Not to pat myself on the back or anything, but…I’m really, really good at compartmentalizing. When my husband was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer, I was supernaturally good at turning off the worry about him to focus on things like parent-teacher conferences and science fairs for our kids. When I was in caretaker mode, I was extremely good at not worrying about the broken dishwasher or the mountain of mail that was taking over an entire half of my kitchen table.
But during these long days of quarantining at home, when it feels like the world as we know it is falling apart (has fallen apart?), that ability to compartmentalize has been put to the test. Instead of being able to push aside the crushing anxiety of these uncertain days and focus on the task at hand—and there are so many tasks between working from home, home schooling two kids, and feeding, caring for, and cleaning up after said two kids—I find myself distracted often by the next news alert. Or, if a news alert doesn’t steal my attention, my attention is stolen simply by my silent phone and the need to reach out and see what’s happening in the outside world.
The pandemic has turned me into a compartmentalizer who can’t compartmentalize.
In a LinkedIn “Business Unusual” Q&A, Sallie Krawcheck, co-founder and CEO of digital investment platform Ellevest, had a suggestion for those in her audience who were finding it difficult to compartmentalize in these bizarre times.
“What I would suggest you try to do is give yourself the time and the space to be nervous, uncertain and scared, and look at the news obsessively that you know you’re not supposed to. You know, do all that stuff. Give yourself an hour a day, I’m just going to like, freak.”
Essentially her advice can be boiled down to this: give yourself an hour to freak out, then close the mental door on the freakout and do the things that need to be done. Because it’s healthy to let out your feelings and fears. Holding them inside will almost always backfire and could affect your physical health. Problems like heart disease, intestinal distress, headaches, insomnia, and autoimmune disorders have been linked with the emotional stress that comes from blocking emotions. Compartmentalizing is one way to feel the feelings that need to be felt during these days without letting these feelings completely take over your day.
As a self-proclaimed expert compartmentalizer who was struggling to compartmentalize, Krawcheck’s method appealed to me. Rather than freaking out all day long, I tried to dive all in to my freak out first thing in the morning.
My mornings are sacred. Pre-pandemic, mornings were my time to write and gather my thoughts before a day full of running two kids around began. Mid-pandemic, my mornings are an unproductive mix of opening up a document and interspersing four minutes of work with checking my social media to see if something pandemic-related has changed. (Spoiler alert: it hadn’t.)
On my first morning attempting Krawcheck’s method, I got my coffee, got back in bed, and proceeded to consume all the news without even bothering to open a document and pretend to work. I thought about all the things around the house that needed to be done. I worried about the kids and their educational and social development. I worried about my mom and my in-laws and all the extended family that needed to be worried about.
I didn’t make it an hour. After an uncertain amount of time, my brain grew distracted and turned to easier topics and light social media scrolling. I had to wrench my mind back to worrying and I made a list of everything that was stressing me out.
Throughout that first day, I missed my quiet, albeit, not-exactly-productive morning, but I noticed that I reached for my phone less when there wasn’t a breaking news alert to attend to, which left more time and mental bandwidth to meet deadlines and help the kids with their school work. Plus, the freak out list I’d made helped me organize my day in a more methodical way—read: rather than pacing and worrying in a vague way, I picked the things on that list that were in my control and (attempted) to tackle them.
The potential problem with the hour a day freakout technique is that it’s hard to stop the freakout, once you really get going. Lynn Burka, a clinical psychologist and senior director at the American Psychological Association, cautioned that “you have to find your own way through this,” and “[i]f freaking out gets the feelings out of our system and gives us some relief, great! But if we get stuck in freak out mode, not so good.”
The truth is that we are all experiencing some version of Coronavirus anxiety in these unparalleled times. That’s simply inevitable. And there is no right way to deal with those feelings. For some people, the hour a day freakout method might work, for others, it may be too hard to turn off the freakout once it’s begun, so they choose to freak out in spurts through the day. Some may even choose to bottle up the emotions until the worst of the crisis has passed, and then deal with the emotions later. That’s okay, too.
Personally, I might use the hour a day freakout technique on days I know I don’t want my phone attached to my palm, and hope it allows me to be a bit more present with my kids.
Ultimately, the important thing is to feel those feelings—at some point—and also to continue living.
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