Taking Care of Ourselves During These Disruptive Times

Adapted from Russ’ new book: Loss and Discovery: What the Torah Can Teach Us about Leading Change. [more info]

On a Friday evening in early 2022, Judy Woodruff of the PBS NewsHour asked her guest David Brooks how he was doing. Brooks, a well-known New York Times columnist, is a popular speaker and author with a quick wit and obvious intelligence. But when Woodruff asked her question, he paused and said, “You know, I’m not doing so well. I’m used to getting up refreshed each morning, focused and ready to meet the day. Now, I feel kind of hazy. I stumble around. I walk into another room and forget why I went there!”

Many of us are feeling this way today. Clearly the ongoing pandemic is one cause, but I’m convinced it’s more than that. I think we are reacting to a series of disruptions in our nation’s life that affect us all – the organized attempt to overturn the 2020 election, the enormous increase of hate groups, extreme weather events like we’ve never seen, to name but a few. These and other disruptions seem to come out of nowhere, they change the rules and leave us feeling disoriented, uncertain, and scared. They are bad for our mental health and for our souls.

Continual disruption is also bad for our brains. That’s because our brains thrive on predictability, certainty, and control. While many of us enjoy occasional surprises in our lives, we expect and need a great deal of stability. Think about it; how would you react if your supermarket moved its items to different shelves each week? Or your favorite coffee shop continually changed it hours?

In Silicon Valley, “Disrupt!” has been the name of the game for many years, and we consumers often benefit. Uber and Lyft disrupted the taxi industry, and their apps make it far easier to track and get rides than using taxis. But when it comes to overturning an election or the ever-evolving pandemic, that rattles us. Our brains aren’t wired for this.

I’ve been looking at some research and interviewing a variety of individuals to learn what’s helping people cope – and even thrive – during this time of upheaval. Here are some of the themes. Many people have been:

Managing their attitudes. As some research shows, the most resilient people understand that “attitude is a choice.” We can’t control the macro forces affecting us, but we can choose how we respond. Some people are beginning or increasing their use of meditation and mindfulness practices; focusing on the present and “living in the moment.” Some have become more grateful for their many blessings. Others are even finding humor in these tumultuous times.

Sharing feelings of vulnerability. When the pandemic broke out, the chair of the board of an Israeli nonprofit instituted a small change that had a big impact. At the start of their meetings he asked each board member to say how they were doing. When one of most accomplished members answered, “I’m depressed,” it shocked several. It also helped many to open up. Sharing vulnerabilities makes us more authentic; it shows others they aren’t alone.

Learning and exploring. Many are learning musical instruments, taking an online course, developing a new hobby, learning a foreign language. Several people I asked have taken up painting. They’re surprised at the satisfaction they receive from the process.

Spending more time on relationships. One of the most frequent comments I’ve heard: “I’m getting back to what’s most important.” For many, that means family. One family with kids and grandchildren spread around the country holds a weekly virtual meeting. They discuss a book or video they’d selected. And once a month they decide on a worthy nonprofit and send a check.

Here’s one more approach. This didn’t come from the research or the people I interviewed, but whenever I’ve mentioned it to clients, their eyes get wide and they say’s a keeper:

Letting go of perfectionism. Few of us are at our best when we’re continually bombarded with bad news and disruptive events. Take some pressure off yourself. Appreciate what you are accomplishing and don’t dwell on what you missed. Consider this true example:

A hard-driving New York City executive felt the need to change his ways, so he sought a therapist. Several friends suggested the same person, so he called her office for an appointment. He was told the earliest opening was four months away, and he took it. On the morning of the appointment, he ran into terrible traffic. He got frustrated, furious, (he was used to being in control), and ended up 20 minutes late.

He rushed into the therapist’s office, sat down breathless, and started apologizing profusely. After a minute or two he paused. The therapist smiled and said, “But you made it!”

Sometime later he told friends he was grateful for that reaction, and surprised. “I never imagined this kind response! It opened me up to all kinds of new thoughts and ideas.” The man realized how much his perfectionist standards weighed him down. And he learned a lesson we can all use: letting go of the need to be perfect helps us see how much we have accomplished, probably far more than we give ourselves credit for.

This starter list includes activities we have some control over, which meets one of our brain’s key needs. These also give many people energy.

What are you carrying around that’s wearing you out? What could you do, or let go of, to release new energy?