Dexter Psychologist Martin “Dr. Marty” Fletcher was featured on W4 Country’s Breakfast with Bubba morning show. His topic was how to cope with the rapidly developing and worrisome events surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic.
In a phone call with Dr. Marty, he told me a little more about what he had mentioned on the radio show and offered the following advice.
Get a morning devotion in
Marty made the point that even if you’re not a religious person, you can still do mindfulness-type exercises.
“What mindfulness does is bring you into the present,” he says. “Worry and anxiety are largely a result of time traveling into the past or the future. The COVID-19 pandemic has made the future uncertain in a lot of ways. That means there are many things to worry about. That’s not going to change.”
Worry is normal, but the key is not to let it take over and run our lives. The goal is not to squash worry completely, but to balance it. “Mindfulness can balance worry and fear by making us more aware of the present,” says Dr. Marty.
He recommends possibly using an app such as Calm or Sanvello to guide mindfulness practices.
Create a routine
“We like things in sequence,” says Marty. “Sequenced things are predictable. We don’t like sudden change because it disrupts our anticipation and creates uncertainty.”
A routine removes the anxious feeling that comes from disorganization. Marty recommends using visuals as much as possible to maintain a routine.
“Things are easier when they are visual,” he says. “On idea is to rearrange your environment so you don’t have to rely upon your willpower to overcome the disorganization subsequent anxiety. Objects act as cues. I think it’s really important right now if we can change our environment. It will create a better attitude.”
One example he used was to set out your exercise equipment. Not only will you be more likely to use it, but it will also create an anticipation of what’s coming a little later. This gives a sense of control. Even writing down a list of things to be accomplished is an effective visual steering us toward the desired outcome. Make sure to include downtime.
“If you’re working from home, make sure you know where your downtime is,” says Marty. “Too much or too little downtime is bad for you.”
“It’s okay to go outside. Keep social distancing, but going outdoors is really important for your mental health,” he says. “The CDC recommends getting outside to improve mental health.”
Dr. Marty points to the benefits of Vitamin D from direct sunlight. There is plenty of research that suggests green spaces have a tremendous positive impact on mental health.
“Experientially, being outdoors gives you a feeling of hope.” Marty continued with “Movement makes us feel good. Something as simple as a brisk walk can give us a positive hormonal boost.”
Focus on others
“This is going to be a little tougher, but I’m seeing a lot of this happening with people right now and it’s really nice to see,” he says. “A lot of people are helping others. If you have yet to jump in, my suggestion is to find out what people need and then get outside of yourself in helping them.”
Marty maintains that worry is almost always about “what’s happening to me.” Even when we worry about someone else, we are often worrying about ourselves. That can create a lot of pain.
“The subconscious emotions are the ones that are the most painful ones,” Marty adds. “Focusing on ourselves too much can create a lot of pain.”
His suggestion to balance the worry and anxiety of these uncertain times is to reach out and try to make other people feel better. One self-check he mentioned is pausing before posting something online and asking the question, “Is this going to increase fear and worry, or is it going to encourage people and make them feel better?”
“Service to others is where we find our purpose and meaning,” says Marty. “Oddly enough, it feels better when we focus on others and not ourselves.”
Develop a skill/activity
“You’re in the house and just got some guilt-free time carved out of your schedule,” he says. “You’ve got something that you’ve wanted to learn or improve. Now is a great time to do so.”
The best activities are not passive, but active – board games, coloring, or crafts. Developing and practicing simple skills such as these activates a future planning process which gives us a sense of power over our lives. Simple activities create a sense of forward motion at a time when the world seems to be shutting down.
“I’m going to work on my guitar. The key is to find something positive that will occupy your time and attention and is goal oriented.”
It all circles back to mindfulness, not letting thoughts about what’s happening right now get the upper hand and cause panic and irrational decisions.
“Anxiety is a thought-based problem,” says Marty. “Being in the moment soothes us. Our blood pressure and breathing go down. We feel comforted and safe.”
“We’re going to get through this,” he concludes. “Don’t forget that.”