COVID-19 Reflections of a Psychotherapist
Most of us are a few weeks into COVID-19 self-isolation right now. During this time The Wellness Project has talked about how to boost your immune system, manage anxiety, practice holistic self-care, and grapple with loneliness. Our writers have also reflected on what the pandemic may have taught us so far.
As a psychotherapist (a fact about myself which I may not have mentioned in prior blogs), working during COVID-19 has been a surreal experience. Within a matter of days, my entire practice moved online. Nearly half my clients lost their jobs. The city I live in shut down. And across the globe, we moved into varying degrees of a collective crisis. I worked to help people cope with this crisis as I grappled with it myself. And in myself, my clients, my family and friends, I’ve observed particular similar ways we are emotionally navigating this drastic change in everyday life. Let’s call it the ‘COVID-19 States of Mind’, which have ebbed and flowed in their nature as pandemic living has become the current ‘new normal’. What’s been interesting about these ‘states of mind’ is the seeming contradictions of them, and the unprecedented way they seem to be, largely, a shared experience. What’s also been interesting is the profound possibilities they offer for healing. I’ve collected them into 3 umbrellas:
1. The Fear State
When you are afraid, anxious, stressed, overwhelmed, in crisis, what is your default mode of response? The way you protect yourself? Do you go into ‘problem-solving mode’, shut down, become hyper-vigilant, or perhaps deny the circumstances? Maybe you move into some or all of these modes, but usually, a couple are pretty dominant ‘initial responses’, and they are variations of our early instincts to respond to danger with ‘fight’, ‘flight’, or ‘freeze’. The one(s) that are most familiar to you in specific are a result of your childhood experiences. They are the ones that you learned would be most effective in keeping you safe and free from harm.
Knowing what your default fear response is doesn’t stop it from happening- but it does help you approach it with more compassion. And it does let you know when it’s operating. When you’re in a ‘fear response’ your body is either highly over or under activated. It’s behaving like a ‘scared body’. A body that is tense and breathing shallowly. So you can help yourself work through your response by encouraging your body to ‘feel safe’. How do you do this? You work to soothe it. One simple way is to take deep slow breaths to calm your thoughts and release tension from your body. Another is to just seek out self-care activities that feel comforting and nourishing. Yet another? Simply let your body and fear response be what it is. Acknowledge it. Tell yourself you know you’re afraid and overwhelmed, that you know you’ve gone into an old, familiar, default way of functioning. That things don’t feel normal right now and you won’t be functioning like they are, and this is okay. You’ll be surprised how much simply noticing and accepting your responses can help them ease all on their own.
2. The Grief State
I use the word ‘spiral’ intentionally. That’s because we assume ‘stages’ means a series of steps we take from beginning to end. It can be argued that with grief, and quite noticeably the strange mix of ambiguous and specific grief that has accompanied COVID-19, it’s not quite as linear as that. We move through, then back, then up, then around the different stages. Usually though, like a spiral, we’re on higher ground than where we started. Don’t already know the Stages of Grief, and perhaps haven’t considered how they might apply in our current circumstances? Let’s do a little run through, using definitions from grief experts Kessler & Kübler-Ross as shared on https://grief.com
1- “Denial…helps us to survive the loss. In this stage, the world becomes meaningless and overwhelming. Life makes no sense. We are in a state of shock and denial. We go numb. We wonder how we can go on…Denial and shock help us to cope and make survival possible. Denial helps us to pace our feelings of grief…As you accept the reality of the loss and start to ask yourself questions, you are unknowingly beginning the healing process. You are becoming stronger, and the denial is beginning to fade. But as you proceed, all the feelings you were denying begin to surface.”
2- “Anger is a necessary stage of the healing process. Be willing to feel your anger, even though it may seem endless. The more you truly feel it, the more it will begin to dissipate and the more you will heal. There are many other emotions under the anger and you will get to them in time, but anger is the emotion we are most used to managing.”
3- “Bargaining…Just like when losing a loved one (and indeed, many have lost loved ones), we may ‘bargain’ in wanting our lives to return to what they were. We are hanging on to the past fervently.”
4- “Depression…After bargaining, our attention moves squarely into the present. Empty feelings present themselves, and grief enters our lives on a deeper level..We withdraw from life, left in a fog of intense sadness…”
5- “Acceptance…Acceptance is often confused with the notion of being “all right” or “OK” with what has happened. This is not the case…This stage is about accepting the reality…We learn to live with it. It is the new norm with which we must learn to live.”
We have talked a lot about our ‘gains’ during COVID-19, and we will talk about them more again in later points. The room to breathe, to reset and reassess, for the earth to catch a break, for all of us to heal. But to make room for any healing, for any ‘gains’, there are of course losses. The things we let go, willingly or by force. Aside from the tragic loss of life, we are losing a familiar way of existing in the world (no matter what our thoughts are on this). We are losing the structure and stability we were accustomed to. We are losing businesses in our communities, the livelihood and actualization of people’s dreams and creative spirits. We are losing freedom of movement. We are losing familiar roles we play in the world. This means we are experiencing grief, and need to treat ourselves with the compassion of a grieving population, whatever silver linings sit on our horizon. In short this means simply one thing: Make space for sadness. As the lovely poet Nayyirah Waheed writes:
you expect rain.
3. Our Existential/Relational Struggle Vs. Relief State
Why have I combined existential and relational? Because most of the components that make up our existential conflicts (Who am I? What have I achieved? What do I want? What is my purpose in life? Why do I get up in the morning? What is the meaning of it all?), are strongly connected to the resources we have. These resources of course include our financial resources, but they are very firmly defined by our other significant resources of support: our relationships. Depending on what ‘stage of life’ you are in (adolescence, young adult, adulthood, midlife, senior years), you may be experiencing a different version of this conflict.
As mentioned in the previous point, we might be losing particular social roles, relationships, and routines amidst the social distancing measures. Any kind of fundamental shift like this will lead to a feeling of internal instability (to some extent). It will increase our awareness of what is absent and present in our life in terms of security and satisfaction. It will bring into sharp clarity the depth and integrity of our connections to others. What relationships do we have? How strong are they? How isolated or connected are we? For those lucky ones of us, we may feel immense gratitude at this time. For those less lucky, we may feel sorrow and despair.
Whether we sense intensely what we lack or what is abundant for us (or both) we are again brought back to fear, to grief, to healing, and potentially, to joy. We may see more clearly than ever before what depletes us and what nourishes us, and perhaps most importantly: Who.
Again, for the lucky ones of us who have our basic physiological needs met, we might feel relief in this clarity. We might be able to separate from toxic relationships and routines and foster our nourishing ones. We may be able to take a step back from the expectations of the daily grind and ideals of productivity and reflect deeply on how to lay down the tracks for more meaning and connection moving forward. We may find profound comfort in the meaning and connection we find in our midst already. We may be able to hold space and awareness for those who find no relief right now. Those who are trapped, alone, frightened, in danger, despairing. Those who see no way out. We may be able to take that space and awareness and mobilize it to shift the next inevitable tide that follows this. Perhaps with this tide, more ships will have a chance to rise.
And that’s all for today folks. Stay safe, stay well, stay home. Find the light in the little things. And like everything else, this too shall pass.