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The Toxic Thoughts I’ve Had During Isolation — And How I Keep Them In Check

In a world fraught with rapidly changing news, subtle but widespread anxiety, and the upheaval of our daily lives, having peak mental health may feel impossible at the moment, and if anyone expects that of you, please know that it’s okay to not be okay during a global pandemic

In the shift to social-distancing, self-isolation, quarantine–whatever level of precaution you may be taking–I’ve sensed also a shift in how we talk to ourselves, which thoughts we let rule our moods, and what our inner dialogues try to get away with. There are additional stressors coming at us from all angles: health, work, personal, family, friends, everything….an ideal breeding ground for anxiety, depression, and self-harmful thinking. Since entering isolation, I’ve experienced a fair share of mental unrest, noticing a spike as the routines and habits I had worked so hard to create, that contribute so acutely to my sense of stability, crumbled before me. I recognize that there are people who have lost much more than a sleep schedule and a morning ritual, but mental health is often omitted from the conversation entirely, so I want to give it a moment to shine. 

Right now, being a mental health professional is daunting. We are working extra hard to support kids, families, and individuals whose lives are being affected by COVID-19 and trying to take care of our own mental health needs as well. I am lucky to work with clinicians who support one another, offering validation and understanding during this ever-changing experience. But negativity can be stealthy, slipping into our mindscapes when we’ve laid down for a much-anticipated night’s sleep or during a work-day when we can’t afford to be held captive by a negative thought spiral. 

While we have a certain amount of innate negativity as humans, used to mentally prepare us for worst-case-scenarios, these thoughts simply aren’t helpful in the day-to-day. I am a firm believer that thought is not fact. If we can catch ourselves having these thoughts, then we can mitigate the power they hold over us. Everyone has toxic thoughts, especially during times of high stress and tough transitions. Your inner bully may look different than mine and may vary in severity, but the general theme I’ve noticed in recent conversations with friends and coworkers is that negativity and sadness feel harder to escape right now. I want to give my mostly-unfiltered negative thoughts a chance to breathe and share what I’ve done to challenge them. While every day is different, the following are five common negative thoughts and the strategies that have helped me build a defense against them.

“I have to find an at-home exercise routine that works…[Enter self-criticism and unrealistic consequence if I don’t].”

Walking has been a saving grace for me right now, a way to get off my butt and do what my body feels good doing. It clears out mental cobwebs and fills my head with more peaceful, self-loving thoughts. Walking allows me to tune into the simple joy of strolling around my neighborhood after a long workday from home.

I’ve taken to unfollowing, momentarily or permanently, social media accounts that have had a surge in at-home exercise content. We have the power to control what we feed our subconscious while scrolling. I enacted this control by doing a good ol’ social media purge.

“I am annoyed/fed up/irritated with…[Enter partner/roommate/family member’s name] and  have no reason to be.”

Finding validation in my friends who are also in relationships has been especially helpful. Turns out, everyone’s a little irritated with everyone right now. 

Honoring this feeling by giving myself space to do my own thing while my partner does his thing has dulled this particular thought. Close quarters call for closer attention to your needs. 

“I neeed to buy…[Enter really expensive, non-essential items], so I will have something to look forward to.”

If the temptation is really intense, I will ride the urge by occupying myself with another activity for 30-60 minutes and reassess the desire afterward. This may look like talking to my mom on the phone, folding laundry and watching Grey’s Anatomy, or listening to an audiobook.

I’ve been giving myself reality checks, reeling in from boredom-shopping by focusing on the terrifying ambiguity of the future, which really does remind me of the importance of my savings and emergency fund. 

“You have no excuse NOT to tackle that to-do-list/begin that hobby/start deep cleaning your apartment.”

I often go back to the mantra that I’m only human, meaning that by default I have limits. 

Listing the things I have accomplished and celebrating the little victories of my day lessens the impact of this one, finding small ways to engender the same sense of achievement I crave. Washing my hair and getting the dishes done is sometimes all I can manage, and that’s okay. 

“I suck at my job. I hate working from home. I could be trying harder… [Enter list of unattainable goals].”

Talking to my coworkers more than usual by texting, video chatting, and messaging during work and after hours has reminded me that I’m not the only one struggling with this transition. 

Doing things I know I am good at and that bring me joy like cooking, writing, and playing video games with my significant other protect me from succumbing to these particularly potent digs. 

When all else fails, I use gratitude to reframe these thoughts. I’m reminded that I have a body that can be exercised at home, an isolation buddy to share this time with, everything I need to live healthily, an apartment to deep clean, and a meaningful job with a paycheck. This just puts things into perspective. 

  • The first step is to identify negative, unhelpful thoughts. 
  • The second step is to catch yourself having these thoughts. 
  • The third step is to challenge these thoughts through internal and external coping mechanisms until the thoughts feel less and less true. 

Remember a thought is just a thought, lacking power unless you allow it to take root and manifest into something more unruly — like a 1:00 a.m. Facebook Ad shopping spree of which I am very, very guilty of. I urge you to focus on your mental state for 5 to 10 minutes. Write down your negative thoughts, brainstorm a few ideas to actively confront them, and find what works to lessen their blow. I encourage this practice in self-compassion and self-love, accepting that negativity is part of being human and calling yourself out when you’re being a bully is vital, especially during this mentally vulnerable time. By acknowledging the unkind thoughts that we are all susceptible to, you’re saying I see you, and giving them just a little less power. 

I think my best and final piece of advice for managing negativity during this time is to talk to your people, those who make you feel heard. There are many degrees of hardship right now, sacrifices being made, people doing what they need to do. If you’re silently struggling and your negative thoughts are revving up, engage in perhaps the most fundamental form of coping: connection. 

Coalesce in this weird time, because as much as the focus is on physical health right now (as it should be), your emotional and mental health needs care, too. If an option, schedule virtual coffee dates and group movie nights, eat breakfast with your loved ones, talk about how this pandemic is affecting you and ask how it is affecting others. Togetherness can be healing, and we may be physically distant, but we can remain socially strong. Let’s be alone, together. 

Skylar is a school-based mental health counselor who talks about self-care as the foundation of a prosperous life. You can usually find her listening to a Harry Potter audiobook, talking about compost, cooking up something colorful, or chilling in downward-facing dog. You can find her on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, and Linkedin

Image via Pexels

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