6 Psychologist-Approved Ways To Cope With Unexpected Losses Right Now
If anything is certain right now, it's that life has changed.
My nephew is worried he'll have to cancel his long-planned wedding. One of my students can no longer conduct research for his thesis, as campus is closed. My 14-year-old son's spring break trip to Six Flags will not happen, and his fallback plan (a sleepover with friends) won't happen either.
While these may seem like small losses, we all know that larger ones are ahead. Loss of jobs, businesses, and retirement accounts, or at worst, the loss of friends and family. Whatever may come, by now we've all lost a sense of normalcy. So how do we cope in a healthy way while simultaneously focusing on what we can do to slow the virus?
How do we cope with loss in a healthy way?
The science of psychological flexibility, which is explained in more detail in my book A Liberated Mind, can help. Over the last few decades, thousands of scientific studies have focused on a small set of mental skills that have a big effect on whether people can rise to life challenges. These skills predict what will happen after a school shooting, after the death of a loved one, after a cancer operation, or after time in a war zone. And most importantly they can be learned.
Choose to feel.
Loss is a rich soup of emotions, sensations, urges, and memories. Make room for them all. Research shows that people who respond to loss with tears and laughter; mourning and honoring; missing and appreciating, are more likely to recover and even prosper. Post-traumatic growth is real. If you want that for yourself, start by opening the door to your own reactions to the loss.
Notice your thoughts, but choose which thoughts to follow.
Bring your wiser self into the room, and watch your mind try to deny, blame others, withdraw, or force a silver lining. Every mental move from every developmental era will be attempted when there is a major loss.
Think of it this way: You're standing in front of a broken vending machine, which refused to deliver your snack. You're pushing every button, rocking the machine, or hitting the front panel, as if these moves will deliver what you want. Trotting out old moves—that you know aren't helpful—won't be productive.
As that phase passes, your mind will quiet, and more subtle and useful thoughts may appear. These thoughts may encourage you to reach out to others, change in ways you know are healthy, or give yourself (and others) a moment of kindness.
Attend to what is of importance here and now.
As you begin to take in the loss, direct your attention to what's actually important in the present moment. Let go of rumination and worry, and instead broaden your focus. You are here. You are alive. This moment contains life in full measure.
Connect in consciousness with others.
Once upon a time, someone who loved you looked into your eyes and said, "Oh you sweet baby," to which your brain responded by releasing natural opiates, as if to say, "This is what I want."
Such moments were your invitation to join the human community, and in times like these, we need those moments of love and connection more than ever. Don't bow your head and close your eyes inside a loss, as if hiding away will make it better. Metaphorically, and quite physically, lift your head up, open your eyes, and connect with others.
Yes, you can do this even while coping with loss, and even while social distancing. FaceTime a friend or a family member. Remember, we are all in this together.
Choose your best self.
Think of a person who might give you guidance on how to be your best self amid a loss. If you could pick anyone, who would it be? Don't do this in a purely logical way—let your soul speak to you, then choose.
Once you've chosen, think about how that person carries themselves in life. My guess, you picked someone who displays values you admire. If you were to put those values into your heart, what might you do to deal with this loss differently? A letter of gratitude? A phone call to a loved one? Help others deal with similar losses?
Go for it.
Your heart just gave you a "values road map," and now it's time to put it into action. Values are like traction, meaning they grip the surface beneath you so that you can step forward.
The mind may want you to remove the traction, but research shows that "dis-traction" only amplifies loss in an unhealthy way.
The flip side of loss is love and care. Taking action, rather than disengaging, will help you deal with loss in a much healthier way. Write that letter, make that call, or reach out to help others deal with similar losses. Whatever the destination your heart mapped out for you, go for it.
What's the bottom line?
We are only beginning what might be a months-long worldwide journey into the COVID-19 crisis. These six skills will give you the strength to walk through this global pandemic in a way that will support and empower your larger life journey.
Steven C. Hayes, Ph.D., is a Professor of Psychology at the University of Nevada, Reno. The author of forty-three books and more than six hundred scientific articles, he has served as president of the Association for Behavioral and Cognitive Therapy and the Association for Contextual Behavioral Science, and is one of the most cited psychologists in the world. He received his bachelor's in psychology from Loyola Marymount University, and both his master's and Ph.D. in clinical psychology from West Virginia University.
Hayes initiated the development of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) and of Relational Frame Theory (RFT), the approach to cognition on which ACT is based. His research has been cited widely in publications including but not limited to The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and Psychology Today. Most recently, he wrote A Liberated Mind.