The Impossible Task: Mental Health during Covid-19

The Impossible Task: Mental Health during Covid-19

It’s likely that the ‘Impossible Task’ has never felt more impossible.

Many people have experienced it. Maybe it’s filing your taxes on time or cleaning out the refrigerator. Sometimes it’s as simple as showering or unloading the dishwasher. The impossible task, while rarely scheduled into our day, is the simple task that while seemingly easy to accomplish, is actually another symptom of anxiety and depression that hasn’t been discussed very much.

One of the wonderful things about the evolution of mental health awareness is that we’ve developed language to describe some of the hard-to-discuss concepts. As someone who has tackled mental illness my entire life, there have been countless times in which I’ve been plagued by a seemingly easy task that I struggled immensely to complete. I didn’t have a name for these experiences until fairly recently. I just thought that when I was depressed or especially anxious that I’d get exceptionally lazy and that I was to blame.

The ‘Impossible Task’, as described by M. Molly Backes in 2018 on Twitter, refers to a task that is rarely difficult to complete but for whatever reason seems impossible to accomplish. You know that it would likely take you less than ten minutes of your time, but your brain drags you away toward more immediately necessary tasks. All the while the impossible task sits in the back of your mind becoming more overwhelming the longer the task is postponed, perpetuating the cyclical nature of anxiety and how difficult it can be to snap out of it.

Some people may hear about the impossible task and think: Well, that just seems like a lack of motivation. And sure, pre-existing mental health conditions can certainly magnify feelings of being overwhelmed and can halt motivation. However, the impossible task isn’t just that one thing you hate doing every week (for me: laundry), it’s usually rooted in something deeper and can even be tasks that we typically enjoy.

Regardless of prior awareness, I’m likely to wager that in the era of social distancing and worldwide isolation: a lot more people know what I’m talking about.

How about this one:

I have so much time now, and yet I still haven’t gone through my 389 emails…

Or:

I always said that if I had more time, I’d run more. I’ll start tomorrow…

Or maybe:

I need to call my parents. I was supposed to call them days ago, but now it’s been too long…

The impossible task, much like mental health itself, takes on a different form for everyone. Nowadays, we have more time than ever to get that task done but it’s not that simple. That’s because we’re experiencing worldwide anxiety and unfortunately can’t see the future. Stress has proven to affect our ability to concentrate, focus, and dedicate attention to the things we love so if you feel like you haven’t been as motivated lately, you are certainly not alone. We’re isolated, stressed, and unaware of when things will “go back to normal”.

Morale is low and motivation has unsurprisingly followed.

While the impossible task is likely not “Make Bread” these days, it may have manifested itself most primarily within the ways we take care of ourselves. A pandemic truly shines a light on people’s motivation levels. People are being forced to motivate themselves for the sake of themselves, which sadly doesn’t always fuel people.

Tips for Dealing with The Impossible Task

Some of us have a lot of motivation all the time, like elementary school kids and certain yoga instructors. Some people have chemical imbalances in their brains that create motivation deficiencies. Regardless of where you’re at within that spectrum, understanding our mental state is key to pulling ourselves out of negative experiences. Times are exceptionally hard right now, and while it’s easy to shrug it off as “stressful for everyone” that isn’t fair to yourself. You’re still allowed to feel low, sad, and scared because suppressing those emotions takes steps backwards from understanding yourself. How are you supposed to battle your mental madness if you don’t allow yourself to become acquainted with it? Sometimes the best thing for your mental health is allowing yourself to take time and understand why you struggle in the way you do so you can set the future version of yourself up for success.

So how do you do that? And how do you finally find the motivation to complete these impossible tasks? Everyone is different so the answer isn’t a simple one. However, some coping mechanisms are well-regarded for a reason, and some that I find helpful include:

Establish Typical Habits

Things are not normal at the moment, but that doesn’t mean you can’t establish a sense of normalcy within your own life. How do you fill your time every day? What hobbies “spark joy” as Marie Kondo would ask? Establishing normalcy is something that you’ll do many times in your life, and knowing what habits are typically expected can help you recognize when something is getting rocky in the future. If you know that every other day you go on a walk, but you haven’t done that in two weeks, there may be something going on there that is more complex than “I don’t feel like it.”

Simplify the Symptom

Once you find language for the ways you experience pain those struggles are way easier to turn into triumphs. When you find yourself in one of these anxious spirals, it’s remarkable what actually naming your problem can do. I always think of the boggart in the third Harry Potter. That thing is next level spooky and hard to defeat until you understand that it’s actually a very manageable monster in the closet eager to show its face at random times. By understanding your condition and identifying it as a problem with a solution, it is much easier to minimize the experience as a symptom, not a permanent state.

Give Yourself a Break

Part of what makes an impossible task so universally difficult is that shame is anxiety and depression’s BFF. Shame makes us feel like we can’t talk to others about these issues and makes us embarrassed over experiencing them to begin with. Shame is not a motivator for getting tasks done, it is simply an isolator. Ultimately, shame is the voice in our head that tells us that we are not enough and that what we’ve done already is insufficient. Impossible tasks become very possible once shame leaves the room because we’re no longer tying our worth to our ability to complete a to-do list. The impossible task becomes a task and we become a human that is struggling to complete it, nothing more.

Baby Steps

Motivation is not an all-or-nothing game and it never will be, despite the many times we’re hyped to be the best version of ourselves. When tackling especially overwhelming tasks you don’t have to do it all at once or perfectly, despite this being a common way anxiety lies to us. Some ways to take baby steps toward accomplishing the task that we recommend:

Distract yourself with something you love (Habit Stacking)

Listen, I actually hate running. However, I love horrible reality television. I’ve made a rule for myself that I’m only allowed to watch Keeping Up with the Kardashians if I’m working out because even though I’m indulging in what I actually want to do (melt my brain, apparently), I’m also doing something good for myself and taking steps toward becoming a healthier person (to be able to watch this horrendous family for as long as I can).

The Chip-Away Method

This is when you can’t get yourself to complete the task, so you commit to complete only a portion of it. If your impossible task is finally doing the mountain of dishes in the sink and you keep finding yourself too overwhelmed to even start, maybe begin with only washing cups (stay hydrated!) The next day, tackle the silverware. Eventually, the task works its way into being much more realistically managed and you don’t have to buy paper plates anymore.

All this being said, we understand that mental health is a complex issue that works differently for everyone. During these fearful times there are going to be many seemingly “easy” tasks that may be more difficult right now. What’s important to know is that your worth and happiness shouldn’t be dependent on your motivation levels, which will ebb and flow with time. Instead, be good to yourself and good habits will soon follow.

 

Journaling and Personal Accountability

Journaling and Personal Accountability

In December of 2019 I bought a journal.

It was a small and simple journal, around $12 from Target. Seemed sturdy, reliable, could fit in my bag with ease. My main issue with the purchase was grounded in self doubt- I mean, how many journals did I have at home with one or two pages filled, only to be neglected within a bookshelf of books I still haven’t read? So I made a promise to myself.

I’d do my best to write once a day, even if it was just one sentence, every single day. And if I could do that, I’d never stop journaling.

The idea occurred to me while I was taking David Sedaris’ Storytelling Masterclass during the slow months of winter (yes, people actually take those). He’s kept a journal for decades and urges people to keep a journal for many reasons. For creative material yes, but also to acknowledge our own stories more. We can grow from our experiences by re-reading our journal entries. It’s remarkable just how many opportunities to grow we miss just because we felt it was a passing thought, a small interaction, a forgotten memory.

At first, it was difficult. I didn’t really know what to write or what was important information to include. I got tripped up on “introducing” myself and the need to clarify who I was writing about. I’d give unnecessary historical context despite knowing that I was the only person who’d ever be reading it. However, similar to cardio exercise, it was one of those things that I just kept doing and didn’t stop. Were the entries that first month anything close to resembling literature? Absolutely not, at points it even read like the ramblings of a mad man. But I still did it every day, and over time I knew what I needed to actually focus on and where to enhance the little details.

Eventually, all of the pages were filled.

Nowadays I’ve upgraded to a moleskin and still manage to write something down every day. Some days it’s as simple as a short list of things I wish were true, others it’s the actual events of my life. The one trend throughout all pages is that I always focus on what I did that day and how it made me feel, like a one-sided conversation with a silent therapist with absolutely no input. But that’s where I’ve found the realization that everyone should be routinely journaling. Why?

The power of personal accountability.

Eventually, I got an actual therapist and during our first session together I mentioned that I keep a daily journal. She was ecstatic, partially due to her job apparently being much easier (which I get) but also because it made my life easier, too.

“Keeping a journal is one of the first things I recommend to my patients,” she explained. “Not only does it make it so much easier to understand where feelings stem from, it also just helps us stay accountable. How about you go back and highlight patterns. Recurring thoughts, trends, habits you may not be aware of. We can discuss those.”

I thought I’d done the hard part already by keeping a journal but the real work came much later. At this point I had almost a year of content about my daily operations and once I looked back I immediately pinpointed what things in my life could be improved upon. Wow, I really suck at going to bed on time (during stressful periods at work) or Yeesh, I drink too much (when I have too much free time). Certain self-doubting sentences repeated time and time again, failed dietary intentions and grocery plans, missed goals spread throughout the pages.

But with the bad there is always the good. I noticed a ton of progress within my writing style, hobbies outside of work began to flourish, I got much better at articulating my emotions and communicating healthily with my friends. It compelled me to get therapy and start being more mindful regarding taking care of my body. It was as if I was meeting my current self for the first time and I had all of the power to influence future journal entries to be positive ones.

If I held myself accountable.

When you’re honest about recording your life you start to notice the patterns you’d prefer to not be patterns. You can easily recognize what causes you to make poor decisions and it’s simple to see which goals and aspirations are more realistically attained than others. Journaling is humbling and in one of the best ways possible, but that is far from the only benefit that consistent journaling can provide.

As a recently converted journaller, I think that everyone should have a journal. Let’s explore some of the many reasons why.

Benefits of Journaling

  • Memory Improvement: Do you ever ask yourself, “Where has the time gone?” I know that I have, but definitely less so since I started writing about each day. Journaling can be very beneficial toward those that tend to let things slip mentally. A Cambridge study on the physical health effects of journaling mentions that “the beneficial effect of expressive writing is the development of a coherent narrative over time, increasing cognitive processing of the experiences.”
  • Therapeutic Benefits: Emotions can be a tough thing to manage, especially during exceptionally stressful points in our lives. Recording our turbulent experiences allows us to gain focus on what the actual issues are and help simplify the problem to find a solution. Our moods tend to be much more positive when we have a long-term relationship with writing our thoughts down, probably due to how stress relieving and cathartic the process can be.
  • Physical Accountability: Not only does journaling help you mentally, but creative writing has proven to have many physical advantages as well. That same Cambridge study found that after four months of consistent journaling, most patients displayed reduced blood pressure, less stress-related visits to the doctor, and improved immune system functioning. You may be reading this because you’re interested in getting healthier through the amazing programs offered at Rise Over Run Fitness. Keeping a journal is a great tool for physical wellness, too. Recording our workouts, gym goals, and meal plans can help build steady consistency in our fitness journeys.

Tips for Getting into Journaling

  • Get a journal you’re comfortable working with. I originally struggled to keep a journal because I don’t really enjoy writing at night. So I made sure to get a journal that could fit in my bag and was small enough that I could quickly jot ideas down at any point throughout the day. If you’re vibing in the digital age, there are even apps like Daylio and Five Minute Journal that you can download to get started. You’ll be using this thing every day, so get a journal that you know will set you up for success.
  • Don’t limit yourself on material. Your journal can be absolutely whatever you want it to be, the goal is to simply maintain consistency. Wanna use it as a weekly planner? Go for it. Fitness journal? You wouldn’t be the first. A meal planner? Sounds great. Don’t get bogged down by the “Dear Diary…” school crush imagery we tend to resort to when people talk about having a journal.
  • Be honest about the details. Going back and re-reading our journals is a great way to recognize our progress, set-backs, and motivations. So make sure to be honest with yourself and not hold back anything out of shame. That’s a little thing called denial, and it’s not like anyone is likely to read your journal anyway. Unless you have the worst roommate ever, it’s all worth including.
  • Start small and work your way into it. This is your journal, not a paid-per-word Charles Dickens novel. Focus on major points and events and then elaborate as you see fit. Don’t let yourself burn out just because you were focusing too much on having “enough” content. You can use doodles, lists, paragraphs, whatever works for you will work for you. Just as long as you try to journal for at least a few minutes every single day.

Personal accountability is paramount to finding success in our wellness missions. Journaling allows us to recognize where self-discipline is more necessary and also helps us stay more in line with our inner wishes. It may not feel natural at first, but if you keep writing your thoughts down you’ll be one step closer to maintaining personal accountability and achieving your goals one journal entry at a time.

Sources

https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/advances-in-psychiatric-treatment/article/emotional-and-physical-health-benefits-of-expressive-writing/ED2976A61F5DE56B46F07A1CE9EA9F9F/core-reader

https://www.active.com/fitness/articles/5-reasons-why-you-should-keep-a-fitness-journal