Have you ever had it? That slow, sinking realization that, despite your desperate attempts to convince yourself otherwise, you are hopelessly lost? Perhaps you were on a jog, or a bike ride, or a hike. Often, the feeling starts slowly, a nagging sensation that something isn’t right. You plow ahead, convinced you will see something to trigger a thought, a certainty, that you are headed in the right direction. But as you proceed on, that sense of confidence fades away until you finally admit it to yourself. Depending on the circumstances, a flood of other feelings might come: if it is the middle of the day, you might feel frustrated or confused. But if it is late in the day, your adrenaline might kick in, mixed with perhaps a tinge of despair: “What if I can’t get out of here before dark?” “How will I find my way back?” “What is going to happen to me?”
Athletes of all kinds have scores of such stories: You are on vacation in an unfamiliar area. You head out for a run, and suddenly find yourself headed in the wrong direction or down a path leading nowhere near where you predicted. Most people can GPS their way out of such morass. Still, sometimes it means a harrowing night, sleeping on a rock in the middle of the river in the Dominican Republic (true story!), or setting up camp in the middle of the forest after hours of hiking to the point of exhaustion (also a true story!).
Athletic proclivities notwithstanding, this “lost” feeling strikes as an apt metaphor for many of us right now. Months of grappling with the COVID-19 virus have left an indelible mark on humankind.In the United States, we are experiencing unprecedented stress through high unemployment, economic insecurity, intractable concerns about public and private health, political tension, and social tensions related to systemic racism and police violence. The American Psychological Association regularly surveys the American people on stress. In July of this year, they found that the vast majority of Americans surveyed, both Republican and Democrat, feel the uncertainty in our nation is causing stress.[i]
The American Psychological Association regularly surveys the American people on stress. In July of this year, they found that the vast majority of Americans surveyed, both Republican and Democrat, feel the uncertainty in our nation is causing stress.[i]
For many of us, the first few months of dealing with COVID-19 felt like those first few steps down an unknown path; while we did not know what was in front of us, a glimmer of confidence remained. We felt sure the way forward would emerge quickly. As the economy continues to sputter, and concerns about racial and social injustices simmer, many of us feel like we are deep into unknown territory. Not only is the path in front of us not clear, the way back now seems overgrown and untenable.
Getting yourself un-lost
- Acknowledge the facts (however painful) and avoid panic. A critical part of getting found is admitting you are lost – and the more quickly, the better. This acknowledgment can be painful, as it is likely to trigger the body’s sympathetic (i.e., “fight or flight”) response, which can sometimes create panic. Panic elevates heart rate, constricts circulation, and essentially shuts down critical processes, including executive brain function. One “lost” story recounted to me was of two friends who got lost in the high mountains of California for hours. One of the two told me, “I had to keep myself from panicking because my friend was panicking. I knew that if we both did so, we would likely die.”
- Her solution provides great counsel: Facing reality can help you begin to problem solve. Without it, you waste precious time and energy. So, check-in with yourself – do you have some symptoms that might indicate you feel a bit lost? Are you feeling unusually anxious about the future, or having difficulty making decisions or following through on commitments? Do you find yourself feeling “stuck” or awaiting direction from others? Are you struggling to find the energy to get through the day effectively? The more quickly you can see signs of being stuck, the more quickly you can make a plan to get back to safety.
- Take stock of your resources. Knowing what assets you have at your disposal is critical to getting un-lost. For example, if you are lost in the woods at dusk with plenty of water, but without a light, it is a better option to set up camp than try to cut a new path toward safety.
- Recognize the strengths (“equipment”) you possess that will help you move forward. Making a list of your strengths can build self-efficacy, which is described by its original author, Albert Bandura, as, “A belief in one’s causative capabilities.”[ii] For example, perhaps you’ve maintained a consistent exercise regimen during the pandemic. Maintaining this focus may help you gain physical strength, build resilience, and give you a place of control when other things seem not so controllable.
- Plan specific strategies to leverage your strengths when you have “lost” moments. For example, your child’s school has not yet decided if the upcoming semester will be entirely online or partially live. What strengths might help you manage such a decision that is out of your control? Perhaps you have a robust gratitude practice; take time each day to be grateful for the education they will get either way. Or maybe you are a creative wiz; help your child create a home classroom that keeps them energized and engaged throughout the day.
- Get- and accept – help. If you were stuck on a rock in the middle of a river in a foreign country, with soaking wet clothes and hypothermia beginning to set in, would you turn down help? Of course not. Even if you looked undignified, you would not only take the assistance, but you would do everything you could to get it. (This was the case with the author of this harrowing story. She was airlifted into the center of the local town in nothing but her tee-shirt and underwear!) Yet often, when we feel lost, we neither seek nor accept help. Perhaps we fear looking vulnerable, uncertain, or weak, all of which are antithetical to the American myth of self-sustainability and independence. Or, maybe we don’t want to inconvenience someone else. Or, we may be so frenetic trying to get un-lost that we don’t recognize support when it shows up.
- Reframe help as an opportunity to get to where you want to go, faster. Migrate your view of “help” from a sign of weakness to a sign of strength. When an athlete is struggling to perform at their best, they will always turn to a coach to improve. Take stock of what resources might be available to help you find your way: a psychotherapist, a professional coach, colleagues, clergy, a mentor, family, or friends. All of them have resources and capabilities that can help you get to safety quickly.
- Define what help you need. Asking for and receiving support are both easier if you are specific. For example, you might say to a colleague, “I’m having trouble getting my team to focus on expanding our new product portfolio; they just aren’t challenging themselves to be as creative in our new remote environment. Could we talk next week, and perhaps you help me think through how I can help them amp up their creative juices?” Most people are ready and willing to help when they understand what you are asking for, how much help you need, and for how long.
- Be gracious. Remember, we all need help from time to time. Accept help with humility and grace. Allowing others to help is the greatest gift we can give. Thank those who help and support you. And, when you are no longer lost, be ready to extend help to those very same people – they may need it from you sooner than you might think.
Reframe help as an opportunity to get to where you want to go, faster.
- Embrace learning. While being lost is not much fun, it is not without its benefits. Every person I’ve spoken with about a harrowing “lost” experience had an important takeaway. In every instance, part of what they learned is the importance of their choices and behavior beforehand.
- What actions (or inactions) might have led you to become lost? We have no control over the current pandemic, related public restrictions, or resulting economic downturns. But we do have control over our consumption of media (doomscrolling, anyone?), what we eat and drink, how much we exercise, and how much time we spend alone or at the computer. If not managed well, these things can contribute to “lost-ness.” For example, if you haven’t set parameters around your work-from-home time (WFH), you may find yourself always “on” the job. This will impact your family and your health, and you might find yourself resentful of your work. Setting boundaries around your work time, family time, and exercise time might help you attend to business tasks more efficiently and also gain perspective.
Life will hand us unexpected challenges, perhaps none so intense as we’ve experienced these past few months. To avoid getting lost, we must make sure we are well-
prepared. By keep
ing our mental, physical, spiritual, and emotional “equipment” ready, we are less likely to find ourselves at a loss when we are down an unfamiliar road. Prioritize what is important, make time for what is necessary. Take time for self, family, and support systems. Discipline yourself around media consumption. Exercise. Sleep. Meditate. Volunteer. Doing so will strengthen your internal compass. And a working compass will always, always lead you back to safety.
[i] American Psychological Association (2020). Stress in America. Published online, July: https://www.apa.org/news/press/releases/stress/2020/report-july.