Coping with COVID-19

Well, whether we like it nor not, today is the day.

Let’s get to it.

These are interesting/strange/frightening/sad/stressful times. Our brains don’t like it. Unless you are a first responder, an immigrant who has lived through civil upheaval, a combat veteran, or someone similar, you haven’t had an opportunity to develop the coping skills that come in handy during a global pandemic situation.

Here are some tips to help your head (and your heart) feel better. I’ll be posting some deeper dives into these topics in the coming days, but here’s the big picture.

First, lower your expectations of everything. Yourself, your family, your neighbors, the government. Like me, you may be thinking that you are finally going to clean out the garage/organize the bookshelf/put together that scrapebook/sort your closet. And you may.

Or you may not.

If you have extra time on your hands, filling it can feel overwhelming, sapping our motivation and energy. No matter what else we do, our situation will remain stressful (at least to some degree) until it’s over. So, we need to expect less from ourselves and each other, not more

Second, stay connected to the reality around you. While it can feel like virus always hangs around us like a miasma of bad gas, that’s not true. (Medical personnel excluded-let’s give them a standing ovation, everyone.) Especially if you are complying with social distancing and hand-washing protocols.

Pause for a few minutes every day and take a look around you. See the sky, feel the breeze, touch a leaf or the grass. Connecting to the world around us through our senses is one of the most powerful ways to calm down, but we rarely use it as a coping mechanism.

Despite how it feels, thinking…even thinking really hard…doesn’t give tell us jack about what’s actually happening in the world. Thinking we are safe is nothing compared to seeing/hearing/touching/tasting/smelling that we are safe. So, look around!

Third, our brains LOVE predictability. We love routines. So, get a routine going. The most important elements of a routine are:

1. Decide on both weekday and weekend routines.

2. Set a wake-up time for both routines.

3. Take a shower and get dressed every day.

4. Set blocks of time to be productive (work/school/gardening/knitting/learning French), and blocks of time for relaxation (Netflix/Facebook/gametime).

5. Go outside (while practicing social distancing)

6. Move your body

7. Set a bedtime

Make a routine that includes these elements and in a way that feels good and you’ll cope much better with this unpredictable world we find ourselves in.

Fourth, do some meal planning. If you plan meals already, you are ahead of the curve. If not, start. Part of why we like things to be predictable is that we don’t like to make a million decisions every day-that gets overwhelming pretty fast. Meal planning gets rid of a chunk of decisions. It’s also good for your body and your budget. People who meal plan tend to eat healthier, spend less money on groceries and throw out less food than people who don’t.

Fifth (and finally!), start a task list. During stressful situations (such as a global pandemic), short-term memory can get a little sketchy. Running a task list provides a giant brain assist. You can get fancy with an app or grab a yellow legal pad. When you think of something you need to do, write it down. Then, when you aren’t sure what to do next, look at your list.

Enough for now. I’ll dive into the weeds about these skills over the next few days, so check back in.

Thanks for reading. Stay well. Stay strong.

Financial Serenity

Zen stones

I have found one thing to be highly predictable in human beings…predictability. We love it! Our brains are actually hardwired to want to know what is going to happen next. Of course, many of us enjoy the occasional surprise. But, all in all, we feel much more comfortable with telling the future rather than being surprised by it.

We also are hardwired to do what is necessary to get what we need. By “need” I don’t mean the new iPhone or that gorgeous Coach purse from their spring line. I mean the real stuff like food, water, air and shelter. We are driven to fight for the death to meet those needs.

So, if we combine these two bits of brain wiring-to meet basic needs and predict the future-the result is a pretty strong drive to gather enough resources so that we can feel confident our needs will get taken care of in the future.

In our modern world, we don’t have to go out and kill anything to get food. At least, most of us in America don’t. Why not? Because we have created a token economy. A token economy (rather than a barter economy) is one in which a particular item(s) is chosen, given a value and used to replace actual goods and services. Yep, we are talking about money. When I treat a client for psychotherapy, I don’t expect that person to bring me vegetables, chickens, or gasoline in exchange for my time and expertise. They give me paper that I give to other people for vegetables, chickens, and gasoline. We are familiar with this concept.

My point is, we all want to know that we will have money (aka food, air, water and shelter) in the future (predictably) when we need it.  Basically, investing for retirement.

Here’s the problem. Some parts of retirement savings are predictable. (Your financial advisor can tell you which ones.) Other parts, not so much.

Guess what happens when we can’t predict the future, especially when it’s about future survival? We get weird. By weird I mean we get anxious, impulsive, protective. We do things that at the least make us feel uncomfortable and at the worst make us physically ill. Along the way, we can even mess up the parts of investing that ARE predictable.

The key to managing this anxiety provoking world of retirement investing is to manage your anxiety, not your money. That’s what financial professionals are for.

Let me offer a brief bit of advice (which I have taken the liberty of paraphrasing):

The (Financial) Serenity Prayer

God/Goddess/universe/great pattern of existence

grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,

courage to change the things I can,

and the wisdom to not open my investment statements or pay attention to the stock market except for my once/twice a year meeting with my financial advisor who will then tell me what I need to know and when I need to know it
to be a smart investor.

Other strategies to manage anxiety, in addition to not opening our statements and obsessively checking the stock market, can also be helpful. These include:

~ Having a diversified portfolio so that a problem in one part of the financial world does not upset your entire financial plan. Again, this is when you speak to a trusted financial profession

~ Repeatedly bringing your awareness back to the present. Whatever happens in your future in terms of money, it hasn’t happened yet. That chapter of your life is not written. Pay attention on writing today’s story.

~ Focusing on what makes you happy right now: your relationships, your family, your work, the weather, Doctor Who, whatever! Ultimately, that’s what your saving money for anyway, right? It would be a shame to miss all of the good stuff you have now because you are worrying about whether or not you’ll have good stuff then.

Whatever you do, don’t avoid setting up and executing a financial plan with someone you trust. Once you do that, you are all set to let them worry about it while you get on with enjoying the life you have now.

Many thanks to Val Peck of Peck Financial Advisors for inspiring this post.