Keeping Mentally Fit During COVID-19
March 27, 2020
Natalie McVeigh, a director in EisnerAmper’s Center for Family Business Excellence, talks about the mental impact of COVID-19, including the neuroscience impact of a crisis, how people can enhance their mindsets, and what the long-term impacts on the human brain might be.
DP: So Natalie, you are in quite an interesting discipline of the family business consulting segment. Tell us a little bit about your background and the work that you do for clients.
NM: Sure. So family business consultants really help families deal with their family side and the business side. So I'm a management consultant. I have a management consulting background. I'm also an executive coach and a practitioner of neuroscience. That really helps on the family side. And so we help them make complex decisions and navigate change in their family systems.
DP: So Natalie, when a work at home employee, or a small business owner is dealing with the uncertainties of a pandemic, and combine that with their daily personal responsibilities, how can that affect their mindset?
NM: That's a great question, Dave. Right now we're all going through a transition, and change doesn't happen overnight. It impacts us in several different ways. So there's our affective, which is our emotions and feelings. There's our behavior. It's what we're doing. And there's our cognition. It's how we're thinking. And right now, all of those are being impacted simultaneously. So it feels really exhausting for many of us. We're habitual creatures. Habits make us happy, they make us effective, and they also make our brains work a lot less. When we're not in habit, we actually use a different part of our brain, our memory process center. So 45% of our day usually is spent in habit. And now we don't have that many habits making us feel better, making us feel like we're in control, and making us feel safe.
So we're probably overwhelmed and exhausted. And that doesn't allow us to see broadly. It actually makes us go in to take care of ourselves. And so our scope of vision is a lot more narrow and it's a little more negative. And as you see, a lot of the news is really negative. So how do we pull ourselves out of that negativity and find some of the bright spots during this time.
DP: So during this undetermined period of social distancing, we've heard about the importance of maintaining your exercise regimen, eating properly, getting enough sleep, sunlight, fresh air, the physical stuff. But are there things that you could do to keep yourself mentally sharp? And if so, what are they?
NM: Absolutely. One of the things I would start doing is watching our words really carefully. Our brain doesn't know the difference between fact and fiction. So when I say something, it becomes true. So even the phrase social distancing is anxiety-producing. We're not actually socially distancing. We're physically distancing. We don't have to not be social. So watching how we talk about it, we can come from a place of abundance. So we're actually physically distant from people, but we might be more connected than usual. In fact, I know my phone rings off the hook now because people are worried about not being in contact. So finding the benefits of this time, and there might not be that many. It's hard to juggle work, and children, and spouses, and your own anxieties. But there's benefit-finding research that talks about how, when we find benefit, we actually broaden and build our thought processes. We're more generative, we're more thoughtful. So that's one of the things, is to try to find the benefits, and to try to be very careful with our language so that the things we make true for us actually are true.
DP: How about meditation? Does that help?
NM: Meditation absolutely will help. Meditation increases our immune system, it increases our own resilience. It actually allows us a pause between impulse and reaction. So it gives us space to help create these new habits, because we're so used to doing things naturally, autonomically, that we don't think. So a lot of people are saying, "Well, I have less time than I used to have." Well, that doesn't make a lot of sense to me, although everyone's busier, but most people aren't commuting now. So instead of taking time to decide what to do with that commute time, we made an automatic reaction of, we'll just work. It's the thing that we know to do. So mindfulness and meditation, and they're separate practices, but they'll actually allow for a pause. They'll allow us to be more intentional.
And if you're worried about touching your face when you're going grocery shopping, one of the things about sharing mornings is that we think about the thing we just shared. Everyone says, "Don't touch your face," and you realize how much you touch your face. Mindfulness is a way for us to not touch our face during this time. And over the long run, mindfulness actually leads to increased mental acuity and longevity. So it's absolutely something to do. It's going to be harder now because there is this overwhelm. So I'd encourage people to get an app to help them, at first, try the practice, and all of these things are going to feel hard.
And the big thing about now is just try to push through resistance to build these new habits. There's some research that says habits start in 21 days. That's not quite true. In fact, that is a portion of a study, that's a much larger study, that says it's closer to 66 to 99 days. So give yourself some forgiveness too that these things aren't sticking right away. And also don't ask yourself to be crazy. If you weren't running a marathon before today, why now would be the time to do that. Set realistic goals that you can manage and feel accomplished about.
DP: So Natalie, from your unique perspective, the neuroscience mental perspective, do you see any positives coming out of this horrible pandemic, such as people being nicer or more patient with each other, families becoming closer, people appreciating the little things, perhaps, that they didn't before? I definitely know that's the case for me.
NM: I think patience is a tall order right now. I think self-patience might be useful, but because we're stressed, we might not be as patient. I do think people are being kinder to each other. In fact, the whole physical distancing is a group act of compassion. We're physically distancing to make sure that other people don't get this. And compassion releases peptide hormones of oxytocin and dopamine and serotonin at the same time, which contribute to our own happiness and optimism. And in fact, they're the same neuropathways as love.
One of the other things that we really encourage people to do during this time is practice gratitude. Find three things that you're grateful for within the first half an hour that you wake up. And gratitude also increases bonding, decreases stress, and helps you be much more physically healthy. So I think gratitude and compassion are coming up, but we might be in short order of patience. And some of that is self-compassion, to say, "You know what, I'm having a hard time with my spouse or my child today, because I have so much going on." So exercise that compassion to yourself. It's okay that you're having a hard time. This is literally unprecedented times. Take care of yourself, be kind to yourself and stay off your phone whenever possible.
There've been some studies that show that we're actually more susceptible to phishing on our phones. And part of that is because what we do on our phone is usually social. Instagram, Facebook, text messages. It's a dopamine hit. It's a great reward. So we're not thinking work. So when you can, work on your actual computer that your work has provided you. Stay off your phone. Don't overload on all those informations that you don't need. And it's really a time to play favorites. Do what makes you feel good.
DP: So Natalie, to expand on what you said about not checking in with your phone so often, I'm on the media PR side of things, so I'm a news junkie. I can't get enough of the news. But you hear a lot of people say, "Don't watch the news. It's all bad." How true is that? How does that impact your mindset?
NM: I agree. I think one of the things that we need to think about is what's sucking our energy, what's making us spiral. And a lot of that is the news. We don't know what's going to happen next. And our brain really wants to make sense of the world. It's trying to figure it out. So what it's going to do every time it takes in this new news, with the answers we don't know yet, is trying to make sense of the world. It's taking up a lot of space. It's increasing our stress. Now I'm not saying put your head in a hole, but seriously monitor the time in which you're spending on it. And again, it might be a good rule to say, "I only watch the news on TV for an hour, or I only watch it on my computer. That's when I check my feed."
When you're doing it on your cell phone, when we have access to our cell phones, that's the challenge, is we don't really monitor what we're doing then. There's no resistance in between news or not. So one of the things you might want to do with your phone when you're texting people is actually put a picture with the person's name. So we feel like we can see the face. And you might have a rule that every time you get on your phone you have to text someone or call someone. It increases resistance between actually checking the news, or losing yourself on Instagram, and allows you to make the space for that connection.
DP: Well, Natalie, this is a really interesting take on this whole dilemma that we're all in right now. So I thank you for your time and your insights.
NM: Thanks so much, Dave, for having me. Love this discussion, and happy to have more with anyone who's interested in some tips and tricks to really manage their stress during this time.
DP: And thank you for listening to the EisnerAmper podcast series. Visit eisneramper.com for more information on this and a host of other topics, and join us for our next EisnerAmper podcast, when we get down to business.
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