As a health nerd, I could immerse myself in Covid-19 all day. But as we all now know, this isn’t helpful if it triggers too much anxiety, even if some anxiety is to be expected these days. So I might be pushing my luck hoping you’ll read this. However, it describes a way to help us feel less battered by the coronavirus onslaught. It might even build a modicum of hope and control.
We need to practice getting better at focussing on what we can do rather than worrying about what we can’t.
It applies to many aspects of life. For example my recent blog 10 ways to support your immune system outlined practical things that will not only help us to cope with coronavirus infection, but would also stand us in good stead for the rest of our lives. In no particular order, it talked about prioritising sleep, reducing stress, finding new ways to be sociable, getting daylight and exercise, choosing real, whole foods, and avoiding sugar and processed foods. Achieving any of these not only improves health but also gives a sense of control and achievement. When everything else is up in the air, that’s invaluable.
The concept of focusing on what you can control rather than dwelling on what you can’t isn’t new. The Serenity Prayer was published in 1951: “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.” And maybe the old Johnny Mercer song had a point:
You’ve got to accentuate the positive
Eliminate the negative
And latch on to the affirmative
Don’t mess with Mister In-Between
You’ve got to spread joy up to the maximum
Bring gloom down to the minimum
Have faith or pandemonium’s
Liable to walk upon the scene
More practically, it’s also captured in a management training model: Circles of Influence and Concern, part of the first habit in Stephen Covey’s The 7 habits of highly effective people. I’m grateful to Zoe Harcombe for reminding me of this in her recent blog.
The Circles of Concern and Influence: adapted from Covey, S (1999) The 7 habits of highly effective people. Simon & Schuster.
Our circle of concern includes all we are concerned with in life: maybe our health, our job, global warming, the 06.53 to Waterloo, pot holes, football results, children’s homework, the economy. Some of these we have no control over and if we dwell on them and let them consume us, we feel helpless, inadequate, frustrated and overwhelmed.
If, on the other hand, we take a proactive approach and focus on what we do have control over – our circle of influence – we’re more likely to feel we’re making progress, empowered, productive and content.
We can enlarge our circle of influence by giving its contents priority in our mental ‘to do’ list. Doing so not only makes less time for worry and rumination, it also creates new pathways in our brains which lead to helpful new habits and more useful ways of thinking. Our human negativity bias (eg dwelling on the one unkind comment and ignoring the half dozen compliments) can go into overdrive in uncertain times. But we can drown it out by learning to bulk up that circle of influence until anxiety or distress is a background noise we can deal with.
This isn’t about sticking our heads in the sand and ignoring the difficulties brought by coronavirus. And there’s no intention to disregard the hardships so many face. It’s more about doing what we can where we can and not letting the tough stuff take over.
You could try starting with a couple of small changes to help you spend more time in and nurture your circle of influence. Notice how that makes you feel. With anything new it’s about breaking old habits (very hard), creating new habits and not berating yourself when you slip up.
- Make a list of things you’re in control of. What steps do you need to take to progress/achieve them? Eg to support your immune system: eat more veg, prioritise sleep etc
- Notice what makes you angry or anxious, eg the news or social media? Try to stop/remove yourself from the source of the problem – change channel on the TV or leave your phone in another room
- Come up with a range of positive activities to replace anxiety-promoting activities. Eg phone or facetime a friend, do some cooking, tidy a cupboard, watch some comedy, dance round the kitchen, sing
- Aim to make gratitude a habit. You could make a list of things you’re thankful for to refer to when you’re down. Or keep a gratitude diary, writing down three things a day that have made you happy or grateful. You could add three things you’ve done that have made someone else happy or grateful, and three things other people have done that have made you happy or grateful. This is a wonderful practice for last thing at night, thinking grateful thoughts as you drift off to sleep.
“It’s not happy people who are grateful; it’s grateful people who are happy.”Unknown
Lou is a registered health coach with interests in weight management, nutrition and real food, lifestyle medicine and workplace health. You can read more at www.louwalker.com.