to no control.
Data show that there are essentially two types of coping strategies – passive and active coping. Passive coping is allowing the situation to unfold without doing anything, and enduring the negative emotions and results. Active coping refers to strategies that are directed at problem solving, and entails taking direct action to deal with a stressor and to reduce its effects (Zeidner & Endler, 1996). Some examples are solving problems, investing effort, or seeking new information. Active coping is an adaptive way of dealing with events and an important component of resilience. However, issues arise when solutions and plans are consistently changing due rapidly evolving circumstances. The pandemic has been hard on so many because the instability has prevented people from being able to plan and problem solve. This is where emotion-focused coping can be of great benefit.
Emotion-focused coping is a type of active coping that encourages people to focus on the elements of situations that are within their personal locus of control. In low- or no-control cases, this can mean dealing with present emotions (emotion-focused coping), instead of trying to control the environment (problem-focused coping). Research shows that using an emotion-focused, compared with problem-focused coping style is perceived as more helpful in low-control situations (e.g., Strentz & Auerbach, 1988). Some strategies for changing an emotional reaction to a negative event include using distraction to lift mood, accepting the negative emotions and allowing them to pass through without becoming identified with them, and increasing the amount of positive emotions present through social interactions, laughter, and pleasant moments to balance out the negative effects of the unwanted emotions.
Self-compassion. Self-compassion is a validated predictor of well-being and resilience in times of difficulty or stress (Barnard & Curry, 2011; MacBeth & Gumley, 2012). Kristin Neff (2003) explains that self-compassion involves treating yourself with kindness (as you would a close friend) when considering personal inadequacies, mistakes, failures, and painful life situations.
Self-compassion comprises the following three components: self-kindness versus self-judgment, a sense of common humanity versus isolation, and mindfulness versus over-identification.
Why are we self-critical in times of difficulty? We falsely believe that being so will motivate us to achieve more or succeed – but actually, the opposite is true. When we are stressed and feeling low, criticism can undermine our motivation and then we are not in the best place to deal with problems. When life is stressful, instead of trying to control or fix the problem right away, self-compassion suggests taking a pause to offer oneself soothing words and comfort. Saying to yourself “this is hard” or “this is a moment of suffering” and accepting it – this is mindfulness. Being mindfully aware of personal suffering is critical to be able to extend compassion towards the self. At the same time, it is important to be mindful in a way that prevents getting carried away by a dramatic storyline, something Neff (2003) calls “over-identification.”
The sense of common humanity in self-compassion means realizing that humans cannot be perfect all the time, that sometimes we fail, make mistakes, or have problems. Self-compassion connects one’s own imperfect condition to that of the human condition and asks the question “how am I similar to others?”
Next time there is a difficult emotion, moment, or experience, Neff recommends acknowledging it and saying one of the following phrases:
– May I give myself the compassion that I need
– May I learn to accept myself as I am
– May I forgive myself
– May I be strong.
– May I be patient
Below are some guided meditations for times of stress, based on the science of self-compassion:
Self-Compassion for Caregivers [Video – 9 minutes]
Compassionate Friend [18 minutes]
Giving and Receiving Compassion [20 minutes]
Affectionate Breathing [21 minutes]
Compassionate Body Scan [24 minutes]
Loving-Kindness Meditation [20 minutes]
Self-Compassion/Loving-Kindness Meditation [20 minutes]
Noting Your Emotions [18 minutes]
Soften, soothe, allow: Working with emotions in the body [15 minutes]
Self-Compassion Break [5 minutes]
These are three tools from Positive Psychology which can be used to cope with uncertainty and stress. Of course, some of these exercises may prove easier to do than others. It is important to try different things and choose something that works. Each individual will respond to and grow from adversity in a unique way.
Wishing you a safe and prosperous Lent Term.
Diane Trif | Graduate Researcher in Residence
Reivich, K., & Shatté, A. (2002). The resilience factor: 7 essential skills for overcoming life’s inevitable obstacles. Broadway Books.
Neff, K., Kirkpatrick, K., & Rude, S. (2003). Self-compassion and adaptive psychological functioning. Journal of Research in Personality, 41, 139-154
Zeidner, M., & Endler, N. S. (1996). Handbook of coping: Theory, research, applications (Vol. 195). John Wiley & Sons.
Strentz, T., & Auerbach, S. M. (1988). Adjustment to the stress of simulated captivity: Effects of emotion-focused versus problem-focused preparation on hostages differing in locus of control. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 55, 652-660
Barnard, L., & Curry, J. (2012). Self-compassion: Conceptualizations, correlates, & interventions. Review of General Psychology, 15, 289-303.
Macbeth, A., & Gumley, A. (2012). Exploring compassion: A meta-analysis of the association between self-compassion and psychopathology. Clinical Psychology Review, 32, 545-552.