A few weeks ago, I saw more than 60 responses to a post on Nextdoor.com entitled, “Toilet paper strategies?”
Asking for help is a great coping mechanism when one is struggling to find a strategy, even if it’s for toilet paper. What other kinds of coping strategies can help us through this historic and unprecedented time?
The late Stephen R. Covey, PhD, wrote about the coping strategies of highly effective people in his book, “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.”1 For, no matter how smart, perfect, or careful you may be, life will never be trouble free. When trouble comes, it’s important to have coping strategies that help you navigate through choppy waters. Whether you are a practitioner trying to help your patients or someone who wants to maximize their personal resilience during a worldwide pandemic, here are my conceptualizations of the seven top strategies highly effective people use when facing challenges.
Strategy #1: Begin with the end in mind
In 2007, this strategy helped me not only survive but thrive when I battled for my right to practice as a holistic psychiatrist against the Maryland Board of Physicians.2 From the first moment when I read the letter from the board, to the last when I read the administrative law judge’s dismissal, I turned to this strategy to help me cope with unrelenting stress.
I imagined myself remembering being the kind of person I wanted to be, wrote that script for myself, and created those memories for my future self. I wanted to remember myself as being brave, calm, strong, and grounded, so I behaved each day as if I were all of those things.
As Dr. Covey wrote, “ ‘Begin with the end in mind’ is based on the principle that all things are created twice. There’s a mental or first creation, and a physical or second creation to all things.” Imagine who you would like to remember yourself being a year or two down the road. Do you want to remember yourself showing good judgment and being positive and compassionate during this pandemic? Then, follow the script you’ve created in your mind and be that person now, knowing that you are forming memories for your future self. Your future self will look back at who you are right now with appreciation and satisfaction. Of course, this is a habit that you can apply to your entire life.
Strategy #2: Be proactive
Between the event and the outcome is you. You are the interpreter and transformer of the event, with the freedom to apply your will and intention on the event. Whether it is living through a pandemic or dealing with misplaced keys, every day you are revealing your nature through how you deal with life. To be proactive is different from being reactive. Within each of us there is a will, the drive, to rise above our difficult environments.
Dr. Covey wrote, “the ability to subordinate an impulse to a value is the essence of the proactive person.” A woman shared with me that she created an Excel spreadsheet with some of the things she plans to do with her free time while she stays in her NYC apartment. She doesn’t want to slip into a passive state and waste her time. That’s being proactive.
Strategy #3: Set proper priorities
Or, as Dr. Covey would say, “Put first things first.” During a pandemic, when the world seems to be precariously tilting at an angle, it’s easy to cling to outdated standards, expectations, and behavioral patterns. Doing so heightens our sense of regret, fear, and scarcity. Erich Fromm, PhD, would say.3 If your happiness is measured by how much money you have, then it would make sense that, when the amount shrinks, so does your happiness. However, if your happiness is a side effect of who you are, you will remain a mountain before the winds and tides of circumstance.Valuing gratitude will empower you to deal with financial loss differently because you can still remain grateful despite uncontrollable losses. We can choose “to have or to be” as psychoanalyst,
Strategy #4: Create a win/win mentality
This state of mind is built on character. Dr. Covey separates character into three categories: integrity, maturity, and abundance mentality. A lack of character resulted in the hoarding of toilet paper in many communities and the cry for help from Nextdoor.com. I noticed that, in the 60+ responses that included advice about using bidets, old towels, and even leaves, no one offered to share a bag of toilet paper. That’s because people experienced the fear of scarcity, in turn, causing the scarcity they feared.
During a pandemic, a highly effective person or company thinks beyond themselves to create a win/win scenario. At a grocery store in my neighborhood, a man stands at its entrance with a bottle of disinfectant spray in one hand for the shoppers and a sign on the sidewalk with guidelines for purchasing products to avoid hoarding. He tells you where the wipes are for the carts as you enter the store. People line up 6 feet apart, waiting to enter, to limit the number of shoppers inside the store, facilitating proper physical distancing. Instead of maximizing profits at the expense of everyone’s health and safety, the process is a win/win for everyone, from shoppers to employees.
Strategy #5: Develop empathy and understanding
Seeking to first understand and then be understood is one of the most powerful tools of effective people. In my holistic practice, every patient comes in with their own unique needs that evolve and transform over time. I must remain open, or I fail to deliver appropriately.
Learning to listen and then to clearly communicate ideas is essential to effective health care. During this time, it is critical that health care providers and political leaders first listen/understand and then communicate clearly to serve everyone in the best way possible.
In our brains, the frontal lobes (the adult in the room) manages our amygdala (the child in the room) when we get enough sleep, meditate, spend time in nature, exercise, and eat healthy food.4 Stress can interfere with the frontal lobe’s ability to maintain empathy, inhibit unhealthy impulses, and delay gratification. During the pandemic, we can help to shift from the stress response, or “fight-or-flight” response, driven by the sympathetic nervous system to a “rest-and-digest” response driven by the parasympathetic system through coherent breathing, taking slow, deep, relaxed breaths (6 seconds on inhalation and 6 seconds on exhalation). The vagus nerve connected to our diaphragm will help the heart return to a healthy rhythm.5