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How to Live Well When All Is Unwell

The world is suffering. All of us. It’s Team Humans vs. COVID in a heartbreaking, overly long playoff season.

However, as so many athletes, soldiers, grad students, and new parents can attest, shared pain and difficult experiences can bring us together. They can create deep bonds that enrich our lives. So you may be wondering why so many people out in the world seem short-tempered, distracted, and angry. You can probably think of a dozen reasons, but consider this one. A lot of people are currently sick with long-haul COVID.

An estimated 1 in 3 people infected with COVID will have prolonged symptoms that persist well after the active infection. Some studies put that number higher. This means that over 70 million people worldwide have experienced extended poor health (as of October 2021). If you’ve become accustomed to these numbers, just think of three people you know who have gotten COVID. One of those people might still be feeling terrible and frustrated. That person might be you.

Add to this the isolation, unemployment, changed work environments, delayed or canceled celebrations, grief, and increased depression, anxiety, thoughts of suicide, and substance abuse. The division, fear, and uncertainty have made for difficult social interactions, doing quite the opposite of bringing us together like Mets fans. We’re all strained, drained, scared, exhausted, and some of us are mysteriously sick. So how do we live meaningfully amidst turmoil and illness?

If we stop struggling with ourselves, we can move more freely in our lives and focus on what matters to us.

While this may seem like the bleakest of pictures, there is hope. Behavioral science has long had the tools to help people manage the inherent difficulties of being human, to move through pain, and find ways to live meaningfully. We have been living with tragedy for as long as we have been humans, sometimes in healthy, adaptive ways with friends, family, hobbies, spirituality, and psychotherapy. And sometimes, we cope less gracefully, in destructive, maladaptive ways through avoidance, substance abuse, violence, and anger. 

Behavioral scientists have studied our coping skills in the face of human suffering to figure out how we can not only co-exist with pain but lead meaningful lives in the midst of tragedy. Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) offers such a path, which is something we lay out in our book Long Haul COVID: A Survivor’s Guide. ACT is applicable to all of the ways we suffer and is particularly helpful when the thing we’re suffering from is out of our control, like illness or a global pandemic.

Acceptance and Commitment Therapy is a scientifically grounded psychotherapy approach designed specifically to increase psychological flexibility, allowing us to tolerate discomfort and experience our full range of emotions, free of judgment and attempts to control or avoid our feelings. By doing this, ACT encourages people to be open, stay present, and ultimately engage with their lives. It proposes that our fervent attempts to avoid our own emotional experiences, difficult as they may be, actually lead to more pain and suffering than we would experience if we simply allowed ourselves to be who we are and feel what we feel in the moment. In other words, if we stop struggling with ourselves, we can move more freely in our lives and focus on what matters to us.

This isn’t a new concept, as any Buddhist will tell you, but the integration of these principles into modern approaches of behavioral science has been a bit of a revolution. Ultimately, it provides a functional way to move through life, focusing on what works, letting go of what doesn’t, and using our own values as a guide for decision-making instead of attempts at emotional control. It can be powerfully transformative. Best of all, it requires no special talent, just a willingness to engage with it, some practice, and some patience.

ACT tools have been helping people live well through all sorts of devastation — chronic illness, permanent injury, anxiety, depression, trauma, substance use problems, and countless other manifestations of human pain and suffering. ACT provides a uniquely human and humane approach to help people who are having tremendous difficulties lead lives with meaning and purpose and find a way to move forward, even when they feel terrible. A simple reality of life is that if you’re waiting for things to get better before doing what matters to you, you might just miss the opportunity.

Whatever your struggles, ACT offers us all a unique opportunity for change. It will help you abandon your control agenda so you can experience your life in all of its messy, tragic, beautiful glory from a place of openness, compassion, and love. Acceptance and Commitment Therapy offers accessible tools so you can get out of your own way, make choices that matter to you, and live better even in the worst of times. And maybe in the process, we can start to see each other as teammates in the battle against COVID.

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