Most people find it surreal that we’re living in a pandemic. Every day we hear the bleak statistics about where the diagnosed “positive” cases as well as the deaths are ramping up, especially as we face a Fall surge in contagion.
Things we’ve previously taken for granted, like stress-free grocery shopping, visiting friends and family, getting a haircut, going to the movies, boarding a plane for a far away trip, working at our offices, having our children safely at school, etc. are now all matters of life and death. Making these decisions is now more like playing Russian Roulette with our survival.
Many of the couples I see in my practice are driving each other crazy with the lack of personal space, the intrusions into personal time, the increased dependency on each other’s judgment, and the loss of their usual distractions and pleasures, like going out to eat, attending concerts, or going to the gym. My caseload is exploding, even with the uncertainty so many people face about the sustainability of their incomes. Many people are now, eight months into the pandemic, experiencing “Covid Fatigue” and getting riskier with their choices, loosening their vigilance about contagion danger, thinking “What the hell, we’ve gotta live!” Apparently, as people experience these losses the rates of depression and anxiety are up. As many people experience a frightening lack of leadership or governmental truth related to the pandemic, feelings of helplessness, rage and nihilism are prevalent.
So, how can one not only stay alive until hopefully there’s a vaccine widely available, but actually thrive in this dystopian environment? Here are some strategies I’d recommend, finding them personally useful, and observing how my family, friends and clients also benefit from them:
- Pick your battles. Be conscious and selective about where you direct your outrage and frustration. Early on, I found myself confronting mask-less shoppers about their socially irresponsible behavior. I soon realized I was not only fighting a useless fight which might end in injury, but also inviting a full scale stress response in myself. Eventually, before the masks were mandated, I’d contact store managers with either praise for their policies about social distancing and masks, or complaints for their lack of diligence and courage. Also, good or bad reviews on store websites are more powerful than confronting individuals. So, be intentional about where and how you express your frustrations, being mindful about how it might backfire.
- Respect other people’s choices about “safety.” Try to take a more empathic, non judgmental stance about the way others manage their lives amidst Covid. Most people take some calculated risks, like seeing their grandchildren in person rather than via Zoom for possibly years. Other people choose to expand their “pods” to include close friends and extended family. Parents of young children are now generally sending them back to pre-schools. More often now, people are traveling, using AirB&B or even select hotels, knowing there is risk associated with that choice, but finding confinement at home worse. There are many daily decisions we all face about staying alive and managing, so recognize that these choices are personal and not for you to judge. Criticism, voiced or silent, only divides and alienates people.
- Limit your exposure to the news, especially on TV where the visual content can be particularly triggering. If you want to know what’s going on in the world be selective about which programs might be more or less sensationalized, or more focused on solutions. Do not watch the news at night before bedtime. Not only does the blue TV light inhibit melatonin production, which is required for ample sleep, but details about the horrors of the pandemic won’t benefit the purpose of relaxation and calm needed for a restful night. Instead, read a non-arousing book on a device with a “night shade” adjustment, or listen to soothing music, or listen to some guided imagery, like the ones on free apps like “Calm” or “Headspace.” You need proper sleep to face this new Normal with resilience.
- Lean into the pleasures and joys of your relationships. Even if right now you can’t see some of your loved ones in person, stay connected with Zoom, FaceTime, phone calls, photos, texts, and emails. Even snail mail right now is better than losing touch. Avoid isolation as the solution to the constraints of Covid. Explore new things with a partner or spouse. Make it an antidote to the temptation to target them with your Covid issues. Go for walks together, learn a new way of cooking. Be conscious and intentional about expanding your relationship with each other. Remember, your closest connections are your lifeline, especially now, so lean in.
- Do some service for those in need or for some meaningful cause. Go shopping or do errands for an elderly shut-in neighbor. Walk a dog for friends who are overwhelmed with young kids at home. Volunteer at an animal shelter. Mow your neighbor’s lawn. Offer emotional support to someone you know who has lost a loved one to Covid. Get involved with some political action you feel strongly about so you become part of the solution. Get outside your own experience, participate and help others. It will soothe your heart at a time of such uncertainty and loss. You will also experience a sense of “agency” so needed now, making a difference with your effective actions.
- Take up a new hobby. Expand yourself with creativity, especially as you experience so many shrinking options now in Covid life. Learn a new instrument with online lessons. (I’m currently taking guitar lessons, and online ukulele and harmonica lessons!) It will fill your brain with new challenges and pleasures. Take up knitting or woodworking or painting, things that usually require you to be more still at home. Try to create a dedicated space to this new hobby and make it your sanctuary. Create a psychological and physical space for positivity and growth.
- Spend some time each day focusing on what Covid has ironically given you – more time with your kids? More appreciation for those you love? Appreciation for your health or your life? Gratitude for your job? Appreciation for the safety and solace of your home? Less mindless spending? As we now all face death in such a direct and immediate way it can be transformational to be more present in our lives while we have them.
As Mike, a beloved carpenter we’ve recently re-hired says, “I’m just really happy to be on the right side of the grass at this point!”
(This CNN article was just forwarded to me by my cousin who is an avid reader, staying afloat in quarantine as a single person through her endless curiosity for information and ideas. I thought the article perfectly captured the dilemmas we all face now in this pandemic, and I couldn’t have covered it any better, so I’m sharing it with you here).
Opinion by Jill Filipovic
Updated 11:11 AM ET, Wed April 29, 2020
Are you losing your mind in quarantine? Because I am losing my mind in quarantine.
It can feel trite, even crude, to talk about our own discomforts, frustrations and longings in the midst of a pandemic that has infected more than three million people worldwide and killed more than 200,000 including nearly 60,000 in the United States, with numbers climbing.
Across the globe, families are grieving friends, family and community members. Husbands, wives, children, parents and partners are saying goodbye via iPad, unable to hold a loved one’s hand in their final moments. It’s a grim, ghastly time.
Those of us who are just stuck in self-isolation, and not hooked up to a respirator or the next-of-kin of someone who is, are the lucky ones. And no, what’s being asked of us is not excessive: We just need to stay home.
So why does this feel so hard?
Around the world, people report feeling stressed, anxious and generally discombobulated by this whole mess. Parents and other caregivers for young children are particularly stretched thin. People have canceled trips, concerts, weddings; new babies are being brought up without the help of extended family or community members; big life milestones like graduations go publicly uncelebrated. We miss the friends and family we can’t see. We miss dinners out, parties in, museums, live music, theater, even the gym.
I miss being able to walk through my neighborhood without the stress of staying six feet away from bikers, joggers, cooped-up children gone wild on scooters, and other pedestrians.
It’s not just working from home. I’ve worked from home for close to a decade, in many different cities and multiple countries. But the general rules of work-from-home life no longer apply. For example: Do something social, or at least that forces you to interact with other human beings, every day, even if that’s just going to the grocery store or the gym. Or: Create a separate dedicated workspace, even if it’s only a particular cushion on your couch; reserve your bed for sleeping (and other recreational activities). Or: Get outside at least once a day.
That’s all harder when your whole family is stuck inside on top of each other; when there are no gyms to go to; when, at least in dense cities, even going for a walk outside is a stressful (and masked) experience.
No, we are not being asked to go to war or survive one. But what we are being asked to do is profoundly antithetical to our natures as human beings; it is profoundly destabilizing and difficult. There is little more human than the desire for connection, touch, stimulation and novelty. This is all so hard because in going without those things, it’s not hyperbole to say we have to find new ways of being — or at least feeling — human.
Esther Perel, a psychotherapist and best-selling author, tells viewers in a brief but compelling video for The New York Times that it’s no wonder we are feeling a sense of grief and anxiety. It’s not just that we’re missing out on travel, dates, or dinners. It’s that we’re also losing the meaning behind all of those things. A date isn’t just a date; it’s the possibility of a romantic future. A trip isn’t just a trip; it’s a new and stimulating experience, a chance to understand oneself in a different context, an opportunity to see things that before you could have only observed through a screen. A dinner out isn’t just a dinner out; it’s a moment of indulgence, pleasure and connection with the person across the table. A longing to hug a friend, a loved one, a far-away child, your mom is more than just “I want a hug” — it’s a primal and fundamental longing for the way touch is so often short-hand for everything we don’t find the words to say.
Even in the midst of catastrophe — war, natural disaster, destruction — human beings continue to forge connections; we perhaps especially forge connections in the most trying of times so we can survive. In the most dire of circumstances — in war zones and refugee camps, in towns leveled by earthquakes and communities pocked by violence — people create art, paint in bright colors, plant seeds. They play music. They feed their beloveds. They tell stories. They fall in love.
The isolation that this pandemic has forced upon us doesn’t prevent all of those things, but it certainly hinders them. In the days after September 11, 2001, New Yorkers defied stay-at-home suggestions to congregate in bars and restaurants; the city teemed with life and energy (and, for once, not with car horns — a little bit of softness in the aftermath of such brutality). That collective gathering was very much a collective middle finger to those who attacked us: No, we are not scared. Yes, we are still here, and guess what? We’re going to live.
What is being asked of us now is not quite so satisfying; it does not meet our need, in a time of anxiety and grief, to come together and seek comfort. To touch each other. To even smile at a stranger — you can’t see a person’s expression behind a mask.
Compared to illness and death, these are small things. Being alive matters more, and so of course we have to continue to live this way for as long as is necessary to keep ourselves and others safe and healthy.
But it’s also OK to grieve the pieces of life that we’re missing, to express the feeling so many of us have that we can’t take it anymore. It’s necessary to understand that missing the fullness of life, including pleasure and connection, doesn’t make us selfish. Feeling destabilized and disoriented or pushed to a breaking point doesn’t make us flaky or weak. It makes us human.
And perverse as it may sound, those of us who are anxious, frustrated and disoriented can be grateful for that exact experience — in disorienting and disconnected times, this reaction is a rational one. It means we’re warm. We love. We’re curious. We seek pleasure, and we revel in it when we experience it. It means we live.
This guy, Tucker, is one of the 4-legged loves of my life. In previous posts I’ve written about how through our daily romps in the woods around my land and walks around the neighborhood he reminds me about what’s most important in life, especially as I veer off into thoughts about my unanswered emails, calls, bills needing attention, etc. (Refer to “Its’ All About the Ball!”)
I share him with our next door neighbors Peggy and Dave who inherited him, not having had an agenda or a wish for such a demanding, messy creature. They love Tucker but Dave isn’t a dog guy. So our arrangement works. I don’t have a dog of my own, so Tucker is it. He lives at Peggy and Dave’s, but his heart lives with me.
Here’s the thing: Tucker at 7 years old has terminal cancer. Six months after surgery to remove a huge malignant mass on his thyroid the cancer is back. After a subsequent evaluation, the vet gave him about 7 months to live. My challenge is how to manage the pain of witnessing his imminent suffering and probably losing him not long from now, without wasting precious time we have together today – time for joy and much fun. It’s a mind screw and a heartbreak – right now he has minor symptoms – some weakness in his legs and some coughing, but other than that he still acts like an exuberant toddler, full of sweetness, innocence and life.
“Staying present” means being in the moment without preoccupation about the past or the future. Some Eastern spiritual practices say that when you’re anxious you’re not here now, but in some possible or anticipated future, and when you’re sad you’re living in the past, grieving some loss or disappointment. So, the challenge is to be here for the present moment, savoring and amplifying it. The present moment is usually just fine if we don’t mess it up with our thoughts. For me with Tucker the present moment is about enjoying his current vitality and playfulness, savoring the shared sights and smells of Autumn without obsessing about it probably being his last one. (And by the way, research has indicated that people who practice savoring and amplifying positive experiences have more happy neural pathways which show up on brain scans)!
If you are in a situation like this with a similar challenge, make room for your sadness and honor it when it visits you. But, so your sadness doesn’t drown out all else, when you’ve given your sadness its’ due, change the channel in your brain through the practice of noticing the specialness of this present moment, take a mental snapshot, then save it as a treasure to place in your treasure box of memories for the future. Pay attention to what is right in front of you and appreciate its meaning to you. You will be present for your life which will feel much fuller, and in the future you’ll be thankful for that!
If you’re a follower of this blog you may have been wondering where I was all summer – why no posts?? Where’s the new material, any new tools or resources, even just thoughts?
The answer is: I’ve been having too much fun practicing what I preach to clients: nourishing connection with self, family and friends, mostly outside, nowhere near a computer! I’ve put away the devices, as we all should do with some intentionality, and practiced more face-to-face experiences. How can a cell phone or a laptop compete with a glorious, sunny 80 degree day on the lake with beloved family or friends? How can researching and posting about all the new resources for creating joy and meaning compete with the meaning derived by loving up the local shelter dogs each Monday? And what “work-related” activity on Earth can compete with days at the beach or the park with our irrepressible two year old granddaughter Anna and Old Soul grand-dog Barley? What thoughtful article or diligent new podcast could possibly compete with immersion in the magnificence of our coast, our mountains, our rivers and forests here in the Northeast for the measly three months of friendly weather? None!!!
Then, there’s the other knee with it’s own torn meniscus, amplifying a sense of needing to “make hay while the sun shines”, knowing the inevitable surgery is around the corner (successfully completed today), bringing with it mandatory vegging out on the couch and a perfect opportunity to get back together with all my devices, my writing, my internal world.
So, there you have it – iced knee on pillows, hoping for crappy weather to avoid FOMO, and lots to share once again with you, my gentle readers whom I hope will forgive my incognito, hedonistic summer and know that I’m finally back…
(Here’s the second very good question Parenting NH magazine asked me recently):
What are some practical tips and ways for parents to prioritize their relationship as spouses/partners?
Most people know about the importance of setting aside quality time together through things like “date night.”
Having a planned, ritualized time alone with your partner amplifies your “couple-ness” through shared experiences, reminding you about your reasons for choosing and staying with each other. I encourage couples to ramp it up a notch by taking turns with the planning, each putting energy into the “work” of connection.
Sometimes surprise experiences can expand a sense of fun, and even ramp up friendly competition. Anticipating and later reminiscing about these events can actually build happy neural pathways in your brains!
Novelty and a shared sense of discovery by doing new things together also generates excitement and joy, which are important antidotes to the doldrums which often plague long term relationships.
Equally as important, build mini “pockets of connection” into your everyday life as a couple. Don’t overload date nights with too much expectation, especially if you can’t manage to have them regularly and frequently. Instead, look for small, subtle moments of sharing by being intentional about them:
– If you’re getting dinner ready, create a shared experience with some conversation and a glass of wine while you prepare the meal.
– If the kids are in bed sit on the deck or the porch and watch the stars come out together. Talk about your dreams and passions, not just who aced it at your kid’s soccer game.
– If you’re watching a TV program sit next to each other and use the commercial breaks to have a snack and share your thoughts about the program.
– “Kill two birds with one stone” and have some lively conversation while you walk your dog.
However brief your time together may be, protect it from outside intrusion. Get more comfortable saying “No, thank you” to invitations that might cut in on the two of you too often. Set boundaries and prioritize your time together, even if it’s not a Hallmark moment.
Whatever you do together, be intentional about it, be present, and put down your cellphones! Texts, Facebook, and Instagram can wait, unless they’re shared activities you both enjoy. Here again, remember that one way or the other, your kids are watching, and you’re giving them a template for either a loving, respectful partnership, or
an empty one.