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Last week I checked in on a friend to see how she was doing while in quarantine. Her response, “Overwhelmed, stressed and a bit stir crazy.”

One thing is for sure: She is not alone. It’s probably a safe guess to say that most of us are feeling a variety of emotions during the COVID-19 outbreak – everything from sadness, anger, suffering, fear and annoyance to impatience, depression, disillusionment and vulnerability. All the feels for sure.

The big question is, what do we do with all we are feeling? Great question. In a moment like this, it is important that we intentionally do something with those emotions

First and foremost, we need to acknowledge what we are feeling. Put words to the emotions rolling around inside. It might help to Google a list of feeling words to help you identify and express all the emotions you are experiencing. 

Write down all the words you believe you are experiencing. After you write them down, you need to know that none of those emotions are bad or wrong. They just are. It is now up to you to decide what your response will be to these emotions. In other words, you need to boss your feelings around instead of letting them hold you hostage and feeling like you are being tossed to and fro.

There are a few clues that can help you know if you are being held hostage by your emotions. For instance, you might be sleeping or eating more than normal. Perhaps you feel like you are on the edge of the cliff not knowing what you might do in the next moment. It may even feel like the people around you are constantly pushing your buttons and you have no capacity to keep yourself from going off on them. 

What can you do to take control? Here are some techniques you can try.

  • Breathe. Seriously, take some deep breaths. Breathe in deeply and then slowly exhale. Do this a number of times. Practice this throughout the day versus only when you feel like your emotions are beginning to run wild.
  • Exercise. This helps clear the fog out of your brain. Go for a walk, run, bike ride or do a workout on YouTube. Do something that will work up a sweat and release endorphins. 
  • Making sure you are eating healthy, getting plenty of rest and taking in Vitamin D (as in good ole sunshine) can also help you physically, mentally and emotionally.
  • Grab that journal you wrote your emotions in and consider specific things you can do right now. You can write down ways you want to choose to respond when it feels like these emotions are trying to take over. Acknowledge the emotion and consider your plan of action to get it under control. Actually saying out loud, “I feel overwhelmed or angry right this minute,” is more powerful than you might think. 
  • Ask yourself, “What do I need right now?” If you are a verbal processor, you might want to phone a friend and talk about what you are experiencing so they can help you put together your action plan. Playing music that helps you calm down is another option. Watching a show you really enjoy or utilizing some of the free virtual tours available to visit a place you love could be helpful.
  • Consider what you have control over or what you have the ability to influence. Your attitude is for sure something you can control. When you feel tension and fear creeping over you, you can literally say, “No, not today,” and then go do something constructive like yard work, helping a neighbor who can’t get outside, baking or making masks. Anything that puts your brain in motion in a positive way will work. When you are experiencing fear and your heart starts to beat fast, stop and assess the situation to determine what is real and what “could happen.” Differentiating between the two will help you be able to decide the best next steps. Sometimes, the best next step is to tell yourself that those thoughts are not accurate or true.
  • Your mindset matters. Negative self-talk can keep you from handling your emotions constructively. If you tell yourself you aren’t strong enough or smart enough to handle something or that you just can’t, your brain believes what you tell it. Instead, try statements like, “I’m not sure of the answer, but I’m going to figure it out,” or, “Another day, another adventure. I am strong and I am smart. I can figure this out.” Then set yourself in motion to figure it out.

Taking control of your emotions is a process. As you try some of these suggestions, be patient with yourself. Start by doing one thing differently. As you begin to do that thing more consistently, add something else into the mix. Over time, it is likely you will see yourself managing your emotions instead of letting them manage you.

Carol Dweck is a pioneering researcher in the field of motivation. In her book, “Mindset,” she  addresses why people succeed or don’t, and how to foster success through  the power of yet.

She tells the story of a Chicago school where students had to pass a series of courses in order to graduate. If they did not successfully pass the courses they were given the grade of “not yet.” Dweck thought that was brilliant. 

“If you get a failing grade, you feel like a failure,” she says, “But if you receive a not yet, it means you are on a growth track.”

In an effort to more fully understand how children cope with challenge and difficulty, Dweck gave a group of 10 year olds math problems that were slightly too hard for them. Some of the children said things like, “I love a challenge,” or “I was hoping this would be informative.” Dweck says they had a growth mindset because they innately understood their abilities could be developed. 

Another group of students thought their inability to solve the problems was tragic. They believed their intelligence was up for judgment and they failed. In fact, Dweck shared that in one study the young students said they would cheat the next time instead of studying more if they failed. They also looked for someone who did worse than they did to make themselves feel better. Dweck refers to these students as having a fixed mindset – believing that personal qualities are carved in stone, which creates an urgency to prove one’s self over and over. 

In a TED talk about mindset, Dweck asks, “How are we raising our children? Are we raising them for now instead of not yet? Are A’s so important to them that they have no idea how to dream big dreams? Are they carrying the need for constant validation with them into their future lives?”

Dweck contends that choosing to praise wisely would be helpful to children. Instead of praising intelligence or talent, praise progress, effort, strategies and improvement. This helps build children who are hardy and resilient.

She also points out that equality occurs when teachers create a growth mindset in their classrooms. For example, in one year, a kindergarten class in Harlem scored in the 95th percentile on the National Achievement Test. Many of those kids could not hold a pencil when they arrived in school. Also in one year, fourth grade students in the South Bronx who were way behind became the number one fourth grade class in New York on the state’s math test. And, in a year to a year and a half, Native American students on a reservation went from the bottom of their district to the top – and that district included affluent sections of Seattle, Washington. Dweck believes this happened because the meaning of effort and difficulty were transformed. Before it made them feel dumb, but now effort and difficulty enable their neurons to make stronger connections.

“We can change students mindsets,” Dweck says. Every time children push out of their comfort zone the neurons in their brain form new stronger connections. Students who weren’t taught this growth mindset continued to show declining grades, but those who were taught the growth mindset strategy saw their grades improve.

Dweck received a letter from a 13-year-old boy which said, “Dear Professor Dweck, I appreciate that your writing is based on solid scientific research. That’s why I decided to put it into practice. I put more effort into my school work, into my relationship with my family and into my relationship with kids at school and I experienced great improvement in all of these areas. I now realize I wasted most of my life.”

Are we raising children in the environment of yet?

Once we know that people are capable of such growth, it becomes a human right for children to live in places filled with yet. Let’s not waste the time we have with the kids in our sphere of influence. Let’s teach them the importance of mindset, praise their efforts and give them amazing opportunities to grow and become the resilient children we all know they have the potential to be.