Masks, social distancing, plexiglass, and vaccines. A lot of new things have happened these last few years, prompting us to respond to unexpected changes and increased stress. Our mental health, as you might imagine, is largely contingent on how well we adapt to the changing world around us — those willing to “roll with the punches” and work to stay optimistic and flexible are doing OK, while others caught off guard by the change and stress caused by the pandemic are more likely to be dealing with mood and anxiety issues. How we deal with change and stress directly impacts our mental health, especially during times of chronic stress experienced during the current pandemic.
The word adaptable is defined as the ability to adjust oneself readily to different conditions. Being adaptable does not come easy for most people, as human beings are creatures of habit who long for consistency and reliability on a daily basis. The opposite of being adaptable is to be unchanging, but being inflexible in this moment is only hurting, not helping, overall mental health. After 2+ years of a life very different from what we once knew, being fixed in thinking and unwilling to adapt leads to increased stress and frustration, and inevitably contributes to physiological problems as well. To prevent additional mental health struggles, replacing intolerance with flexibility and adaptability is key.
The layman’s definition of insanity is continuing to do the same thing yet expecting a different result. When I work with clients at my office we try and prevent this kind of “insanity” from occurring by laying out the possible options for change — specifically, the following two choices:
A.) Change your situation
B.) Change your thinking
With respect to the pandemic, option A is not currently available, at least not here in the United States. With COVID found in every state, changing your situation (i.e. location) will not provide much relief without flexibility and adaptability in your thinking. Using another example where option A would be a consideration might be a job you dislike — in this case you could choose to take on another job that is less stressful than the one you currently hold. Unfortunately, none of us can fully escape COVID so long as the virus continues to spread.
That brings us to option B, changing our thinking about our situation. In fact, it is often more efficient to change our thinking about life situations rather than going through complete overhauls with jobs, friends, and other life experiences. For example, if you have a challenging boss at work it might make more sense to first exhaust all coping strategies before quitting the job and taking on more stress starting all over again. Fortunately, most life situations can be improved upon by employing this strategy — including dealing with the stress associated with the pandemic.
Since option A really isn’t an option when it comes to the pandemic, that only leaves us option B, to change our thinking. Is this easy to do? Not necessarily, but it is possible to do, and the results by doing so will be much better than doing the same things yet expecting different results (“insanity,” remember?!).
We as humans experience stress with change, regardless whether it is good or bad change. For example, people experience stress (distress) when losing a job, but they also experience stress (eustress) with a job promotion that brings more responsibility. Regardless of whether the stress you experience is good or bad, it can be exhausting if not addressed, especially during times of chronic stress where the stressor (pandemic) hangs around for an especially long time. When we succumb to stress we become irritable, short with people, and sometimes downright rude. This psychological exhaustion can go on to create even bigger problems down the road, including poor coping in the form of bad diet, drinking, smoking, and drug use, all leading to premature death. None of this has to happen, of course, so long as you are willing to change your ways of thinking from intolerance to openness for change and a commitment to adaptability.
As the pandemic endures, we must find ways to cope with the related stress from the pandemic in healthy and effective ways. When we are flexible and willing to adapt to change, our mental health remains positive and we effectively deal with the stress we experience. On the other hand, those unwilling to adapt will only continue to struggle with frustration and inevitably experience varying mental health issues and concerns. Changing thinking isn’t always easy, but in this moment it’s the most viable option we have to choose.