We are living in unrecognizable times. I cannot remember ever living with this much uncertainty in my adult life. We are facing big decisions. Life and death decisions. Do we send our kids back to school? Do we visit with out-of-town children and grandchildren? Sometimes these decisions seem clear, and other times, they are murky. Our back and forth thoughts cause distress.
Many of these decisions have no clear “right” answer. Each option carries some risk. Sending kids back to school incurs physical risk for the family and keeping them home carries emotional risk. These difficult choices raise our angst. The angst can become noise that distracts us from our deeper feelings. These may be feelings of fear, hopelessness, powerlessness, anger, sadness, or resentment. One of the feelings I’m hearing a lot in my conversations with people is yearning. Yearning is a feeling of deeply desiring something. I think many of us yearn for a sense of safety or normalcy.
Brain research shows that when we have intense feelings, we can’t think clearly. The part of our brain that thinks clearly is the prefrontal cortex. Our prefrontal cortex manages functions such as self-awareness, emotional regulation, and problem solving. So here we are, faced with some of the most difficult decisions of our lives, and we are stuck in our feelings and unable to access the part of our brains that might help us make these decisions.
What do we do?
First, we owe it to ourselves to compassionately identify our deeper feelings. Pretend you are talking with someone you cherish and caringly ask yourself what you’re feeling. Is it fear? Is it anger or resentment that you are in this situation? Your prefrontal cortex does this wondering, so identifying your emotion actually helps to soothe it.
Second, once you identify the feeling, sit with it. Allow yourself to truly feel it. You may cry or be uncomfortable. It’s OK. Feelings last about 90 seconds if you acknowledge them; then they calm down.
Third, after you express your feeling, do something physical, like walking around the house, or cooking, or getting the mail, or doing laundry. Physical activity lets your brain reset.
Then you can come back and consider the problem with more brainpower. After your reset try:
- Thinking “how can I?” rather than “should I?” How can I see my children and grandchildren safely, rather than should I see them?
- Thinking about which parts of the situation you could control. Could you control how long or where you see your children?
- Considering what you would advise someone else in the same situation to do. This helps get your emotions out of the decision.
- Listing the pros and cons of each possible solution and evaluating what is best at this moment.
- Reconsidering if you get new information.
This is hard but we are in this together. Moving out of negative thoughts by identifying our emotions will reduce our distress and misery while we make these difficult decisions. Let’s help each other do this by making our relationships safe places to talk about how we feel.