COVID-Centric Brains

On March 15th, 2020, DBT Center of Orange County closed its physical workspace. By making a rapid pivot to a virtual platform in our best efforts to keep clients and staff safe, the hope was that the progression of COVID-19 would be relatively short-lived. Now over nine months in and no definitive end in sight, we are wearing masks, socially-distancing, canceling travel plans, losing jobs and the ability to pay our bills, zooming into celebrations of graduations, marriages, birthdays, home-schooling our kiddos, and so much more. The emotional and physical grind is taking a significant toll on our mental health.

So how do we manage around the anxiety and depression that comes with our COVID-centric brains? More than ever, this is a time where we are called to implement practices to sustain our physical and mental well-being. Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) teaches us ways to alleviate suffering, how to use skills to best manage through crisis times, and how to be effective and skillful when life does not work out as planned and hoped for. So how can we apply DBT skills to manage our COVID-centric brains?

Practicing the skill of Mindfulness is foundational to DBT. “Mindfulness is the awareness that arises through paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally,” Jon Kabat-Zinn. The more we are aware of our thoughts, emotions, and behaviors, the better we can change them. When we are stressed, it is easy to get ‘hooked’ by negativistic thinking – “This is never going to end,” ‘When will things go back to normal again?” “I am so lonely.”

Through the practice of Mindfulness, we become more aware of our thoughts, emotions, and behaviors that leads to increased suffering. “Unhooking” from these thoughts, emotions, and behaviors can be challenging and self-empowering. The first steps to “Unhooking” are ‘noticing’ and ‘naming.’ If we begin with “I notice a ‘worry thought” or “I notice an angry thought.” – this awareness can lead us to change our thoughts. We can also notice behaviors that increase when we feel anxious such as binge eating, increased drug and alcohol use, and other self-harm behaviors. Again, the practice of mindfulness can help us change these maladaptive behaviors. We can replace the urges by engaging in practices that bring us joy and diversion. These can be as simple as playing with a pet, cooking and baking something yummy, making cute masks for self and others, watching a comedy series, hiking in nature, and DIY home projects.

Developing a daily mindfulness practice can help you build and strengthen your Mindfulness Muscle. There are numerous apps like Headspace, Ten Percent Happier, and Calm that I use regularly.

Highlighting the ‘good’ in our lives and acknowledging our ‘blessings’ represents the one C (Comparisons) in the DBT Distress Tolerance skill of ACCEPTS. Creating a practice of waking up to Gratitude and going to bed with Gratitude makes dealing with COVID stressors a little bit easier. Especially as we come upon the Thanksgiving Holiday, creating a daily gratitude practice of acknowledging 3 – 5 things you are grateful for will increase your mental strength. Keeping a gratitude journal is also a great idea. My favorite app is Grateful: A Gratitude Journal. There is a lot of research supporting how daily mindfulness and gratitude practices can change our brain.

When a person neglects their self-care, they become more emotionally vulnerable. The Emotion Regulation skill of PLEASE encourages us to take care of physical health, balanced nutrition, adequate sleep, exercise, and avoid mood-altering drugs. If you work on leading a balanced lifestyle, you are more likely to combat stress. You will also benefit from the positive impacts that exercise has on the central nervous system and, ultimately, the brain.

As I sit in Radical Acceptance (yes, this is a DBT skill) of our current situation and am Mindful of Current Thoughts (yet another DBT skill), I do my best to greet each day with curiosity, Mastery (yup, a DBT skill), and take myself for a run.

Stay Safe and Calm, and Happy Holidays!

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