By Allison Goldberg
As the year anniversary of quarantine approaches and people across the world run out of hobbies, it’s important to take stock of our mental health. Psychologist, professor, and author Ethan Kross specifically studies how the conversations people have with themselves can profoundly affect their relationships and well-being, and since most people have spent entirely too much time with themselves in the past year, his specialty seems particularly relevant at this unprecedented juncture.
Allison Goldberg: There’s been a lot of talk about how to deal with “pandemic fatigue”. What do you think most people get wrong about it, and what do they get right?
Ethan Kross: First, I think it’s important for people to know that if they’re experiencing pandemic fatigue that’s normal. We’re living under intensely stressful conditions; circumstances that are far from normal that are imposing all sorts of added burdens on us. So, if readers find themselves experiencing heightened levels of stress, that’s understandable.
Although the situation is severe, tools exist to help people cope more effectively. And many people are in fact coping well. They recognize the adversity of the situation but are behaving responsibly and enduring. They’re focusing on the vaccines that are on the horizon and the prospect of the pandemic coming to an end—those are healthy ways of reframing the situation that give people hope. It’s easy to lose sight of this when you get stuck doom scrolling online, which can tank our mood and fuel our chatter — our tendency to get caught experiencing negative thought loops which drive our anxiety and rumination.
Goldberg: What are simple ways that individuals can cope with anxiety while quarantined at home – and perhaps ones our readers haven’t heard before?
Kross: Many science-based tools can help people reduce their chatter. One tool readers may not have heard of consist of creating order. When we experience chatter we often feel like our thoughts are out of control. We’ve learned that people can compensate for this feeling by creating order around them. So, the next time readers feel unsettled, they can try creating tidying up or organizing the physical spaces around them. Related to this idea is performing a ritual: a rigid sequence of behaviors that people perform the same way each time they do them. Research shows that performing rituals can also help people quell chatter, in part by enhancing their sense of order and control.
Goldberg: What role do you think employers have, if any, in helping employees through this time?
Kross: A wealth of data showing that the work-related performance impairments associated with chatter are tremendously costly—according to some estimates we’re talking about a trillion dollar problem. It behooves employers to provide their employees with evidence-based support. Doing so not only shows that an organization cares, but also has the potential to increase employee satisfaction, morale, retention and performance.
Goldberg: We’ve all heard a lot about “social distance” this year, but in your new book, Chatter, you mention a new kind of distance – distanced self talk. Can you tell us about that tool?
Kross: It’s easier to advise someone else rather than ourselves. Distanced self-talk involves leveraging the structure of language to help us advise ourselves like we were someone else. It involves using your name and other non first person pronouns (words like “you” or “he/she/they”) to coach yourself through a problem. Engaging in distanced self-talk during times of stress helps people regulate their emotions, reason wisely, and perform better.
Goldberg: Similarly, we’ve been hearing a lot of admonishments not to travel, so I love how Chatter encourages “mental time travel”. Can you tell our readers what this means and how they can use it?
Kross: Thinking about how you will feel when the pandemic ends has a regulatory effect. Imagining what it will be like to get on an airplane, to hug your grandmother, to get a coffee with a friend in a crowded shop. Catapulting yourself forward can make the current situation seem more manageable by highlighting the fact that what we’re going through, as awful as it is, is temporary and will eventually pass. Likewise, reverse time traveling can also help. I have found myself during this pandemic thinking about the pandemic of 1918. They didn’t have the ability to work from home like we do now and had worse medical technology. Yet, they survived, and so will we.
Goldberg: You also write about broadening our perspective. What steps can one take to broaden one’s perspective when, for many of us (especially in cities), our entire lives are now relegated to a handful of rooms, if that?
Kross: Mental time travel and distanced self-talk can both help broaden your perspective. Another way people can do this is by seeking out awe-inspiring experiences. Research shows when you experience awe, our own concerns feel smaller by comparison. We experience what scientists call a “shrinking of the self.”
How do you experience awe? Everyone’s triggers are different. I like to go outside and look up at the sky at night and think about all of the stars and planets out there. It’s difficult to feel like your problems are really that big when you’re trying to comprehend something that massive. But it doesn’t have to be space. Some people experience awe by watching videos of their toddlers doing things for the first time, discovering how to take those first few steps, or looking at a fantastic piece of art. Other people experience it when they look up at massive skyscrapers and contemplate how they were built.