Advice I really could have used amid the peak of the pandemic
By Ariana Howard
The peak of the pandemic tested my mental health in a way I had never experienced before, and I’m not alone.
According to the Census Bureau, nearly 30% of all adults in May 2020 reported anxiety symptoms and 24% of adults reported depression symptoms — nearly twice the rate reported in 2014. Since the start of the pandemic, rates of anxiety and depression are particularly high among adults ages 18–29 as 42% of young adults reported anxiety symptoms and 36% of young adults reported depression symptoms. That’s millions of adults.
Although I am not someone who struggles with chronic anxiety or depression, the isolation that a lock-down demands probably broke me as much as anything could.
I graduated remotely from Davidson College in May and my job was scheduled to begin in the middle of August. Those three months in between graduating and starting my first job were supposed to be dedicated to soaking in my final moments of freedom before I entered the workforce.
Instead of traveling and visiting friends, I remained in New York City for the majority of my summer. During the weekdays, I was alone in my apartment nearly all day. If I wasn’t alone, I was with people who were busy working.
For nearly three months, I didn’t have any obligations or responsibilities — a circumstance that sounds great in theory, but then turns out to be your worst nightmare, particularly when you’re in a pandemic.
After about ten days of doing nothing productive and sleeping in until 11:00 am each morning just to make the days shorter, I lost it. I couldn’t find a single reason to get up in the morning.
Although, in reality, my situation wasn’t as bad as it seemed in my head, considering I was comfortable, employed and healthy, I lost perspective and began to spiral.
I desperately began searching the internet for ideas on how to productively spend my time by myself. Despite being a writer, I had never journaled before, but everyone on the internet swore by it, so I thought I’d give it a try.
Journaling did help calm me when I was having a meltdown; however, the words I was writing also scared me. Over and over I talked about how I lacked purpose and meaning in my life, feelings that came naturally to me before the pandemic hit.
Before the pandemic, I attributed meaning to being busy, regardless of what ‘being busy’ actually entailed. Now that I was alone more than I had ever been before and didn’t have an agenda set for me the way school or a job naturally takes care of, I was left alone with my thoughts.
The pandemic was an opportunity to slow down and reflect on what I truly wanted and valued most. Through journaling, I was able to come up with ideas for how I could best spend my time and create meaning out of this isolating experience.
Despite being excited about the goals I had created and thinking about them a lot, I struggled to put any of my ideas into action. While some ideas were fairly simple, such as spending more time outside or learning how to knit slippers, others were more ambitious, particularly my idea of starting a blog.
Although I found comfort in fantasizing about these ideas, I not once woke up in those three responsibility-free months feeling motivated to pursue the goals I had laid out for myself in my journal.
It turns out, that’s quite normal. According to Gabriel Oettingen, a psychologist at NYU, fantasizing about our goals, whether its interpersonal-, professional- or health-related, actually strips our energy, not ignites it. In other words, the more positively you fantasize about your goal, the less likely you are to achieve that goal. Dr. Oettingen explains that fantasizing about a positive outcome to your goal lowers blood pressure and decreases feelings of energization because mentally, we feel as though we have already achieved something.
A fantasy is necessary to provide direction for your ambitions, but then it takes switching gears and considering what your own inner obstacles are preventing you from fulfilling your goals. For me, the idea of starting a blog seemed like a monumental undertaking that overwhelmed me and filled me with self-doubt. I didn’t know where to begin or how to sustain myself.
According to Dr. Oettingen’s colleague, Emily Balcetis, there are psychological techniques to help induce motivation and achieve your goals. She explains that what some of the top marathon runners do, including multiple-time female marathon winner, Joan Benoit Samuelson, is break up their one major task into a bunch of smaller tasks. For runners, that means focusing on a target ahead of them and focusing on nothing but that target until they pass it. Once they pass that target, they find a new one.
Dr. Balcetis found in one study that even among non-athletes, those who focused exclusively on a target while walking compared to those who did not focus on the target, reached the finish line 23% faster and reported 17% less energy exerted.
“That narrow focus of attention,” Dr. Balcetis explained, “produced a visual allusion of proximity…It seemed more feasible.”
For me, breaking up my goal of starting a blog into several tasks entailed beginning with the less intimidating tasks, such as coming up with a title, creating my blog’s website, making a list of blog post ideas and then, finally, writing my first blog post. Once I began checking tasks off my list, the uncompleted tasks began to feel less daunting.
Dr. Balcetis also suggests setting one personal goal at the beginning of each week and physically writing that goal down. This process of reflecting on what is most important to you in a given week provides perspective, helps distinguish one week from the next and combats passivity and complacency. This exercise is particularly important amid a pandemic as it has become increasingly challenging to differentiate one day from the next and to maintain structure in one’s day.
For the past few weeks, my weekly goal has revolved around writing; however, my goals sometimes extend to my interpersonal life as well, where I try to push myself to initiate social interactions and to build new relationships.
So, if you have a goal you have been wanting to achieve for a while but never got around to it, write it down, think of what in you is stopping you from achieving that goal and come up with one easy thing you can do to put yourself on the right track. Advice that seems so simple can actually make all the difference.