Whether it’s the unsettling experience of divorce, job loss, or even the joy of welcoming a new baby to the family, when circumstances change, we all go through moments of frustration and a sense of “hey! Wait a minute—this isn’t how it’s supposed to be!”
And so it is with the novel Corona virus known as CoVid-19. As I write this, we are mere weeks into the news reports of serious illness close to home, so the situation has not yet settled into something we might call a new normal. It is still very much—pun intended—up in the air. We are asked, urged, mandated even, to remain at home, to keep distance from others, to wash our hands. Let’s face it, this feels awful.
While I consider myself to be a bit of a news junkie most of the time, I’m finding it useful to step away from that these days. Reports of illness, deaths, the many and varied reports of testing stations, mask and ventilator shortages, become repetitive and frustrating. For me, it’s been better to use my time to focus on what I CAN do right now.
As a college instructor, of course, there are online classes to prepare for and evaluations for students who are just completing the last quarter’s classes. It’s tax season, too, and there are things to be done with that in mind, even considering the delayed filing date. And when my tax paperwork is in order, my home office is sure to have fallen into some disarray. I can organize. It would be an unusual household that didn’t have at least one small project waiting for the time to attend to it.
However, it’s not the lack of little projects, or for want of a challenging task to complete, that has us feeling out of sync. We all have plenty of things awaiting our hands and the time necessary for completion, but right now, most of us aren’t feeling the motivation to move forward. In many homes, it is difficult to gather the energy to do even enjoyable activities. It’s as if we are in a state of suspended animation.
Roy Baumeister—one of my research heroes—wrote very powerfully about self-regulation in his book Willpower, published with science writer John Tierney. Generally, we think of willpower and self-regulation as the ability to limit what we do. We regulate calorie intake, or alcohol consumption, we use willpower to limit the amount of time we spend sitting in front of the TV—so naturally we think of self-regulation as restrictive. But Baumeister would remind us that self-regulation is useful in motivating positive behaviors as well. There is no more important time to recognize the need for specific action than when circumstances change in ways that bring confusion, frustration and anxiety. I’m curbing my impulse to run to the store for this or that right now—I’m restricting myself to home. But I’m also using Baumeister’s thoughts on willpower to motivate healthy new behaviors that might prove to be habits I’ll keep even after the virus has resolved.
For the most part, the willpower required these days is what I’d call attitudinal. In other words, motivating myself to maintain a positive outlook, to refuse to be drawn into catastrophic thinking or being discouraged that it is “taking so long” to resolve. There are plenty of resources and strategies available to distract me or boost my mood, including funny movies, good books, and online interactions with companionable others. In fact, keeping in touch with friends and family via FaceTime and Skype might be among the best ways to maintain a positive perspective these days. With so many working from home, we may feel too busy to keep outside family connections alive, but this is where willpower comes in. It is important to actively use the available technology to reach out to those who are alone, or who may be in need of encouragement. The great bonus is that this kind of outreach benefits the ones who make the calls as well.
Too often, people focus on how long this isolation will be required, or on the events and associations that are being missed. Creating motivation to look at what can be comforting, enjoyable, or what might be accomplished now, is essential to getting through this experience. It may be necessary to consider building a routine of connections with people that you’d normally see, as well as with those you haven’t heard from in a while. Recalling good memories of times shared in the past will go a long way to fill your need for connections. Knowing that it takes specific intention to make this happen, you might have to create a list and set aside time to call others. If this period of isolation continues months rather than weeks, it will require new attitudes and actions from all of us, and that might take a bit of willpower.