The Pandemic Sur-thrive-al Guide

Feel-Better Exercises for Uncertain Times

Thrive where you can. Cope when you can’t. 

Review the excercise titles to identify which one you or someone you love needs. Expand the exercise with the + sign. Do the exercise. Join the discussion group

As a career and leadership coach, my daily work is partnering with clients to plan the future. My days were filled with partnering with clients to build towards a positive future. We had all our awesome plans underway. We knew mostly what to expect. Then…. SMACK! It’s a pandemic.

Mid-last year, or just even a month ago, most of us never could have predicted a crisis and threat on such a global scale that would interrupt life as we know it for the bulk of the world’s populations and businesses.

We don’t know what the next few weeks will bring. We know the spread of the virus is growing in the US and it’s important not to overrun the hospital system. We know the economy is hurting, but can only project what that will do.

As shelter in place orders are executed and extended, as this event that is so out of our control unfolds, we all grapple with what it means to plan the future in uncertain times.

“What do I do?”

“How do I handle this?”

“What does this mean for the future?”

This guide provides exercises to support you in thriving when you can and surviving when you can’t as you face all the challenges of the  Pandemic.

When we are making conscious choices, we feel better. We also plan better for the near and the long term, which is important to those who rely on us. Also, just like anxiety is contagious, so is positive leadership. By using this guide, you’ll be putting out more of the positive leadership mojo that your family, your friends, your coworkers, and your community needs right now.

If we were all a bit more centered there would be a lot more toilet paper on the shelves. That’s for sure!

Use this guide when you are searching for guidance, confidence, direction or inner peace in these times of uncertainty. You can go through them all or select based on your need.

Simply pick one you’re attracted to and go to the exercise.

Practice extreme self-kindness.

If an exercise doesn’t work the way you want, you might not be ready for that exercise and that’s ok. Identify another indicator and try that one. The key is to know that there’s nothing wrong with anything you are feeling or experiencing along the way.

Play with friends.

It helps to do this with other people. Consciousness is best played as a team sport and the world needs a lot more community right now. Find a buddy or set up a group to go through the exercises. Get on your favorite video conferencing system and talk about it with your family, your team, your community.

Help the Guide get Better

Share your discoveries, additions and thoughts in the Facebook discussion group. We will be improving and adding to the guide over time. Together, we can create a really amazing system.  Visit our Facebook discussion group

Support the Guide

The price for this guide is pay what you can, share if you can’t.  All profits are going to Frontline Foods – a non-profit that is saving jobs and businesses across the country by bringing meals from restaurants to frontline healthcare workers.

Use when you’re feeling like you don’t know what to do or how to approach a situation or choice. 

It’s easy to get caught up in the news cycle, other people’s viewpoints, and catch other people’s anxiety. It’s important to stay informed, but it’s also important to be aware that emotions can be just as contagious as Covid-19.

Seemingly overnight, so many choices we enjoyed disappeared. Our freedom of movement, expanded choices due to a strong economy, our range of activities, and our ability to spend time with those we love – gone.

When choices go away, we get fearful, we get depressed, and we don’t know how to approach the future. The potential for conflict increases and the overwhelm of serving those we love when our resources are shrinking is staggering.

Here’s the good news. You still have a choice. You get to choose how you want to show up.

When we choose how we want to show up it removes the illusion that we don’t have any choices. We don’t know exactly WHAT is going to happen so we need a foundation that will guide HOW we want to respond when things come up.  Having that foundation for rational decision making shifts us from victimhood to self-leadership – even in times of uncertainty.

How to Choose a Mindset Model

Step 1:  Think about what would it look like if you were operating as your best self.

Step 2: Now answer the question, how do you want to show up today?List three adjectives or concepts that align with that vision and WHY its important to show up that way.




My Example

  • Calm – I want the world to be calm, so I want to show up as calm.
  • Accepting – Accepting that I do not control this situation or other people’s behavior makes me feel peaceful and that feels good. I am also under stress and I want to accept that I’m human and it’s ok if I’m stressed.
  • Reasonably Cautious – I want to be cautious within reason. There are real risks out there right now. I don’t want to live in terror but I want to take the steps I can take to be responsible in this crisis.


You’ll know you have the right model when your shoulders relaxed and you feel like you can breathe easier.  If you want to take it a step further, share your intentions with someone. Ask them how they want to show up. Discuss and revise.

Revisit this exercise if the model stops working.  You’ll know the model isn’t working anymore because you’ll be operating from an anxiety state.  That’s ok.  Things change and so our “Top 3”  will need to evolve too.

Use this exercise when you feel anxious about the future

Everything has changed so suddenly. Last year as we prepared to enter 2020, we never made a New Year’s resolution to get prepared for the pandemic. Most of us did not expect this.  At all.

“Unexpected Bad”  will cause our primal brain to start looking for threats and spinning with anxiety on questions that are all rooted in attempts to predict the future.

“What am I going to lose?”   

                                                  “What type of future are we heading towards?”

                                                                                                                                        “Can I even plan anything?”

“Will things ever be normal again?”

You’ll know when your primal fear is in charge when you:

  • Can’t control negative thoughts
  • Spend time worrying
  • Can’t make decisions

When we are in this “triggered state” we actually can’t rationally see problems and devise powerful solutions – all we can see is threats.

The good news is that our primal fear just really wants us to be safe and it is possible to reason with it. Once we reason with it, we have a much better chance of making choices that are in our best interest.

Step 1. Explore your ability to predict the future.

Answer this question:

Can you predict the future?

Yes____ No______

Step 2: Based on your answer….

If your answer is yes, please call me. No one will need this handbook and you can just tell us what will happen. It would be very much appreciated!  😉

If your answer is no, answer this question:

If you can’t predict the future, what can you do instead?

How do you want to apply that to how you place your efforts?

Helpful Insights and Next Step Exercises

We cannot predict the future, but with some analysis, we can begin to plan if we break down this big thing called “The Future” into smaller, more manageable categories.

Immediate Future

This is the future time period that has the highest probability of being “predictable” in the near term and can be as short as the next 5 minutes and as long as the next few weeks. For most during the shelter in place, it’s the next few days to the next few weeks. This is what we can plan for right now. For the immediate future, see create fun and joy.

Middle Future

This is the future time period that is just past the immediate. There are some assumptions that can be made but it’s too far out to really know. Our anxiety will really ruminate over the middle future if we don’t give it a different way to relate to it. This is the hardest part to plan right now. For the middle future, see the reduce fear exercise.

Long Term Future

This is the future time period after this period of change is over. the expectation is that while the Covid-19 Pandemic will last a while, it is not here forever. The Spanish Influenza of 1918, and the fact that most of us didn’t even know it existed before, is a promising sign that Pandemics End. For planning the long term future, if you’re anxious about it, go to talk with fear. If you’re just not sure when the good future is, then go to create fun and joy table” in the near term and can be as short as the next 5 minutes and as long as the next few weeks. For most during the shelter in place, it’s the next few days to the next few weeks. This is what we can plan for right now. For the immediate future, see create fun and joy.

Use this exercise when you feel anxious, fearful or worried.

I’ve developed a pretty intimate relationship with fear over the course of my present work as a life and leadership coach and my past work in cybersecurity. Here’s what I’ve learned:

Fear is ALWAYS trying to help us out. It’s just not always good at analyzing data. 

Fear can’t process Good News data because it has a lens that only looks for threats. Fear isn’t rational. In its world Bad News data rules. Good News data gets tossed.

Looking at the world like this makes it very hard for Fear to solve problems with positive solutions. Fear isn’t a good problem solver.

To make sure we solve problems in the best possible way, we can turn to the science of risk analysis. If fear knows our rational self has a better method, it can chill out and let us take over.

The science of risk analysis is a tried and true method to figure out what to do about potentially bad things happening. Its use has been proven effective in the insurance industry, cybersecurity, business continuity planning, and the military. It’s good stuff!

Here is how you do it:

Call Out the Fear

When fear is present, understand it’s trying to help you out. It may or may not have the correct information. It helps to identify what it thinks is the threat.

When you’re experiencing signs of stress, acknowledge fear is taking over and ask yourself, what am I afraid of?

Here are some examples:

  • I’m immunocompromised, and I’m really afraid I’m going to get Coronavirus.
  • With the recession, marketing is going to be the first department to go, and that means it time to panic.
  • I’m worried about my husband. He has to go to work and the conditions feel unsafe.
  • I loved my career in event planning, but a career in events is dangerous now that I’ve lost my job.
  • I’m worried I’m going to lose my job with the economic downturn.

Identify the Worst Outcome

Q. What’s the worst thing that could possibly happen if that fear comes true?

If you find answering this question makes you more anxious, have a friend talk you through it. The point of this exercise is to help you reduce risk.

Assess the Level of Risk

Q. “What is the probability of that thing happening?

Understanding the probability of a bad thing happening is essential to creating a plan for what can be reasonably done about it. When managing risk, the rule is to put out an appropriate level of effort based on the relative level of risk.

For example, if you are in your 20s and don’t have additional risk factors, your COVID-19 risk is cut tenfold – so you don’t need to worry as much about threats to your life. However, if you aren’t careful you could transmit the disease to others who are at risk and that has a much larger

If your answer to the probability question is “I don’t know” you need more data.

Get the most well-rounded data set you can. Have a friend challenge your dataset to make sure it’s as solid as possible.

Implement controls

E. Identify how you can influence that probability

Write down a list 10 things you can do to increase the probability of that bad thing happening. Promise yourself you won’t do those. (E.g. I promise myself I will not lick freezer handles in grocery stores).

E. Identify a set of controls to reduce that probability

Write down a list of 10 things you can do to reduce the probability. Rank each one by ease of implementation and control impact (i.e. how effective that control will be). Choose a set of controls to play with over the next three days and re-evaluate.

Set Up a Check-In

Put a note on your calendar in a few days to do a check-in with fear.   Accountability partners work great for this.  If you have a trusted friend that is good at reasoning with fear, ask them to do the check-in with you.


You’ll be done with this exercise when you feel more in control and that more choices and options are available to you

You’ll know you’ve gotten to a good place with this exercise if you feel like more options are available to you and life seems more in control.

Use this exercise when you wish life was more fun

“The primary cause of unhappiness is never the situation but your thoughts about it.”

― Eckhart Tolle

We’ve all going through a lot of losses. It is totally normal to mourn what you’ve lost and what you’re currently losing. If you’ve got real stuff to mourn, give yourself time to be sad.

You’ll know you’re done grieving because you’ll be feeling restless to do things but not feel you have an outlet for it. You’re going to struggle because your mind is programmed to connect to solutions that don’t work right now like gatherings with friends, crowded places, and group activities.

When our minds identify solutions that are not possible because of a negative circumstance, our unhappiness can increase. We feel that our joy and fun are blocked because of the limits of the pandemic and that all other options are a compromise. That’s a really big bummer.

To get your mind reconnected to the new circumstances, it helps to process the “rule changes” that the pandemic brings.

Realign Your Planned Activities

Make a copy of this spreadsheet and fill it out.

The Activity Realignment section allows you to identify what you used to do and consciously create a replacement activity for it.

In the “lost activity” column, write down which activities you’ve lost that you can no longer partake in. In the “activity experiments” column, write down something that might be a good replacement for it.

Identify New Opportunities

Any change, no matter how undesired, presents some new opportunities. We don’t just want to replace activities. To optimize our enjoyment, we want to discover new things. In the “Gains” column of the spreadsheet, write down the desirable things that you have gained. Then, identify new activities you can experiment with now that you have the new resources.

Create Some Structure

Now, you hopefully have a BIG list of new ideas. Humans are always happiest when we are in the learning zone – experiencing and learning new things. To start executing, pick an experiment that feels attractive and achievable, pick a date and start getting a plan together.

Practice Detached Enthusiasm

As you go execute, it’s important to remove your expectations. Imagine you are a scientist of creating fun in the pandemic. If something doesn’t work as planned, it’s just as valuable a finding as something that did. Take notes and adjust. If you expect it to be awesome and it’s not, that’s a bummer. If you don’t know what to expect and your intention is just to experience it, that’s always exciting.

Create a Schedule

Create a “New Things” schedule and go through your experiments list on a weekly, bi-weekly or otherwise scheduled basis. As you go through your experiments, keep the thing you like until they wear themselves out, toss or adjust the ones you don’t.

Use this exercise when you feel like you’re drowning in causes and people who need you

There is a lot of loss everywhere and that means that there is a lot of need. Businesses are struggling to survive. People are losing their jobs. People are losing their lives. Everyone needs support to some degree or other and that can be absolutely overwhelming.

Signs of Compassion Overwhelm:

  • Guilt over inability to help enough
  • Exhaustion from helping too much
  • Increased stress rooted in the belief system that it’s a moral duty to help when there is a need

If this is you, here are some important Truths:

You can’t help everyone now. You couldn’t help everyone ever. The idea that helping everyone is possible is an illusion.

If you don’t take care of yourself, you will need more help and that will exacerbate the need. You will also have less energy to help. That means that you will be negatively impacting your desire to help as many people as possible.

In times of overwhelming need, all you can do is identify what your giving resources are and what the best use of those might be.

Given those facts, its important to consciously choose where to place your help.

List Your Core Responsibilities

List the core people and activities that you have a non-negotiable commitment to be there for. Family, close friends, work. The things that you feel you MUST make a priority.

Rank them

Now, rank them in terms of your commitments to them

Identify Core Requirements

Now in priority order, write down what each of those core commitments need from you.

Add Yourself

Put yourself at the top of the list. If you don’t take care of yourself you will have less energy to take care of others. Now write down what you need to show up as your best during this time – that includes rest, exercise, free time.

Clarify Available Resources

Now, identify how much of these resources you will have each week leftover after you have addressed your core requirements.

  • Time
  • Money
  • Energy

These are the MAXIMUM resources you have to help. It helps to cut each one at least in half to avoid overestimating. It is important for self-care to make sure you are not concerned about resources.

Prioritize Where You want to Help

List a limited number of things (try 3) you want to positively impact with your help. Make sure they are achievable within the resources you have.

Get it organized

Put your help on a schedule. One larger act of help a week and a small act of kindness each day is a good start. Small acts of kindness can be spontaneous and should take very little energy. They don’t need to be planned. It’s just giving out positive energy when the opportunity presents itself.

Establish Accountability

Share your helping plan with someone close to you. Ask them to help you identify when you are in compassion overwhelm again. Make sure you record your acts of kindness so you are making it clear to yourself – you are helping.

Use this exercise when no matter what you do you can’t get into a good space

Coping is exhausting and we are all trying to be strong and do our best. “Look on the bright side” is only helpful if we’ve given ourselves the opportunity to really mourn what we’ve lost.

Processing and flowing with change requires processing the dark and that means allowing yourself to be sad. Most people don’t allow themselves to do this because they are worried they will fall into a dark space. The truth is that if you don’t take some time to grieve you won’t process it out and so you are keeping the darkness with you. Being sad lets it out. Its an important natural emotion.

We can’t see the light if we don’t process the dark.

In its least threatening times, the pandemic is simply just a great big bummer! We’ve all lost things that we really cared about and were looking forward to.

On a larger scale, most of us have lost a sense of safety. Pandemics weren’t supposed to really happen. Were they?

On a personal and deeper scale, there are threats to us and those we love. Many of us have relatives who are sick. Some of us have lost loved ones.

Set Up Reflection Time

Schedule this into your week. Make sure you don’t have anything you have to “show up for” after. Let it be a time for you to just process your feelings.

Establish a way to reflect

We all process things differently. Some of us write, some of us take walks in nature, some of us create art, some of us talk things through with a friend. Choose methods that feel good to you.

Get Electronics Away from your Eyes

Electronics are distracting. It’s important to go into your feels.

When you’re all done, then ask yourself “What am I grateful for?”

This question makes sure you are processing – but not ruminating in the dark. Write down what you’re grateful for or acknowledge it in some way. We get to shine light in the dark as well.

Ask more questions. Give less advice

We rely on advice to create the illusion that there are simple answers – a “rulebook” of dealing with stuff. The problem with rulebooks is that we are all individual humans and there’s a ton of factors that go into a situation.

In the words of Amy Poehler, most people’s advice is “Good for you. Not for me.”

You’ll know you’re giving advice if you are using the word “SHOULD” a lot. Advice can actually increase, rather than reduce stress. It is a little ironic, however, that the only way I can tell you to not give advice is to give you advice? The difference is that you have already given me “buy-in” by deciding to read my guide.

Here’s how you’ll know if it’s time to give advice or not.

Ask “What do you need?” instead

“What do you need” is the most important question to ask yourself and others in a time of crisis. The art of coaching is rooted in the understanding that the best answers lie within. The work of the coach is to speed access to getting the answer.

Ask this question before you give advice to others. Ask this question of yourself when you are feeling stressed, lost, panicked, and mournful.

Support yourself and others in getting to an answer that is achievable and architecting a solution that feels manageable.

Use this when you’re beating yourself up and feeling frustrated with yourself

As I was writing this very guide, I had a lot of challenges to deal with and I didn’t always show up how I wanted.   Multiple stressful situations took away my calm. I got sucked into a partisan argument on Facebook. I stewed on a stressful situation.  My inner critic woke up and told me I was a hypocrite and imposter because I was struggling. Who was I to write a guide when I was struggling with stress?

The answer to that question is “I am human.  It is messy sometimes. All I can do is my best.  Doing my best means owning that it’s sometimes messy”

All we can do is our best.  That’s it.

We can’t always show up how we want to show up under times of stress.  All beating ourselves up does is create negative energy. That’s not what the world needs right now.  

That leads us to our final exercise.  Practice Self-Kindness.  Our inner critics will really take over when we are under stress.  When you find yourself beating yourself up, answer these question:

Did I really try to do my best?  

What were my intentions?

What got in my way?

What did I do right today?  

What do I need right now?  

The kinder we are to ourselves, the more love we have to give to others.  Perfect is impossible. Being human is messy. Love yourself and love others. 

Thanks for playing my Pandemic Surthrival Games!  Go back through them again and again as often you need.

If you enjoyed this guide, don’t forget to share or pick your price. I’ll be providing updates on how much has been raised for Frontline Foods.

Make sure to join the discussion group, leave your email address to get updates on improvements to the guide and fundraising, and share or pick your price if you found this guide helpful.  All those things can be done by accessing the buttons below.

Many thanks to my friends, family, and clients for giving me the opportunity to develop these exercises as we started to find our way through this time of great change.

This too shall pass, and when it does I’m giving BIG HUGS!!!!!



Gretchen Hellman, CPC, ELI-MP

©2020: Gretchen Hellman/Outside the Box Coaching.

The price for this guide is pay what you can, share if you can’t. All profits will go to Frontline Foods, a non-profit supporting the restaurant industry while feeding frontline healthcare workers. If giving monetary compensation doesn’t work for you right now, simply share it with those you care about and you will have paid a fair price.

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