How To Balance Your Negative Thoughts- Pandemic Edition

WellNest psychotherapist Sana Imran teaches us how to balance our negative thoughts, during the COVID and the post COVID era.

As the pandemic of COVID-19 was announced and people all over the world were provided instructions on how to respond physically, we also started receiving instructions on how to respond emotionally. 

These instructions came through a variety of sources, including public health officials, mental health professionals, opinion pieces in news outlets, and social media influencers. While some of these instructions were viewed as helpful, others provided guidance that led to a higher level of mental distress rather than alleviating it.

While these instructions are important to discuss, they have also created mixed messaging on how we could and should be responding to this pandemic. 

For many of my loved ones, colleagues, and clients, I have heard the anxiety and confusion associated with these messages and the impact they have had. 

What are these mixed messages?

I’ve read articles on taking this time to slow our daily routines and practice stillness. I’ve also read articles that declare we will never have this time again, and that it should be used to become immensely productive, ending COVID-19 with a new hobby, a new course completed, or a major project accomplished. 

These stories have come through loud and clear in my conversations with clients as well, who on a weekly basis, have described their frustrations of wanting to do more but feeling unfocused, wanting to take a break but not knowing how to break free from the mental pressure. 

These experiences have created expectations that appear unattainable, resulting in greater comparisons to others, and a level of self judgement and shame that has become paralyzing. And as I have worked with my clients to process these thoughts, I came to the realization of just how deeply I can relate. 

Over my years of training in different modalities, there are specific concepts and skills I turn back to often, both for managing my own emotions, and in supporting those around me.

During this time of trying to balance peace with pressure, I found myself reflecting on the concept of “dialectics,” from my training in Dialectical Behaviour Therapy (DBT).

What is DBT?

Created by Marsha Linehan, DBT is traditionally known as an effective intervention for several mood-related symptoms, however, I personally label the skills that DBT teaches, as essential life skills. One of these skills is the practice of dialectical thinking. 

What is dialectical thinking?

In its most basic sense, dialectical thinking refers to finding a balance between opposites. All of us often think in very “black and white” terms. What this typically looks like is:

  • we either love or hate something
  • we are strong or weak
  • we feel happy or depressed
  • we are introverted or extroverted

Our thoughts impact how we feel, and how we express ourselves, so “black and white” thoughts such as the above result in "black and white" reactions.

Dialectical thinking encourages us to consider that these “black and white” thoughts, which appear to be (or literally are) opposites, can coexist. 

Understanding how they can coexist may lead into new and more flexible thoughts, finding what is known as the middle path” or the grey area that lies between the black and white.  For example, I am a happy person and sometimes I can also experience moments of sadness. 

The middle path

The middle path is the space between acknowledging how we feel, and moving forward with this in mind. Otherwise known as the space between acceptance and change

How can finding the middle path help me?

This is incredibly difficult to do, and I am suggesting trying it during a pandemic, no less! The reason for this is that I have heard the words “but,” and “or” come up more times during my conversations than I can keep count, and finding the middle path gives us the opportunity to change our language, creating ripple effects in how we feel and ultimately, how we respond. 

The middle path during COVID-19

For instance, during COVID-19, what if we were to say to ourselves: “I’m doing the best I can AND I want to be doing better.”

On the surface “I’m doing the best I can” and “I want to be doing better” may seem like opposites. However, during many situations, I find these two thoughts are in harmony. 

Have you been struggling with maintaining your pre-pandemic regular routine? Well then, you are doing the best that you can given the situation you are currently facing. Have you also been wishing that you were doing something differently? Well, that is you saying that you want to be doing better. Both parts of that sentence are true.

Shifting language

Notice we are making an active effort to use the word ‘’AND’’ vs ‘‘BUT’’! 

And notice we are not placing a specific expectation on ourselves.

This is the intentional shift we want to make. Here’s why:

If we said: “I’m doing the best I can BUT I want to be doing better,”

The first part of that sentence gets negated, and we are only left with “I want to be doing better.” This activates that inner critic within all of us, thereby creating the same cycle of negative thoughts and emotions we were feeling before.

So, what is the first step toward practicing dialectical thinking?

  • For any thought, ask yourself: “is this really an either/or situation?”
  • Then, try shifting your language from “EITHER/OR/BUT” to “BOTH/AND.”

An example:

“I need to be productive today OR it will be a waste of the day”

gets reframed to

“I will try to be productive today AND come back to what I do not finish.”

The change in this sentence encourages us to focus on what we can do today, while leaving space for us to be comfortable with where we may end the day. This is that middle path we referred to earlier, accepting how we are feeling today, while leaving space to create change in the future.

Finding the middle path in our everyday lives allows us to hold opposite perspectives at once, creating balance in how we view the world, the actions of others, and our perceptions of ourselves. 

Conclusion

All this to say, there is nothing saying we cannot come back to our projects tomorrow, the next day, or the next week. Or we may abandon certain projects, or try something completely different.

This can be done by giving ourselves the permission to do so. I know most people around us are giving us that permission - are we giving it to ourselves?

So when we look at those mixed messages coming at us from every media source, social media platform, TV channel, and news outlet, we want to know: 

What has helped you find a middle path during this time?

Being more mindful of how our thoughts impact us gives us the space to process them in an intentional way. Acknowledging these and validating our feelings is an act of acceptance, and patiently accepting our present creates the potential for change in our future.

Sana Imran psychotherapist MSW RSW

Sana Imran is a psychotherapist at WellNest psychotherapy services in Toronto and advises on public policy for mental health and addictions. Sana believes in approaching clients and their loved ones through an emotion-focused and trauma-informed lens and is passionate about reducing stigma around mental health.