I've lived in a constant state of alarm about the pandemic, but mind tricks like imagining my 80th birthday party are helping me cope

ACT helped writer Jersey Griggs accept a new normal.Crystal Cox/Business Insider
  • Jersey Griggs is a writer specializing in lifestyle topics who lives on the coast of Maine with her husband and their rescue dog.
  • Just weeks before the coronavirus pandemic hit, Griggs worked with a coach to learn about Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, which is intended to help people achieve psychological flexibility.
  • The six techniques of ACT proved particularly prescient as the pandemic worsened.
  • These skills helped Griggs weather the early fear and confusion of the pandemic and have helped her adjust to a new normal.

Years ago, an intuitive energy worker told me something I'll never forget:

"Every day, you must say: Accept, accept, accept. You need to learn acceptance."

To which I say, "Easier said than done."Advertisement

Throughout my life, acceptance has never been my strong suit. If the weather is bad, I lament. When things are out of my control, I feel anxious. When people behave differently than I would like, I get upset.

I've allowed my emotions to take over so much that my friends have compared me to the "Game of Thrones" character Daenerys Targaryen — and we know how well everything turned out for her.

So, at the beginning of the year, when the studio where I practice yoga asked me to display an intention for 2020 on a Polaroid photo, it was a no-brainer. I smiled for the picture and spelled it out: A-C-C-E-P-T-A-N-C-E.
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Little did I know that 2020 was about to put me and my intention to the test

As the slow, inexorable crawl of COVID-19 began its chokehold on the nation in late winter, the fear of this pandemic began to get the best of me. So when I saw this infographic on Twitter ...

... I used it as inspiration to practice acceptance and to abate my coronavirus panic at the same time.When I was terrified to travel on an airplane after the first US death from coronavirus? Yup.Advertisement

When the local grocery store had empty shelves, nervous customers, and end-of-days vibes? Yup.

When we ran out of toilet paper and were forced to order a bidet attachment on Amazon? Yup — and highly recommended!

But then, things got worse

First, I discovered that my local library was closed. Books are my refuge, so when I saw the bright, blinking sign — LIBRARY CLOSED INDEFINITELY — before I could stock up on books for quarantine, I broke into a cold sweat. (And immediately took my temperature.)Advertisement

Next, multiple cases of COVID-19 were reported in my city, schools were closed, and everywhere, people and small businesses were starting to crumble under the weight of the virus. The cold sweat turned into a heavy weight in my chest, which I thought was another sure sign of the virus. I took deep breaths to test my lungs and grabbed my thermometer once more.

Jersey Griggs.Courtesy of Jersey Griggs

It was dealing with my boomer parents, however, that put me over the edge. I was horrified to discover that they were still leaving the house — taking trips into the city, going to the theater, shopping at Costco, and babysitting my young nieces.Advertisement

"Stop! You're in your 70s — you need to stay home," I pleaded with them over FaceTime, on the verge of tears.

Worrying about the health of my family, who live halfway across the country, sent me into a state of alarm. When I hung up the phone, I was consumed by anxiety, anger, and an utter feeling of helplessness. It felt impossible to practice acceptance at a time like this.

Instead, I hopped onto social media to try to distract myself, but it only made matters worse. When I saw my friend post this video, with Italians pleading for the world to take COVID-19 seriously, my panic hit an all-time high.Advertisement

I was stuck in my house, inundated by bad news, and could do nothing to control the spiraling state of the world. In short, I freaked.

Time to panic

I ran outside and began ranting and pacing around my yard like a mad woman. When I looked up to the sky in despair, the clouds above gave me a moment of pause.Two weeks prior, I had spoken with Shamash Alidina, the best-selling author of "Mindfulness for Dummies" and an Acceptance and Commitment Therapy coach. When I spoke with Alidina, it was a beautiful morning in early March. In retrospect, COVID-19 still felt somewhat like a distant threat, and as we chatted over Zoom, neither of us mentioned the virus.Advertisement

Instead, our talk focused solely on the practice of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, a third-wave therapy intended to help people achieve psychological flexibility through the use of mindful-based exercises and cognitive techniques.

Since research has shown that ACT can help with anxiety and depression, in addition to a range of ailments including eating disorders and insomnia, I was wondering if it could help me with my 2020 intention of acceptance.

At the time, Alidina assured me that ACT could help me on my quest. In fact, he told me ACT could be helpful to practically everyone — whether they suffer from anxiety, depression, or are simply looking for a way to cope with the stress of daily life.Advertisement

This is because ACT's goal is to achieve psychological flexibility, which he said was "the ability to be true to your values and to take action in line with your values, despite the difficult emotions, thoughts, urges, or sensations that may come up."

He said the early days of ACT relied heavily on research, which led to the development of the six flexibility skills of the therapeutic model:

  1. Acceptance. (Ahem, working on it.)
  2. Cognitive defusion (Techniques that will help "unhook" negative thoughts.)
  3. Transcendent self (The most spiritual element of the therapy, this is the idea that you are not your thoughts, but the observer of your thoughts.)
  4. Being in the present moment (Also known as mindfulness.)
  5. Becoming aware of your values (Discovering the direction you want to take in life.)
  6. Committing to Action (Doing the work.)
These skills serve as a road map to achieving ACT's ultimate goal, which is to "live a rich and meaningful life," according to Alidina.Advertisement

Then he gave me numerous exercises, each correlating with a different flexibility skill, to help me on my path to acceptance.

Finding comfort in the clouds

Two weeks later, I stood in my yard, trying to cope with my COVID-19 panic. Then, I saw a floating cloud and was reminded of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy.

During our chat, Alidina had suggested that I work on finding my transcendental self by meditating on the sky. Remembering this reflective exercise, I sat on my back stoop, closed my eyes, and began to picture my mind as the sky; whenever I encountered a negative thought, I attached it to a floating cloud. The idea behind this particular exercise was to help me realize that my thoughts (the clouds) are ever-changing and unattached, but my true self (the sky) will never alter.Advertisement

Washington State, Olympic Peninsula, Olympic National Park, View From Hurricane Ridge, Clouds.Wolfgang Kaehler/LightRocket via Getty Images

Using this ACT exercise, I put all of my worries — the spreading pandemic, the health of my elderly parents, the plummeting stock market, the uncertainty of the future, the dying planet, our ineffective president — into different clouds and watched as they floated away. Over time, my breath began to even out and my chest loosened, ever so slightly. After 10 minutes, I opened my eyes, took a deep breath, and realized I felt marginally better.Since this exercise had a positive effect, I decided to turn to another of one Alidina's suggestions: envisioning my 80th birthday party. Who would be there? What would they say about me? What kind of qualities would they use to describe me? These qualities would then become my values, and would serve as a compass to point me in the right direction throughout my life.Advertisement

After completing the exercise, I settled on the personal values of love, learning, empowerment, creativity, adventure, and connection. Stuck in my house, feeling vulnerable and scared, I turned to these values.

Looking at the six words I had written on a sticky note, the two values of "love" and "connection" jumped out. In accordance with these values, I began reaching out to family and friends to check in, offer my support, and to send my love during this difficult time. I organized virtual happy hours over Zoom, sent my friends Marco Polo videos and Snapchats, and did whatever I could to find connection during isolation. By employing my values, I not only felt less alone, but I actually began to have some fun in quarantine. Establishing and committing to values was helping me push through the doom and gloom of pandemic.

Still, I still found myself suffering from extreme moments of anxiety. It was during these times, in which I found myself spiraling, when I relied on the second flexibility skill — cognitive defusion — to stop the fearful thoughts from taking over.

As suggested by Alidina, whenever I encountered a negative thought or feeling, I separated myself from the thought by saying "I notice I'm having the thought…" before the actual thought itself.Advertisement

For example, instead of thinking "I'm scared for my family," I would say, "I notice I'm having the thought that I'm scared for my family." Using this technique, my negative thoughts, feelings, and even physical pains, began to have less power over me. It's important to note that my negative thoughts didn't stop, but my reaction to my thoughts changed, which ultimately gave them less power.

Which is one of the most important tenets of ACT — unwanted thoughts and feelings will never go away for good. "ACT doesn't focus on symptom reduction," Alidina had explained to me, back in early March. "(It focuses) on what your values are, what actions you're going to take to make your life meaningful, and the skills to be able to accept however strong or weak that feeling is."

It turns out, these skills have been crucial to surviving the emotional whiplash that is 2020. Since my conversation with Alidina five months ago, a lot has changed in the world; despite the upheaval, I've adjusted to the new normal. From standing in the line outside the grocery store, to wearing a mask wherever I go, to my standard Friday night Zoom with friends, I've accepted what it means to live with the threat of coronavirus.Advertisement

Still, I find myself struggling with the uncertainty of it all. The end of the year is a long way off, and when I think ahead to what the world will look like then, my heartbeat quickens. It's easy to get lost in the "what-ifs," the "whens," and the "whys." What if someone I love gets it? When will I hug my nieces again? Why did this happen in the first place?

In these instances, the only way to avoid panic is to separate myself from my thoughts, which I do by practicing the ACT skills. I've yet to achieve total acceptance — and I'm wise enough to know that might never happen — but being a work-in-progress has gotten me pretty far. After all, it's gotten me halfway through 2020, and that's an accomplishment in and of itself.

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