The 3 Words You Shouldn’t Say Right Now

How to avoid a slippery mental slope in quarantine

Brian Pennie, PhD
Published in
3 min readApr 15, 2020


Photo: Marko Geber/Getty Images

“W“What’s the point in showering or getting dressed? Why should I bother shaving or putting on makeup? Does it even matter whether or not I eat well, or exercise, or stick to a sleeping schedule?”

This type of inner dialogue is common right now, and I understand the sentiment. But if it sounds familiar to you, be careful.

Why? Because these foundational actions prime you for the day ahead: for how you feel, how you think, and all of your further actions. And when you let your foundation slide, it’s easy to drag your whole self down with it.

‘I’m happy because I’m singing’

Do our actions determine how we feel? Or do our feelings determine how we act?

I used to believe it was the latter. But during my doctoral studies in neuroscience, I came across something that changed my mind: a psychological theory of emotion.

William James, one of the greatest psychologists of our time, proposed that emotions are caused by our reactions to external events. The best way I’ve seen this theory depicted is in a cartoon showing a little bird singing in a tree. A man standing underneath the tree looks up at the bird and says, “You must be singing because you’re happy.” The little bird looks down with a smile and says, “Not at all. I’m happy because I’m singing.”

Stop asking ‘What’s the point?’

If you felt good before the pandemic, you probably don’t realize it, but your foundational behaviors played a pivotal role in making that possible. When you lose those behaviors, you lose the processes that primed you into action and determined your state of being.

Consider your commute home from work. This event can act as a trigger, priming your brain to switch from work mode to home mode. Working remotely in quarantine means you no longer have that trigger. If you’ve been feeling distracted in the evenings, you can blame the global pandemic, yes, but it’s also worth acknowledging that you’ve lost a foundational behavior.

To feel as good as you can under the circumstances, try to make your days look as they did…



Brian Pennie, PhD
Writer for

Change is possible. I write to show that | Recovered heroin addict turned doctor.