When the ‘chips are down’, how does our psychology and mindset contribute to how well we adjust? It’s something we’ve all had a taste of over the past 4 weeks during the COVID-19 national lockdown. As we start to contemplate what life will hold over the coming weeks and months, this seems more relevant than ever. 

 

Dr Paul Wood, a Doctor of Psychology, recently shared the lessons learnt from spending 11 years in prison, a year of that in solitary confinement. What helped him the most? A mindset he described as ‘realistic optimism’ – in other words, hoping for the best, and believing it will ultimately happen, but being prepared for things not getting easier anytime soon. 

“This is the new reality for now, and I’ll live on that basis”. 

Click here to listen to the interview – it’s brief and to the point. 

He says we should avoid pinning our hopes on everything suddenly being ok. If we can accept that for at least the medium-term, things won’t be back to normal, but find meaning in the present situation, we’ll be more resilient. It may sound like a somewhat pessimistic message, but it’s one based on evidence-based practices including cognitive and mindfulness-based methods which ultimately teach us how to “struggle well”.  

He also says we should watch for the “shoulds” in our thinking – “Things should be back to normal by now” “I should be as productive now as I normally am” “I should be as effective as everyone else right now..”  This advice on mindset and thinking styles draws from Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) –  one of the most researched and widely applied psychological treatments worldwide. The model underpinning CBT posits that the way we perceive a situation is more closely connected to our reaction than the situation itself. If we can wrap our heads around a crisis using reason and consideration, we can mitigate the degree of emotional impact it has. 

So how do we do this? It’s an ability that comes naturally to some, and is much harder for others. The way we frame situations, and the appraisals we make of how bad something is, is significantly shaped by the messages we got growing up, and our history of other past traumas. 

Regardless, chipping away at ingrained thought processes and belief systems and learning to see situations in a more balanced way will ultimately help us adjust better.

It starts with noticing the in-the-moment thoughts and reframing them. Notice the words you’re using. 

  • “The world is unsafe now” becomes “In most situations, I am fairly safe,  and this will continue to improve with time”   
  • “I should be as productive as I was before” becomes “I’d prefer to be more productive, but I’m doing what I can right now” 
  • “Things are out of my control” becomes  “I can’t control everything in my life, but I am in charge of my decisions and how I react to things”

So to summarise, it seems the “sweetspot” is somewhere between optimism and realism.  Food for thought as we contemplate moving out of our bubbles.