A few years ago, I learned an interesting fact about sharks while helping my son with his first-grade research project. Some species of sharks never stop moving in the water – even when they sleep.
This is because of the way they take in oxygen through their gills. If they stop moving, they stop breathing and ultimately drown. I was recently reminded of this fact of nature as I thought about the many clients I work with who were all in various stages of change when the COVID-19 pandemic hit.
That is, people in the process of forming or deepening relationships, making more meaningful connections to others, diminishing unhealthy habits and solidifying healthy ones, leaving toxic relationships or jobs, or moving forward after heartbreaking loss. All of these scenarios take up emotional, mental and physical energy. Change and growth are necessarily uncomfortable and time-consuming. In the face of a stressor like a global pandemic, it can feel like we are left with little time or energy to spare.
In continuing my work with clients as the COVID-19 crisis has unfolded (virtually, from the confines of my guest bedroom, with my oft noisy children never too far away), I have heard many express feelings of sadness, frustration, disappointment, even anxiety and depression as they’ve experienced momentum toward their goals to slow or grind to a halt.
Goals that, in some cases, took years to build up to after a trauma or longstanding physical or emotional barrier. During these past two-plus months, I’ve heard over and over statements like, “I was just feeling ready to…” or, “we were just starting to get the hang of…” or similar sentiments from people in the early, seemingly fragile, stages of real change in some significant aspect of life, feeling deflated and derailed.
Human beings often thrive on predictability and a sense of control over our circumstances and outcomes.
Generally speaking, people are able to make meaningful change when they know what to change, how to go about it, and believe that the choices they make will lead to their desired outcomes.
However, in a time when we’ve all understandably lost our sense of control in some aspect (ok let’s face it, multiple aspects) of life, and have real limits around our daily activities, we can easily become overwhelmed and lose hope that change is possible or worth the effort. When this happens, our thinking tends to become more rigid and in terms of all-or-nothing. We conclude things like, “The gym is closed; therefore, I can’t work out.” When we lose our sense of control and autonomy, we are more likely to give up, or at least postpone, our efforts toward change.
However, I am convinced this is the exact opposite viewpoint to take in times like these. There’s so much value in finding ways to maintain some momentum in the areas of growth and change you had going pre-pandemic, even if your efforts must be modified or scaled back.
Holding on to a thread of forward movement keeps your hope and vision for the future alive, fuels a sense of empowerment that change is still possible and provides a constant reminder of what prompted you to change in the first place. It maintains the “muscle memory” for that change so that, once you’re back to operating at full capacity, you can hit the ground running and won’t feel the frustration of having lost ground or starting over from scratch.
Imagine your confidence and sense of accomplishment as you emerge from perhaps the most challenging global stressor most of us will ever experience (fingers crossed) knowing you stayed the course! Holding on to some movement and continuing to take steps (even super mini, teensy, baby ones) will add up over time and set you up for success later on.
So, what do these “threads of forward movement” look like in real life?
You may need to get creative to identify practical ways to capture the spirit of the change you’re working toward, and accept that what you’re able to do right now is not ideal.
The following are some examples that have come up in my sessions with clients to hopefully spark ideas for you and your goal(s).
The first is to stay connected socially and emotionally; seek new or nurture existing friendships virtually, or meet potential dating partners via app/online. While this may not typically be your thing, it will give you opportunities to practice meeting and getting to know new people.
If your goal is related to a job change, update your résumé and research job titles, positions or companies you’d be interested in working for someday. This can help you picture yourself in a new position at a new company, which may provide a faint hint of light at the end of what may be a very long and dark job tunnel!
And if you are, or were, working to improve your physical health or overall well-being, exercise in and around your house (there are tons of free and virtual ways to do this right now). This may require you to expand your definition of “exercise” and accept that your workouts will be shorter or less frequent than you’d like.
Whatever your goal or area of desired change, spend some quality time brainstorming (by listing, voice recording, journaling, telling someone, etc.) about your post-pandemic game plan. Break it down into its smallest parts or steps, and scan for any step that you can do right now, no matter how small it may seem.
If you do this and find there truly are no steps you can take toward that particular goal at this time, pick another goal that may have been lower on the priority list and apply this same process to that one. Remember– something, anything, is (almost) always better than nothing!
In therapy, I’m always challenging my clients to move away from all-or-nothing thinking when circumstances are stressful and barriers are real. Even if the trajectory toward your goal post-pandemic ends up looking different than it does right now, it’s the continued practice i.e., maintaining your muscle memory for change and growth, that really matters in the long run.
Think journey over destination.
Like the sleeping shark, to stop moving is to allow ourselves to be drowned by our circumstances and limitations. Remind yourself of all the valid, necessary and important reasons that compelled you to change in the first place. Remember where you’ve been and where you’re headed, think outside the COVID-19 box and… NEVER. STOP. SWIMMING.
Nicholette L. Aragon is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist working with Biltmore Psychology and Counseling. Nikki is a collaborative, client-centered therapist with over a decade of mental and behavioral health experience, which she utilizes to create a safe and open environment for clients to address their concerns and challenges. Nikki strives to help individuals, couples and families overcome personal and relational obstacles, take emotional risks, and build healthy and meaningful relationships going forward.