Dr. Rubin recently presented to the Seacoast Women’s Giving Circle about “Silver Linings: A Look Back at 2020.” The following represents an excerpt from her talk.
As both a clinical psychologist and mother of three, I wanted to share with you some reflections I have about finding the silver linings of living through a pandemic. I know we have all experienced the significant impact of COVID-19 in our personal and professional lives, ranging from navigating remote/hybrid learning for those of us with children, adjustments needed to perhaps work from home while simultaneously managing other responsibilities, and reduced in-person time with friends and family members, to name a few. Despite those stressful experiences in the last ten months, there are also silver linings which allow us step forward in growth. As I have met with clients in the last ten months, four key themes have emerged for how we can find the silver linings. They include the gift of supporting others, intentional pauses, steps towards self-acceptance, and getting comfortable with the uncomfortable. I would also offer that these themes do not just apply to living through a pandemic, but represent more broadly steps we can take to help live our fullest lives:
The Gift of Supporting Others
During times of stress, such as living through this pandemic, it is easy for our focus to shift inwards. We often think about what we may be missing out on, what are specific losses are, or how things may feel unfair. Yet one of the key themes I have heard in my meetings with others is the power of supporting other. Neuroscience has supported this as well. We know that giving to others provides a powerful pathway for creating more personal joy and improving overall health. Helping others triggers a release of oxytocin, which has the effect of boosting your mood and counteracts the effects of cortisol (the dreaded stress hormone). Interestingly, the higher your levels of oxytocin, the more you want to help others. When oxytocin is boosted, so are serotonin and dopamine. I encourage each of you to consider ways you can support others, whether it be in your family or community at large.
I admit this is a tough one for me. Like perhaps many of you, my pre-pandemic mode of operating is often driven by productivity and staying busy. I tend to thrive in the high levels of activity and energy needed to take care of my family, my professional life, and other activities. Yet it can be hard to stop and enjoy the moment in our flurry of staying busy. While this pandemic experience for me has resulted in even greater levels of processing needed to carry out day to day tasks, it has also simultaneously resulted in a disoriented sense of time standing still. Particularly in the earlier days of the pandemic with all the various cancellations we experienced in our lives, time opened up. We couldn’t plan much in the future. We had limited control about unfolding events in our world. What we had was the “now.” So it is what we do with these “open spaces” that can lead to the most joy and contribute to the most growth internally. My clients talked about learning to find unexpected happiness in the simplicity of daily life. Seeing the sunset. Enjoying walks outside. Actually tasting and appreciating meals. I’m sure many of you found your own version of this. It is often the case that difficult situations result in greater appreciation of the simple things. One of my favorite quotes is from Kahil Gibran’s “The Prophet” in which he writes “Your joy is your sorrow unmasked. The deeper that sorrow carves into your being the more joy you can contain.” Perhaps one of the take-aways we can have from this pandemic is taking more intentional pauses to reflect, enjoy the beauty around us, and appreciate what we have. I would ask you to consider how can you transform your areas of sorrow into intentional pauses that can lead to joy?
Steps Toward Self-Acceptance
We live in a society which values self-improvement in various form, whether it be in our physical appearance, fitness levels, professional achievement, family functioning, and so on. I would argue that women are particularly hard hit by these messages. Such messages are tough enough in regular times, but during a pandemic it is virtually impossible to maintain a semblance of “holding it all together.” This pandemic has been messy, literally and figuratively. Initially, many of us started worrying about what we would be using for toilet paper next, the daunting experience of trying to be our children’s teachers despite feeling woefully inadequate, or even how we would possibly keep up our work-out regimes using soup cans for weights! On a more serious note, many of us have experienced more significant disruptions in our work and personal lives, and missing out on our typical forms of stress release such as being in-person with our friends or extended family. We may have felt even more pressure in the last ten months to “hold it all together” and, coupled with increased social isolation, blamed ourselves for our perceived shortcomings in managing this pandemic. I’m not sure about you, but at the beginning of the pandemic I made a mental list of all the things I would be able to accomplish and I’m not even close to making it through the list. One silver lining about trying to manage the magnitude of this pandemic is realizing we can’t manage it perfectly, just like we can’t always meet our own internalized high demands that can be overly burdensome. Even when we do fail, we are typically our own worst judge. I ask you to consider what self-imposed burden you may carry within that you could perhaps move forward towards self-acceptance?
Getting Comfortable with the Uncomfortable
Life in a pandemic is highly uncomfortable. We were all thrown into a new world requiring very different skill sets and the pandemic turned us all into beginners. Navigating zoom codes. Social distancing. Mask etiquette. Managing COVID illness ourselves or worrying about friends and family who tested positive. As 2020 turned into 2021 we all longed for a fresh start and hope that we could return to some kind of normal and sense of familiarity. However, while we had to deal with this unsettling societal learning curve, many people decided to learn new things. Online learning sites like Skillshare, Duolingo, and Coursera saw rapid growth, and enrollment in online art, music, and cooking classes flourished. A silver lining of managing this pandemic is getting comfortable with the uncomfortable and embracing being a beginner. We know that learning a new skill alters the brain within a few days, For examples, studies that looked at individuals who took up jugging found that changes occurred in both the brain’s grey matter, the processing centers of the brain, as well as the white matter, the connections that bind our brain together. These changes are really good for our brain as well as our mental health. In talking with clients I learned that for many individuals, learning a new skill was key to reclaim their identity in the face of a major stress. As we embark on learning new skills we need to remember that progress is not always linear and that we learn best when we are approaching the limits of our current skill levels. Consider ways you can become increasingly comfortable with the uncomfortable and identifying what new skills you can learn.