Letting Structure & Perspective Guide Us Through Our New Normal

An interview with Dr. John Sharp

June 1, 2020
FacebookTwitterLinkedInEmailPrint

by Kosta Ligris, Entrepreneur in Residence


The backup plan is now Plan A. Using web conferencing tools like Webex, Zoom, and Teams once was reserved for those occurrences when we couldn’t meet in person. But under the quarantine life caused by the COVID-19 global pandemic, we have adapted and moved to working and learning from home. The exception is now the norm; it feels like it happened overnight and is lasting forever. Technology has changed the game and, as frightening and devastating as the “new normal” feels, imagine how much worse it could have been without Zoom, Teams, Facebook, FaceTime, Grubhub, and Amazon.

Terms like “social distancing” and “fluid situation” are everyday talking points, but along with all these changes come new threats to our sanity and mental wellness as we educate and work from home. Dr. John Sharp, an internationally acclaimed doctor and author, took some time to chat all things mental wellness with me. The recovering lawyer in me has to warn you that this is not intended to be medical advice and is not a substitute for speaking with your doctor(s) about your individual circumstances.

Dr. Sharp suggests some basic reflections during these challenging times:

  • Be nice … to yourself and others.
    Perhaps take some time to repair a distant relationship by picking up the phone. The value of a phone call has gone up so don’t just text, pick up and call an old friend.
  • Be “pseudo-organized”
    Don’t beat yourself up, but try and schedule some self-relaxation or meditation, indulge in an old or new hobby, read a book; whatever you need to stay feeling positive.
  • Be an active practitioner of gratitude
    Treat yourself to a special meal, a safe get together, or walk with a friend. Focus on all the things you can do, not the things you can’t.

People have shared with me that they struggle getting motivated and find themselves being bored. Dr. Sharp suggests that we “schedule boredom.” Go ahead and plan some time to just be that bored person, he jokes “like dissolves like.” Perhaps you turn the TV on and there is a show or movie that is already halfway through; sit and watch it. Don’t obsess over having to find it on Netflix and start it from the beginning.

The two most important things during this pandemic are structure and exercise

Structure and planning are super important, so plan activities and tasks and move from one to the other. At least one of those activities should be some form of exercise. The connection between physical activity and mental health is strong. So is the case for regular meditation. I have always used apps like Headspace, Calm, or Waking Up. Mindfulness, like so many other things, requires practice, so don’t get hung up on being perfect.Apps like these are super helpful in getting you focused and making meditation practice part of your daily structure.

If you are taking classes or working from home, prepare yourself for the day ahead. When you wake up, make it a point to refresh, change out of what you slept in, plan some activities for the next day, follow those plans, and, if you have to, its okay to permit change.

We are all just tired –- the uncertainly is fatiguing both physically and mentally. Adding structure, practicing gratitude (towards others and for yourself), exercising, and cutting yourself some slack are all tools that make a large impact.

The good doctor was kind enough to let me fire off some very specific questions.

Is there a difference between being lonely and being depressed?

“Yes. Being lonely has many fixes. One such example is practicing gratitude; acknowledge something good that someone else did for you. This reinforces your connection with them. Another fix could be scheduling a social Zoom cocktail call with friends. Loneliness is more transient and more fixable.

With depression we see loneliness combine with not being able to enjoy life. It’s common to exhibit lack of energy, sleep, and appetite; these all get thrown off significantly. These are signs that you need to talk to your doctor.”

How does anxiety get impacted in this pandemic?

“Some people get more anxious than others. So, if you know that you are not very anxious, then make the best of it. If you get worried and anxious easily and concerned about what to do, be practical about it and exercise anticipatory planning. Anxiety, and the ability to address it, is a very individual thing.”  

What about quarantine and relationships?

“For those that are quarantined with a partner, the pandemic is forcing lots of time together. Because of the prolonged isolation from normal interactions in the world and lots of time together under the same roof, emotions get distorted. It is kind of like a funhouse mirror that is not fun. It becomes very hard to know if things are really this bad, and the they key thing is to not rush towards any conclusions and try to practice household diplomacy.

The high standard is not rocket science; ask yourself if what I am about to say or do is likely to help the relationship? If the answer is not yes, try not to say or do it. But don’t be too hard on yourself if you can’t do that.  This quarantine is the ultimate relationship sanity test. Can we stay sane under one roof together? Perhaps if we come out of this, we get out the other side stronger and more connected.”

Lots of young people are upset and frustrated on the impact this is having on their lives, such as graduation and their college experience. What do you say to them?

“Perspective is key. Whether we are talking about the lack of a formal graduation ceremony or starting at a new school, you need to keep things in perspective. It is certainly harder for young people.

The old expression says ‘if you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans.’ This made no sense to me as a kid, but as I have gotten older, it resonates. For many young people, this is the first time something so disappointing or challenging has occurred in their lives. They need to know that it is alright to be upset, but try not to put the blame on someone else and carry around a lot of anger. You need to keep things in perspective and make the best sense of this new world.

In fact, graduates are in a critical position to help us make sense of our future. Make the adjustments necessary and have some faith that we will learn and grow from this. You just can’t obsess and depend on what you thought or were told to expect in life; in fact you can depend on nothing so don’t fall for that. Instead count on yourself and your peers to figure it out and chart your future.”

Is this “Zoom fatigue” a real thing?

“It’s a very real thing. But there are some things that you can do to prevent it and control it. I have found that the best hack for this is to get a separate webcam tripod. Move around, stop sitting around and staring at your screen in a locked-in position at the same spot all day.

Release the lock and change it up. Use FaceTime, go outside, go to a different room, make a call on a walk, move around. Look to constantly mix it up. Take calls instead of all day Zoom meetings when you can.”

Doc – you have studied and written much about our “Emotional Calendar” and seasonal effects on mental health. What should we be thinking about?

“Great question. The timing in here is very important. People forget that it is Spring and in early Spring we have restive energy. We need to change and are restless and possess this disorganized energy, because Neurotransmitter turnover is all up in the Spring. We become all revved up and don’t know where to go.

There is a shift that happens during this seasonal change and our energy starts aligning and positive feelings take over in May and into Spring.  A whole new set of activity options get us excited and we can start to look forward to social distancing outdoors where we can channel that new energy to better use with longer walks and bike rides.”

Finally, let’s get to a critical question. Did you watch Tiger King? I did not and refuse to.

“Wow. Well that is so good of you. The fascination defies my understanding, but people love reality shows. And this one –- well it’s so crazy; in fact it is another dimension with each episode adding greater dimensions of absurdity.”

 

There are so many things that we can and should be thankful for and Dr. Sharp really emphasizes the value of always keeping things in perspective. I’m constantly on the lookout trying to find ways to shift and control my energy without being too hard on myself when something doesn’t go as planned. I use an app called Habit Share to make myself accountable to a trusted group of friends. I share when I meditate, take walks, stretch, breathe, and exercise.

Lean on your support network during these times –- it is more critical than ever. And remember that it’s totally fine to get frustrated and upset, but these feelings need to be transient. Control them or they will control you.  Finally, experiment with tools, activities, and structure so that you can find the balance that works for you. Good luck.


photo credit on header: https://johnsharpmd.com/