By 2021, the raging pandemic had already worn my nerves thin. I’d been bombarded by bad news for so long, it seemed like the norm. People were dying, unemployment was spiking, politicians were fighting. The system was broken. It felt like I’d been stuck inside my house for years. I was overwhelmed and exhausted. It seemed everything was going wrong in the world, and it was stressing me out, to say the least.
It’s not surprising that the capitol riots really got to me. I mean, I knew those people existed. I saw Charlottesville unfold on YouTube. But still, to see that much anger, hatred and violence laid bare on TV for all the nation to see made me nauseous. The world seemed like such a cruel place. It was in stark contrast to tragedies like September 11th, which initially brought our nation together in solidarity. Half the “United” States looked like it hated the other half, and they simply couldn’t or wouldn’t work out their differences in rational, non-violent ways. Our country felt beyond repair. That Wednesday in January, it’s no wonder I felt helpless.
Of course, it’s not healthy to live in a constant state of despair. Stress and feelings of helplessness wear on me both mentally and physically. I struggle with negative thoughts that spiral out of control. I ruminate, I lose sleep, my energy gets zapped.
I’m especially vulnerable because I have bipolar disorder. I’ve suffered from debilitating depressive episodes, and that was when the world was more stable. The current situation could be a recipe for disaster if I don’t take care of myself. I simply cannot let recent events break me. I’m in recovery, and I plan to stay that way. In order to do that, I have to create and cultivate hope in my life.
To move past feelings of helplessness, I replace negative thoughts with positive affirmations. This may sound like a self-help book, but trust me, it really works. Words are powerful, and they have a profound effect on my well-being. I have to break the cycle of negative thought loops by talking to myself (out loud if I have to) in a gentle, compassionate way, like I’m reassuring a close friend or loved one. I can be hard on myself. By pretending I’m talking to someone I care about, I’m kinder and more forgiving.
Here are three examples of how I’ve turned negative, toxic feelings of helplessness into hopeful thoughts.
(1) Negative, helpless thought: “Everything is falling apart.”
Positive Verbal Replacement: “It’s going to be okay. I can handle this. Just because it feels like it, not everything is falling apart.”
It’s difficult to convince myself there are reasons to be hopeful when I’m existing on a diet of bad news. I need to be positive about the future. I have to stop dread in its tracks by embracing happiness. I no longer surround myself with toxic information. Instead of engaging in the supremely unhealthy pastime of scrolling through news feeds, all of which seem to feature stories that are more and more bleak, I check out some funny satire on The Onion, or I read good news on The Good News Network. I watch comedians like Stephen Colbert and John Oliver deliver current events using humor. Then, I’m not sticking my head in the sand, but I can handle reality much better because I’m able to laugh at the absurdity of it all. Life suddenly becomes much more palatable. And I have hope, because I know if they can take things in stride, so can I.
(2) Negative, helpless thought: “Things will never get better.”
Positive Verbal Replacement: “This will pass. This is temporary.”
One way I keep things in perspective is by altering the content I consume on a regular basis. I’ve traded doom surfing for joy scrolling. By replacing dismal information with uplifting content that inspires hope, I just feel better overall. That’s because I’m no longer immersed in disaster and misfortune. I’m reminded of the beauty in the world, and that I have things to look forward to.I peruse paintings by independent artists on Instagram through accounts I follow like Art My Wall. I relax by browsing architecture and interior design with Design Boom. I get inspired by Its Nice That. I give myself a dose of coziness by watching cute animal videos and reading my regular emails from Love Meow. I spark creativity through vegan cooking videos on Bosh TV, and I laugh with Tabitha Brown on TikTok and YouTube. No matter what works for you, be it art, music, poetry or all of the above, find alternative content you can consume on a regular basis that balances out all of the doom and gloom in your news feed.
(3) Negative, helpless thought: “I’m ugly/stupid/worthless etc.”
Positive Verbal Replacement: “Don’t believe everything you think! You are special, beautiful and amazing.”
If I believe the bad things I think, even when I know they’re untrue, it’s hard to rebuild and maintain my self-esteem. But if I don’t replace internal criticism with external validation then I won’t make any progress. I’ve started writing down positive affirmations, and I put them in unexpected places. I use 3×5 index cards and hand-write little notes to myself using colorful markers. My notes encourage me by saying things like “You are worthy.” “You’re beautiful.” “You’re smart!” I put them in sock drawers, on mirrors, and in my car’s glove box. That way they surprise me when I least expect it. This technique snaps me out of my regular thought patterns, re-orients my perspective, and puts me in a better frame of mind.
Agent Dale Cooper—a character played by Kyle Mclaughlin in Twin Peaks, one of my all-time favorite TV shows—said something that’s stuck with me since the 1990s. “Every day, once a day, give yourself a present. Don’t plan it, don’t wait for it, just let it happen.” This concept was reinforced when I watched the show Parks and Rec. Donna Meagle (played by Retta) and Tom Haverford (played by Aziz Ansari) coined the catchy phrase “Treat Yo Self!” I’ve incorporated this wisdom into my life by taking time (every day if I can) to do something nice for myself. I take bubble baths, naps, and occasionally indulge myself with a pint of chocolate non-dairy ice cream. I’ve stopped saving fancy things for some unknown future special event. I eat with the good silverware. I wear the kimono I was saving for a special occasion as a house robe. I don nail polish even though I’m the only one who will see it. I’m demonstrating to myself that I’m worth these things. I reinforce it regularly. This instantly lifts my spirits and makes me feel special.
A funny thing happened on the day of the capitol riots. In the midst of all the horror and mayhem, Georgia turned blue. Our runoff election results were announced, and it seemed like finally, there was some hope. People voted for candidates who focused not on vitriol but on optimism and unity. I was delighted. And even though the pandemic was still raging, I could see a light at the end of the seemingly endless tunnel. There was an effective vaccine. I may even be able to get it soon.
Of course, life is full of ups and downs. There will always be setbacks. Yes, there’s a new strain of COVID-19. Not surprisingly, there are more threats from angry mobs of extremist groups. But I’m better equipped to handle the twists and turns life throws at me, because I’ve made taking care of my mental well-being my top priority. I’ve consciously chosen to focus on hope, rather than letting feelings of helplessness eat me alive. I practice positive self-messaging. I relax with uplifting videos and pictures. I treat myself like I’m worth pampering.
Like an athlete, I’m training my brain to manage stress better. I have to, if I want to be strong enough to run the marathon that is life right now. I know I can make it to the finish line.