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Outside the Lab Profession

How Not to Lose Your Mind

I had incredible New Year’s plans. The weather in Denver was supposed to be perfect! I was planning on welcoming 2021 by hiking in the mountains, enjoying the delicious fresh air and sunshine.

And then it happened.

At 9pm on New Year’s Eve, I started sneezing and developed a runny nose.

Two years ago, a sneeze would have meant that I was coming down with a simple cold. No biggie. A sniffle during the COVID-19 pandemic triggered all sorts of dangerous thoughts.

This essay is about how not to lose your mind. For me, these lessons helped me manage my emotions while awaiting my COVID-19 test results, but I suppose they can help in any situation: the stress of residency training, the promotion process, your annual review, connecting with your in-laws, a difficult divorce, navigating your kids through virtual school…

Stay present-focused

If you ever want to experience fear, think about the future. It’s filled with all sorts of unknowns. Where was I going to find a COVID-19 test center? How long would I need to wait for the result? What would I do if I couldn’t be at work as scheduled? What if I had to be hospitalized? What if I died of COVID-19? The future is ruthless.

If you ever want to experience shame, think about the past, because hindsight shows us that we could always have made better choices. How did I get sick with my N95 on almost all the time? Where was I not careful? How was I to blame? Did I get anyone else sick? The past is ruthless.

Although thinking about the past and future is natural, none of the above thoughts served me. In these situations, I encourage you to take a lesson from your big toe. It’s just sitting in a sock at the end of your foot. It isn’t asking about the future or the past. It simply exists in the present. The present is not scary. At the peak of my fear and regret, I kept bringing myself back to the present moment. I was quarantined in my bedroom. I felt physically okay. I was safe. All I had to do was breathe in and out. I could totally handle that.

As you stay present-focused, it can be helpful to develop a soothing behavior and mantra to help anchor you. For me, I put my hand on my heart, take deep breaths, and say, “I can figure it out.” What helps anchor you to the present?

What is the real worst-case scenario?

When your brain starts to panic, let it explore the worst-case scenario in a constrained way. I find it helpful to journal the scary thoughts so that the ideas stop spinning in my head and move onto paper, where I can objectively review them and intentionally decide which thoughts to keep and which to discard. As frightened as I was, only a few thoughts were driving the fear. I could handle a few thoughts.

I liken this process to cleaning out the junk drawer. First, take out all the junk (write all the thoughts down), then decide which treasures (useful thoughts) you want to keep and which junk to throw away. While quarantining in the bedroom, I realized that I was afraid I would be hospitalized and die of COVID-19. Once I saw those words in my journal, I realized that my worst fear was death. I reminded myself that I wasn’t even sure I had COVID-19, I had no comorbidities, and I was unlikely to die from that illness at that time. I was watching my favorite television show in my favorite reclining chair while wearing my favorite pajamas. I was actively enjoying my life. I was okay.

When your brain starts to panic, listen to your thoughts and then talk to your brain to help it calm down. When you feel panic, what are your worst-case scenarios? What are you telling your brain to bring it back to neutral?

Give equal airtime to positive possibilities

It was true that I could have had COVID-19, but it was equally true that I might not have it. Even if I had COVID-19, it was at least as possible that I would survive without any complications as it was that I would die. As you navigate a crisis, understand that it is your brain’s job to protect you by showing you all the possible dangers. Make sure you balance out “worst-case scenario” thoughts with positive thoughts that are at least equally true.

Our brain’s job is to find evidence that it is correct

Your thoughts are powerful – so be careful with them. Our brain’s job is to find evidence that we are correct. If you think, “I will die of COVID-19,” your brain will find evidence of that – and that will lead to fear and panic. If you think, “I will figure this out no matter what,” your brain will similarly find all the evidence of that thought, giving you a feeling of peace.

What thoughts are holding you back? How can you shift to positive thoughts to create positive feelings that drive positive actions that end in positive results?

There are never any guarantees

The pandemic is challenging because it immediately and dramatically changed everything. Many of us questioned our mortality. Many of us lost loved ones. It was frightening to realize that we couldn’t control our health and, even now, there is no universal cure.

It helped to remind myself that, in some ways, nothing has changed because there never were any guarantees. We never could control the future with any degree of certainty. All of us are born with an expiration date; none of us will live forever. In this regard, nothing is different. Death is, and always has been, an inevitable part of life.

The worst-case scenario, I believe, is to waste our precious time worrying about the future or shaming ourselves about the past instead of enjoying the beauty all around us in the present – and that’s one big reason I love going to the mountains. No matter how much panic our human brains create, nature is big and resilient. The mountains were here long before we were and they will be here long after we are gone. They are not worried or panicked about human existence. Like your big toe, they just exist.

Look around your life. What gifts are lying in plain sight?

You either get the results you want or the lessons you need

Because I certainly didn’t want to be sick, I tried to explore what I could learn from the experience. After a bit of thinking, I realized that it allowed me an opportunity to manage my mind, to be okay with not being in control, to process my feelings of fear, and to rest.

What could you learn from the areas in your life that are less than ideal?

You can’t control reality, but you can control how you show up in your life

Sitting in my bedroom, I realized there was nothing I could do to accelerate the process of waiting for the test results. Although I couldn’t control the testing process or the outcome of my illness, I could control how I showed up in my life. I decided that, of all the feelings in the world, I wanted peace while I waited for my test results. The thought that generated peace for me was, “I can handle this.”

I leaned into the waiting. If I had to spend the weekend in my closet, I would make it the best weekend in my closet ever. I created four podcast episodes, reviewed two papers, submitted revisions on a paper, and read several papers and a book. I enjoyed a marathon of trashy television. I called all my best friends. I rested and took naps. I allowed myself to accept the circumstances (because I couldn’t change them). I generated a feeling of peace. It was a beautiful weekend.

What feeling do you want to cultivate in your life? What thoughts would help create that feeling for you? If you have a hard time finding the right thoughts, think back to when you last intensely experienced the feeling you want. What were you thinking to create that feeling? If that doesn’t work, go to your future self who is many years wiser and already has all of those feelings; borrow her thoughts to create the feeling you want.

Life is 50-50

Half of life is painful (or worse, boring); the other half is beautiful. Trying to make every day of your life amazing will lead to disappointment. Not every day can be amazing. Some days are just “meh” because this is the human experience.

On New Year’s Eve 2020, I signed multiple clients to my coaching program.

And I developed a runny nose.

It was a gorgeous day in Denver.

And I was quarantined in my closet.

It was the dawn of a new year.

And I might have COVID-19.

Life is 50-50.

And isn’t that contrast beautiful?

Spoiler alert: I took a COVID-19 test and received the results in less than 12 hours. My test was negative. I missed zero days of work. I had a beautiful weekend in my closet. I created tremendous value for my academic career and coaching practice. I rested and watched television. The very next hike I went on was the most stunning hike of my life because of the lessons I learned waiting for my COVID-19 test.

All thoughts and feelings are available to you.

Choose the ones that serve you.

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About the Author
Christina Arnold

Christina A. Arnold is Associate Professor of Pathology at the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus, Aurora, Colorado, USA.

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