Posted in Blog posts, COVID-19, Educational, Fibromyalgia

Some Tips for Coping During the Covid-19 Pandemic

Some Tips for Coping During the Covid-19 Pandemic” by guest blogger and Fibromyalgia London Group member, Dr. Rhonda Gilby, mother of two daughters with Fibromyalgia, and clinical psychologist for over 30 years, helping people cope with the various problems that they are experiencing. Rhonda has taught psychology courses at Western University (UWO) and its affiliates, worked with troubled children and provided psychological counselling to University students. Dr. Gilby recognizes that “it’s not always easy” and writes about how findings and ideas from the field of psychology can be applied to help everyone to cope better in their day-to-day lives.

To say that these are unprecedented times is an understatement!  Living through a pandemic is something that very few people today have any experience with, and facing a crisis of this magnitude with little knowledge or understanding of what is required of us undoubtedly can lead to many difficult feelings – fear, sadness, anxiety, exhaustion. These kinds of painful emotions are natural at a time like this. It’s important that you give yourself permission to be human! We are all feeling unsettled under the present circumstances. That’s normal. Be kind to yourself.

Many of us are feeling worried. Worry is not necessarily a bad thing, if it leads you to engage in activities that help keep you safe. But worrying about things that are out of your control only forces your mind to dwell on difficulties, leaving you feeling overwhelmed and wasting your valuable emotional energy. For things that are outside of your control, worry is not going to make a difference or solve any problems. Figure out how to let those worries go.

Instead, realistically focus on those things that you can do to keep yourself and your loved ones safe and healthy – and there are many. Wash your hands frequently, stay home as much as possible, maintain appropriate physical distancing when out, and wear a mask. Stay connected with others remotely (the Fibromyalgia London Group is doing an excellent job of creating opportunities for staying in touch with other people and providing occasions for social interaction). Make sure that you are getting both physical and mental exercise. Fill your days with lots of activities that you enjoy. Add structure into your day – perhaps you want to maintain a regular wake up time and bedtime or add some rituals to your day (e.g. a specific morning routine, a definite time for reading or exercising, etc.). Limit the amount of news that you are exposing yourself to and make sure that you are only using reputable news sources.                                                  

We don’t have to be at the mercy of our negative feelings. There are many things that we can do to lessen painful emotions and cope more comfortably as we all progress through this difficult pandemic journey.   

I’m a clinical psychologist. One type of therapy that frequently makes a lot of sense to me is cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT). Cognitive behaviour therapy is based on the idea that our thoughts and beliefs about a situation affect how we feel about it, and what we subsequently do about it. This means that the same event can produce very different reactions in different people, depending upon how they think about and interpret the experience. When thoughts about a situation change, emotions can change, too.  Even a small shift in the way that you think about a situation can have a big impact on how you feel.   

We all talk to ourselves, sometimes out loud, most often in our heads, and that’s perfectly natural. In fact, self-talk can help us to understand and organize our experiences, to plan, to learn, to think through problems to find a solution. But it’s important to pay attention to what it is that we are saying to ourselves. Not all of the conversations we have with ourselves are helpful. While positive self-talk can increase our confidence and positive mood, when self-talk is negative, it becomes unhelpful, and can have a very negative impact on how we feel.

A number of unhelpful thinking styles (also referred to as cognitive distortions) have been identified by psychiatrists and psychologists. One common, unhelpful thinking style that has been identified is called “catastrophizing”. Catastrophizing refers to worrying about and imagining worst case outcomes of situations, expecting terrible consequences, and believing that you won’t be able to cope.

Letting your thoughts spiral out of control like this is not helpful. Replacing these negative thoughts with more realistic, more reasonable thoughts is a much better way to live.  So, how do you do that?

Start by paying attention to what you are saying to yourself. Often, we are unaware of our thoughts. Figure out “What am I thinking right now?, What am I saying to myself that is upsetting me? What bad thing do I expect to happen?”

Remember that catastrophic thinking is just your guess (usually wrong) about what will happen, and not a certainty. Negative thoughts, beliefs and expectations are not facts, and are often not accurate.

Remember that there is a difference between possibility and probability. For example, yes, it is possible that you or your loved one may become ill with the coronavirus, but the probability is quite low. Don’t upset yourself worrying about things that probably won’t happen.

Evaluate the evidence for and against your thought. Just because you think it, doesn’t mean it’s true. “How likely is it that this will happen?”.  “What’s most likely to happen?”. “Is there another way of looking at this, one that won’t leave me feeling as stressed?”. Use logical thinking. Try to find facts, as opposed to relying on guesses and exaggerated beliefs.  Perhaps voicing your fears to someone you trust will help you to gain a more realistic perspective.

Look for more realistic ways to think about the outcome of the situation you’re in – something less extreme, something that is more likely to happen.  Outcomes in life typically fall somewhere in the middle – not black or white, but shades of gray. Ask yourself “Is there another, more realistic thought that I can have that is a more likely outcome and won’t make me feel so upset.”.  For example, instead of thinking, “This is terrible – this will never end, things will never be normal again, I can’t stand it anymore”, a less extreme thought might be, “These are difficult times and the world may never quite be the same, but this will end and I will cope with whatever is to come, just as I have with all of the things that life has thrown at me in the past.”.

Coronavirus/COVID-19 illness is certainly serious and it is appropriate and necessary to take it seriously. But catastrophizing does not help us to cope. Be on the lookout for self-talk that involves catastrophizing, and challenge this unhelpful self-talk when it occurs.  It may take practice and time because catastrophizing can be a habit for some. You can choose to work on a more positive, more realistic and less stress-inducing way to talk to yourself.

Dr. Rhonda Gilby is the mother of two daughters with Fibromyalgia, and has been a clinical psychologist for over 30 years, helping people cope with the various problems that they are experiencing. She’s taught psychology courses at Western University and its affiliates, worked with troubled children and provided psychological counselling to University students. She recognizes that “it’s not always easy” and writes about how findings and ideas from the field of psychology can be applied to help everyone to cope better in their day-to-day lives. Contact/Connect: ngilby@rogers.com

Posted in Educational, Fibromyalgia

IT’S NOT ALWAYS EASY: COPING TIPS FROM PSYCHOLOGY – Which Wolf Are You Feeding?

“Which wolf are you feeding?” By guest blogger and Fibromyalgia London Group member, Dr. Rhonda Gilby, mother of two daughters with Fibromyalgia, and clinical psychologist for over 30 years, helping people cope with the various problems that they are experiencing. Rhonda has taught psychology courses at Western University (UWO) and its affiliates, worked with troubled children and provided psychological counselling to University students. Dr. Gilby recognizes that “it’s not always easy” and writes about how findings and ideas from the field of psychology can be applied to help everyone to cope better in their day-to-day lives.

“Which wolf are you feeding?”

Most people occasionally have thoughts that are unpleasant, worrisome or critical, and those with Fibromyalgia are certainly no exception, quite possibly experiencing even more of these thoughts than others. These thoughts, of course, make us feel bad. When such thoughts occur, despite knowing that they are not helpful, we may feel powerless to control them. There is a conflict between how those thoughts make us feel, and how we would like to be feeling.

This conflict is well-represented in the fable about two wolves. Although there is some question about the origins of this tale, it frequently has been referred to as a Native American legend. One evening an old Cherokee told his grandson about a battle that goes on inside people. He said “My son, the battle is between two wolves inside us all. One is negativity, it’s anger, sadness, stress, contempt, disgust, fear, embarrassment, guilt, shame and hate. The other is positivity. It’s joy, gratitude, serenity, interest, hope, pride, amusement, inspiration, awe, and above all, love.”
The little boy thought about it for a while and asked his grandfather, ”Well which wolf wins?” And the grandfather answered, “The one you feed.”

The parable is really about where we focus our attention. It seems that, in general, people tend to spend more time focusing on negative experiences in life than focusing on what is good. In psychology, this is referred to as the “negativity bias”. It is considered to have evolved for a good reason—to keep us out of harm’s way. In our evolutionary past, our survival depended a lot more on our ability to recognize danger than on our ability to notice the positive. Not noticing a lion waiting in the grass could end your life. Not noticing a field of ripe, wild fruit that you are passing may just leave you hungry for a while longer.
According to clinical psychologist, Rick Hanson, negative stimuli produce more activity in the brain than do equally intense positive stimuli. We have become wired to pay more attention to negative information, and we perceive it more easily and more quickly. Apparently, the brain is good at learning from bad experiences but bad at learning from good experiences. So, many of our good experiences may feel good in the moment, without having any lasting value. “The brain is like Velcro for negative experiences and Teflon for positives ones.”

Nowadays, having a constant negativity bias is no longer necessary for our survival, and, in fact, increases our stress levels and makes it more difficult for us to cope. Can we train our brains for more positivity? Can we start feeding the more positive wolf? Do we get a choice? According to the most recent neuroscientific evidence, the answer is “YES”. According to Hanson, who calls this “taking in the good”, there are things that we can do to begin to feed the good wolf. Hanson recommends the following three steps to overcome negativity bias:

  1. Look for good facts, and turn them into good experiences. For example, let yourself feel good if you get something done, or if someone is nice to you, or if you notice a positive feature about yourself.
  2. Take time (at least 20 to 30 seconds) to pay attention and enjoy good experiences. Don’t just let a positive experience quickly pass. Making positive sensations last longer, solidifies them in our long-term memory.
  3. Focus on and let yourself sense the feelings of those good experiences as they are sinking into you. Imagine that positivity spreading through your body, like a warm glow spreading within you. While you hold the good experience in your awareness, it can become hard-wired into your brain.
    According to Hanson, “Any single time you do this will make only a little difference. But over time those little differences will add up, gradually weaving positive experiences into the fabric of your brain and your self.”

I know that this is certainly not a quick fix, and that looking for the good” is not going to be the remedy for all of our problems. In fact, changing our focus can be harder than it sounds, and making a change in the way we look at our world can take a lot of mental work. But I also know that we don’t have to be at the mercy of a built-in negativity bias that really doesn’t help us anymore. Although we may be struggling with those nasty symptoms that Fibromyalgia has thrown at us, it can be well worth the effort to work to find and focus on those good experiences (e.g., time with our loved ones, a caring FM community, a sunny day or a delicious meal, to name just a few) that are also a part of our lives.
So take care, have an awesome day, and remember to feed the good wolf!

Dr. Rhonda Gilby is the mother of two daughters with Fibromyalgia, and has been a clinical psychologist for over 30 years, helping people cope with the various problems that they are experiencing.  She has taught psychology courses at Western University and its affiliates, worked with troubled children and provided psychological counselling to University students.  She recognizes that “it’s not always easy” and writes about how findings and ideas from the field of psychology can be applied to help everyone to cope better in their day-to-day lives. Contact/Connect: ngilby@rogers.com