How Mindfulness Helped Me Cope With Uncertainty

July 15, 2020

Regardless of country, state, age or social status, the COVID-19 pandemic has taken its toll on everyone.  It is impacting how we approach our relationships with friends and family, as well as, our work and careers. Reflecting on how the pandemic started, I never imagined that I would not be able to physically go to work for almost 3 months. As it stands currently, that uncertainty remains. Uncertainty certainly seems like the word that is defining the year 2020, and it is easy to let it get the better of us, especially for students and trainees, who are constantly transitioning in their careers. We think that we are in control of most aspects of our lives, but if there is anything that I have learned from all this, it is that there is so much outside of our control. 

From my perspective, I want to share how I am coping with uncertainty and how to reverse catastrophic thoughts and negative self-talk. It has been so easy to catastrophize and lose motivation during COVID-19.  We cannot control how much we advance in our own research projects, how many hours we spend in the lab or how much we network with potential future mentors/supervisors. Sure, analyzing that data set you couldn’t get to when things were normal is nice. And we certainly have more time to catch up with literature. I’ll even admit that I like doing these things in the comfort of my living room, now a makeshift office. But science and, ultimately, our careers do not move forward by just reading articles and analyzing neglected data sets. New experiments must be started, standardized and replicated for progress to occur. We all know this. Our supervisors especially know this. And, because of this, it is so easy to feel like we are not accomplishing enough each day. Eventually, the illusion of the makeshift office fades and the living room returns, with all its distractions, making it hard to stay focused. Feelings of guilt pile up because we feel like we aren’t doing enough. Then the catastrophizing thoughts begin. That is the moment when we must practice mindfulness.

Because so many people have been affected by the pandemic, I won’t pretend to provide “one size fits all” advice. However, I will always advocate for mindfulness. By being mindful you can catch yourself catastrophizing and avoid falling into late-night downward guilt spirals. You can learn to identify what is outside of your control, accept those things as they are and move on. Be mindful of how exhausted you are and how your internal battery feels. Ask yourself these questions:
  • Do you need a break from the news? 
  • Are you suffering from cabin fever? 
  • How are you coping with isolation?
Locate the things that drain you emotionally and try to avoid those things. You can stop scrolling through social media; put your phone down before bed or during certain hours of the day. You can practice social distancing at a nearby park to relieve cabin fever. Bring a blanket and snacks. Bring a book to read, listen to your favorite podcast or take a walk.

Sometimes we don’t know how to accept our own negative (and positive) emotions. Keep a journal in which you write about these feelings and use it to monitor negative self-talk. We are our harshest critics. We do it as a form of self-preservation so that we are prepared to meet the challenges that life presents. But we often take it too far and unnecessarily blame ourselves for not doing enough. Take stock of your thoughts and feelings and use that information to tackle the anxieties that you do have control over rather than letting them overwhelm you. A journal could help you keep worrisome thoughts in check. Have things to look forward to every week, like learning to cook something new, extending your running time, making a book list or playing a new instrument. Being at home during the pandemic gave me a chance to re-connect with and learn how to play Puerto Rico’s national instrument, Cuatro. Practice achieving these small daily accomplishments. Keep a to-do list with a focus on manageable goals. Instead of setting a goal to write a whole chapter, write just a paragraph or an outline of that dissertation or paper instead. After a while, you will see the document take shape. The feeling of accomplishment can go a long way in making us feel better and can give us the motivation to continue writing until the paper is done. 

Above all, communicate your needs. Talk to your supervisor if you are feeling drained or if you need a break from work. It can be quite painful to watch everyone else around you be productive and succeed while you can’t because you are not feeling good about yourself. Give yourself a break and be mindful of your needs.

Remember to be kind to yourself.

Author: Victor Correa, Ph.D.

Victor Correa, Ph.D.
Victor Correa currently works at the Office of Intramural Training and Education at NIH.