Studies report that anxiety and depression has surged as a consequence of the COVID pandemic. What was before a problem affecting 1 in 10 people, is now taking a toll on maybe half of us. So I thought I could write about my experience with keeping my mood under control.
I’ve been using these techniques for about a year successfully. I don’t always stick to them perfectly. I sometimes forget about some, and sometimes pick them up again. But when I do stick to them, I feel considerably better than when I don’t.
The evaluations of difficulty and benefit for the techniques below are based only on my personal experience and, like everything else in this article, are very subjective.
Count the good things
Difficulty: 1 / 5
Benefit: 3 / 5
Process. I try to pay attention when something good happens and mentally acknowledge that it was a good thing and, importantly, why it was a good thing. Then I increase a counter. I try to do it as soon as the thing happens, but if somehow I forget, I look back over the last hours and remember what happened that I missed at the time. There is no way I can not find some good things in a day, using this method. Even if I’m stuck in the house and I’d rather be outside, I can still acknowledge that the sun is shining through the window. If there’s no sun and it’s raining, I will acknowledge that the rain makes a pleasant sound.
Why? To shift your attention from the negative to the positive things. Events in themselves are not qualified. They are neither good, nor bad. It’s our interpretation that decides how they are. So if one chooses to focus on the good parts of a day, then every day will be a good one.
Implementation details. I have a simple counter app on my phone, with a widget that I keep in the center of my home screen. When I want to increase the counter, I tap it. When it goes past midnight I reset the counter. Or I reset it the next morning. If it’s evening and the number is low, I think back and find some reasons to tap. I go for at least five taps in a day, ideally ten. It rarely goes much higher than that because if the day is that great, I end up not looking at my phone that often. As I’m writing this, the counter is at seven and it’s 9:30 in the evening. I tapped once because I finally started cleaning up the draft for this article.
Difficulty: 3 / 5
Benefit: 4 / 5
Process. I completely gave up the words “must” and “should” and all equivalents in my native language, or expressions that have the same meaning. I try to pay attention when I say them by mistake and immediately rephrase. In time they fade from usage. (I think the technical term for this is behavior extinction.) It’s important to rephrase on the spot so that I have a negative incentive to use them in the first place. I will not say “I must do X”, but rather “I want to do X”, or “Doing X would be nice”. Because language is such a natural thing, it’s actually harder to put this into practice than to understand it.
Why? To eliminate unnecessary pressure on yourself. There are very few things in life that really, really must be done. Claiming that something must be done implies that failure to do it is something negative. And the imminent threat of something negative happening triggers anxiety. Accepting from the start that failure is an option lets the brain focus on getting things done, free from any negative consequences.
Be imperfect on purpose
Difficulty: 1 / 5
Benefit: 4 / 5
Process. Actually applying this to important things may sound risky. That’s why I do it as a habit for inconsequential things. Not so long ago I used to always carefully align the cutlery in front of me when I sat down to eat. So I will now move the fork a bit on purpose. Or when putting a five Euro bill in the wallet, I will not put it next to the other fives, on purpose. Or when parking the car I will slightly leave the steering wheel turned. Maybe ten degrees or so, again on purpose. If I do it for the small things and get used to it, I am no longer bothered by not perfecting something that is more important. This way I am able to be more productive and feel better about what I achieve.
Why? Because the perfect is the enemy of the good - and a ton of other sayings that sound a bit lame, but are at their core very much true. Spending that valuable time to slightly improve beyond what’s good enough cuts into doing another good thing. Perfecting something may take considerably more than making it good enough. More so, the threat of not reaching perfection may stop you from even attempting something.
Part 2 will follow.