We like to think we’re in control. We schedule. We work. We workout. We do the things. Sudden events beyond our control show us that we are not always in the “driver’s seat” even when we are.
In 2004, I was in a car accident that shattered my right ankle, left foot, and left wrist. I was told I’d never walk again. As a devoted marathon runner and soccer player at that time, my horror at the thought was intense. However, my sense of self was not shattered like my bones. I knew that I was more than a “runner” and “soccer player”. I committed to finding a way around the injuries.
As a psychologist, I showed up to see my clients, propping my casted, shattered limbs up on chairs, following directions to elevate them. “What’s on your radar today?,” I’d say to clients, with the best poker face I could muster. On the inside I was suffering not knowing the fate of my mobility. Would I walk again? Would I ever run or play soccer? When will my pain and suffering end? I joined my clients in their pain during our sessions. This is a developed skill, but an innate sense of compassion. The car accident delivered a sharp and sudden dose of deep physical and emotional pain. That trauma, over time, became a gift of even deeper compassion.
We will suffer with each other right now to varying degrees in response to this pandemic. Compassion means to feel with, suffer with. From a psychological perspective, and especially from a performance psychology slant, there are some things you can do to cope with suffering, and with sudden change and uncertainty. Two things are especially important: How you talk to yourself and how you define meaning.
Monitor Self-Talk, especially Fear Talk
Recognize that fear is an emotion that will create stress in your body. It asks you to act. If you don’t act, you are stuck with the energy of the emotion in your body. You can MANAGE fear by noticing when it arises, taking deep breaths (which is action) to calm your nervous system, and noticing your thoughts. How are you talking to yourself? Say helpful things rather than unhelpful things to yourself. Make it a practice to notice and change up thoughts that are not helpful. You won’t get rid of them, but you can practice managing them and their impact on your nervous system.
I practiced changing “what if I never walk again?” to “I will do everything I can in physical therapy, I am doing my best, I am adapting.”
In response to the pandemic, instead of saying “oh my God, I can’t believe this is happening,” say, “This is happening and I am handling it.”
In response to a change in your Jiu Jitsu routine, instead of fretting over the gym being closed and losing your skills, say to yourself, “This is a break, with or without Jiu Jitsu I am grateful to be healthy and alive.”
Monitor your self-talk, it makes a difference in how you respond to the events at hand. As you monitor your inside dialogue, further notice how you talk to your partners, kids, and friends. If you find yourself “messing up,” have compassion for yourself and keep practicing.
Redefine What’s Important and Set Goals
Many of us are so schedule-bound and activity-dense that it might be difficult to re-create a new structure. While structure and goals are important in having a satisfying life, coping with the pandemic has required many of us to break our routine and sometimes do nothing
What happens when you do NOTHING? Nothing. That’s what. Try it. You will not cease to exist, you will actually have some moments to appreciate that you exist even if you are not DOING something. Now as unsettling as it may be, it’s ok to pause given what’s going on. You have to stop and take a moment to create new schedules and goals. When you’re ready, you will start to move forward. If you’re not ready, continue to pause.
During a pause, you might have a newfound clarity for what’s truly important to you in this pandemic framework. Ask yourself, “What is truly important?” and write those things down. Then,write 1-3 related goals that are do-able, measurable, specific, and time based. Keep it simple. Goals will give you some order in disorder/chaos, and help you feel competent and satisfied, even as you may be suffering. They will help you to manage your energy. Do what you are moved to do, do what you can. Do your best. That is enough. Nothing is a valid option. Revisit and revise as needed. Setting attainable goals for myself was one of things that got me through recovery.
Before and after the car accident, my health and my work were driving forces (no pun intended) for my goals. My immediate goals included journaling daily about my pain, going to therapy once a week so I could monitor my trauma and continue to provide good therapy. Everyday I did as many sit ups as I possibly could for 30 minutes, lifting a heavy dumbbell with my one good limb for a few sets.
During the pandemic stay at home order, if your health is important, your goal may be to stay home, use grocery delivery services rather than go out, engage in one 30 minute segment of activity like running, walking, yoga per day. If being of service is important to you, you might make 10 masks per day for 10 days with your sewing machine. If maintaining friendships is important, you might call 2 friends per day.Instead of training Jiu Jitsu 5x per week, replace that training with another type of movement, or watch 5 instructionals per week at the same time as class was. Set boundaries around time spent.
The interruption and challenge of that car accident taught me much over time. This pandemic is interrupting our daily lives and challenging many of us in varying ways. It’s a collective challenge and a collective opportunity to remember/redefine the things most important. You have ample time to practice monitoring your self-talk, and practice goal setting to bring some order to a new routine. We define ourselves so often by our activities, for now maybe we can work on how to pause, enjoy nothing and everything, while having compassion for ourselves and others who may be suffering.
Darla Sedlacek, Ph.D, is a Psychologist, Certified Yoga Teacher, Certified Personal Trainer, and Jiu Jitsu coach. In private practice she works with those struggling with anxiety, depression, trauma, and body issues. She specializes in sport and performance psychology, working with athletes from many sports and levels of experience. From Cleveland, Ohio, she heads a women only program called Transform Jiu Jitsu, teaches self defense workshops for teen girls, coaches and trains at Hurricane Jiu Jitsu and is an ambassador for Girls in Gis Ohio Chapter. Purple belt Jiu Jitsu, black belt Tae Kwon Do, ultrarunner, avid athlete, captain of compassion. www.drdarlased.com and www.transformjj.com