Just Paint Your Toenails
Warning: this counseling session is not going to coddle you.
Quality counseling sessions should never coddle you. After all, good therapy does not sit and moan with you. Good therapy also places sanctions around how much and for how long you can cry. Good therapy pushes you. Challenges you. Good therapy forcibly yanks you out of your comfort zone, because here is Lesson Number One that might make you mad:
The comfort zone you’ve created for yourself is killing you.
Read that again:
The comfort zone you’ve created for yourself is KILLING YOU.
Now, like a lot of folks lately, I’ve spent way too much time on social media. As such I‘ve seen a few trends develop. Today we’re going to dissect a few of those trends and smash them into little pieces.
If you’re in, keep reading. If that scares you, duck out.
Still here? Okay:
Trend #1: “Screw It”
This one has a few variations, but most go a little something like this:
- ‘At eight o’clock I change from my day pajamas into my night pajamas’
- ‘Hands up if you were bothering to make your bed before the pandemic’
- ‘Who’s showered today?’
- ‘Who’s having a martini for breakfast?’
Sure some of them are kind of funny, even a little edgy, but for all, the general drift is this: Since we’re stuck at home, why bother adhering to schedules or decorum?
Here’s why you should bother
1. Because Your Brain Obeys Visual Cues
Every waking hour, your brain is busy processing a multitude of information. Much of that information is fed to the brain in the form of visual stimuli that you are both conscious of and unconscious of. (Example: I am consciously aware of the keyboard beneath my fingertips. I am unconsciously aware that their color is black). From the visual stimuli it processes, the brain then send out signals that dictate how it thinks you should behave. ‘Acclimatizing you’, if you will. (To help understand this, consider the way an elegant dining room is softly lit—an unconscious cue that lets your brain tell you that you should speak more softly in that setting).
With me? Okay, now here’s the rub: that sink full of dirty dishes you’re leaving sit, that unmade bed you’re burrowing into every night, and those pajamas that you’ve been wearing all day, every day, without changing them out at 8 o’clock like the meme says (so now they’re dirty, and they stink)…these are visual cues of disorder. Of chaos. And when your brain is immersed in chaotic visual cues, it will (because it is an efficient machine) gear you to also think and behave chaotically.
And is that really what you want right now? When the entire World is in turmoil, do you think it’s wise to contribute to that sense of being unmoored and directionless by stacking up (seemingly small) ‘force multipliers’ like dirty dishes, pajamas, and who-cares beds?
Don’t answer that yet. Consider this first:
Along with delivering direction as to how to behave from visual cues, the brain also delivers direction as to what to believe. And what message is subliminally encoded within an unshowered, undressed person whose bedroom, sink, and kitchen look like a bomb detonated nearby?
No, it isn’t “Why bother?” It is actually: “There is no point”—which also means “There is no HOPE”.
Probably not the most helpful notion to believe.
So what would I have you do?
Paint Your Toenails.
No, really. Paint your toenails. Put on make-up. Shower. Change OUT of your pj’s and wear them ONLY at bedtime.
Put on fresh clothes. Nice clothes—not sweats, not leggings, and for God’s sake NO SLEEP PANTS.
Wash your dishes.
Make your bed.
Oh…you don’t normally make your bed even when there is no pandemic? Make it anyway. And use fresh sheets. Do hospital corners, and if you don’t know how, YouTube will show you.
Because we want to send your brain a different set of visual cues. We want it to see Organisation. Cleanliness. Beauty. All these cues will then allow it to send out signals as to how you should behave and believe, ultimately giving you control within chaos.
And control within chaos is a powerful thing.
“But,” you say “I don’t feel like it. I don’t feel like making my bed. I don’t feel like getting dressed.”
I know. That’s exactly why I am making you do it. Want to put your depression and anxiety on steroids? Continue living in an environment that reinforces aimlessness, hopelessness, and chaos.
Or…force yourself to tackle it differently. Even if—especially if—you don’t feel like it.
2. Schedules, Predictability, & Order Soothe The Stressed Brain
Since you’ve decided to now make your bed, I’m going to challenge you to take it one step further:
Get up and make it at the same time every morning. Develop a routine for you and whoever you live with that schedules mealtimes, work time, bath time, bedtime—all the times. Every day, without deviation.
Because the world is chaotic right now, even its leaders seem to be flying by the seat of their pants, so if you can create even small measures of predictability in your own tiny corner of the world, your brain will relax, for there is comfort in knowing what will happen next, even if it is something mundane like ‘lunch time at 12 o’clock’.
Therefore, now that the kids are home from school, now that you’ve been charged to work from home…don’t fly by the seat of your pants. Create a schedule. Stick to it ruthlessly. You’ll be shocked by how much it will decrease your anxiety, especially if you
3. Build ‘Look-Forward-Tos’ into your routine
Maybe it’s a bubble bath before bed. A video chat with a friend. An episode of your favorite Netflix series after dinner (no bingeing! I’ll get to that in a minute). Look, the world is on lock-down. We’ve all had to give up things we normally love or that we were looking forward to. And if there’s anything the diet Industry has taught us over the years, it’s that deprivation sucks—and that deprivation also amplifies pre-existing depression.
So while you’re building your routine, fill it with rewards—and that’s why no bingeing. It feels a lot better to anticipate the next instalment of Broadchurch or Tiger King, or Queen of the South than it does to torpedo your schedule by sitting in your pajamas all day and gobbling them down all at once.
Trend #2 PANIC-PANIC-PANIC
Never have I ever seen fear-mongering quite like what we’re experiencing now. Even 9/11 pales, abysmally, by comparison. Every newsfeed is a blitzkrieg of blame, shame, and scare tactics, all centered around COVID-19.
And not just screens: the other day I paid attention to my hubby’s radio station, and every ten minutes they were running ads about COVID-19. Every ten minutes on the dot.
It horrified me, and not because of the virus. Rather it was due to how much this tactic resonated as conditioning, or brainwashing.
So buckle up, because my next directive is harsh:
1. Get OFF Of Your Screens
Your comfort zone is killing you—and that includes your habit of scrolling through your updates, and checking-checking-checking your newsfeed.
Right now social media is top-heavy with variations of one story: COVID-19, an over-saturation that gives the brain no break from being locked in its ‘Fear Centre’, a place where reaction trumps logic, where emotion torpedoes reason, and where the mind, body, and spirit are kept trapped in a place of fight-flight- or freeze.
(Which is why, incidentally, you’re likely seeing more folks have online melt-downs where they’re either sounding unhinged or sharing way too much personal information. Discernment does not live anyplace where fear runs the show).
Media—meaning social media and mainstream media—are paid per click. And what are people clicking on right now? (Hint: It is also the name of a fairly awesome beer in Mexico).
Every time you read another article, see another meme, dive into another status, you are affirming your own Confirmation Bias that this, indeed, is Stephen King’s The Stand, here to wipe us all off the Earth.
Let me put that another way: Have you ever watched a horror movie then been convinced that the normal moans and groans of you house settling was actually a demon coming for YOU? Would have believed that—or even come up with the notion—had you not just scared yourself half to death by watching the movie?
I rest my case.
Turn off your screen.
“But, but, but!” you say. “I’m housebound now! And I am an extrovert! I neeeed Facebook!”
Okay. If you must have Facebook, then how about you treat it like the rewards we discussed above? How about you schedule one hour a day where you can look forward to connecting online with friends on your newsfeed? Stop the spread (pun intended!) of over-saturation to stimuli that is designed to scare you (remember: they are paid per click, and keeping you irrational keeps you online). Put your screen-time on a diet. A severe, minimal-calories only, diet.
2. Use The ‘Unfollow’ Option
During your now-limited forays onto Facebook, you are still going to see folks on your feed who are spewing the fear-anger-blame-shame that’s inherent in PANIC-PANIC-PANIC. (You know who they are). Did you know you have an ‘unfollow’ button for every friend on your page? You can mute them and still remain friends. Consider doing it—because panic begets panic. There’s a reason why the adage ‘Misery Loves Company’ exists.
3. Get Creative
Still lonely, extrovert? (I could see you pouting). Then here’s a blast from the past for homework: Sit down and write your friends a letter—yep: and old-fashioned, snail-mail letter. Fill it with all your news. Make fun little doodles in the margins. Send it in the post and imagine how thrilled they will be to get a note from you because guess what? They’re lonely too!
4. Stop Saying ‘This is the new normal’
Because it’s not. It is normal right now. But it will NOT be normal forever. Why am I quibbling over semantics? Here’s why: Because telling people who already feel trapped, scared and hopeless that ‘this is the new normal’ is the equivalent of telling them that they are never getting out of jail. EVER.
So…stop it. That’s all.
 Confirmation Bias: the tendency to interpret new evidence as confirmation of one's existing beliefs or theories. Want a novel to read during this time apart from the world?
And, if you're in the mood for a scare that has NOTHING to do with COVID-19, try
No Vacancy, where a psychiatrist, desperate to discover what a notorious old hotel did to his sister, seriously underestimates what the place is capable of doing to him
BONNIE RANDALL, BSW, RSW, is a clinical social worker, international speaker, and novelist who lives in Western Canada.