If your experience of 2020 and early 2021 feels like the above image, you’re not alone! No matter what side of the political fence you’ve embraced it has been a year of loss, constraints, hopelessness, helplessness, hatred, anxieties and extreme division, often among members of the same family, or among friends. Not only have most of us faced differences which have felt toxic and relationship-breaking, but a daily onslaught of information and news about catastrophic events, happening now, or about to unfold. I think there has been a collective experience of trauma in this country, and probably in many places around the world. Covid 19 illnesses and deaths, loss of income, loss of faith in the System, violence, racism, uncertainty.
To that point I’m encouraging everyone to pause and reflect on a few things:
How have you been coping and how well has it served you?
- Over-drinking or drugging?
- Reviewing the horrors frequently with peers who get it?
- Over-eating or over-indulging in comfort foods or sugar?
- Targeting your loved ones with rage-outs?
- Overspending on Amazon?
- Denying anything unusual is happening and proceeding without any cautions or adjustments?
- Over-working and sacrificing sleep / self care rituals?
- Over-thinking and going to catastrophic conclusions?
In my psychotherapy practice I’ve seen how people’s responses to the trauma either exacerbate or alleviate some of the stress, bring people together for support and meaningful action or tear them apart. Depression and anxiety are off the charts now as people struggle with feelings and thoughts that can become runaway trains in response to such triggering events.
So, instead of going through a long list of more functional coping mechanisms I’m encouraging you all to begin by examining the strategies you’re already using and taking an honest look at how well these strategies are serving you. If they calm and energize you, at what cost to yourself or others? If they provide relief, how momentary or enduring is it? Do your coping mechanisms give you any sense of meaning, agency, or connection to others whom you respect and trust? Are you finding any joy amidst all this madness? Are you protecting your mental and physical health, or has that been one price of how you’ve tried to manage?
All meaningful change begins with Contemplation, so give that it’s due. Then, if you decide to seek out different coping tools you’ll be readier to use them intentionally, creatively and effectively.
Here is an excellent CNN Health article which I’m reprinting, because it deals very thoroughly with the potential impact of the Coronavirus pandemic on our mental health. The writer discusses several tools we can all use to offset some of the negative effects of living in lockdown, “hiding from death,” as I think of it.
CNN Health: by Sandee LaMotte
Enforced lockdowns. Isolation from friends and loved ones. Loss of job, income, economic stability.
Grief and loss on so many levels — from missing milestones such as birthdays and graduations to severe illness and death.
Difficult times made worse by the fear of an invisible, deadly enemy who strikes via the very air we breathe.
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Such is the anxiety-ridden reality of living in the age of coronavirus for many people around the world. While some of us may be coping well right now, experts worry our emotional resilience will begin to fray as the threat of Covid-19 drags on.
“We’re living constantly with a level of fear, a heightened state of arousal, much like Vietnam vets and Iraqi vets live with every day,” said trauma counselor Jane Webber, a professor of counselor education at Kean University in New Jersey.
“And our sympathetic nervous system can only stay in that overwhelmed, almost frenetic state for so long before we crash,” said Webber, who counseled survivors and families during 9/11’s tragic aftermath.
“I call it ‘chronic threat response’ — the continued state of being in a hyper-aroused survival mode,” said trauma psychologist Shauna Springer, who has spent a decade working with military veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, also known as PTSD.
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“Chronic threat response is an escalation of many of the same symptoms associated with post-traumatic stress — sleep problems, floods of anxiety, irritability, difficulties concentrating and a hair-trigger startle response,” Springer said.
What are some of the signs that our coping skills are becoming threadbare and our anxieties may turn dark and more dangerous?
1. Poor sleep
“When nightmares become a regular thing and our sleep quality is consistently bad, that is often the first sign that we may need to take action to improve our mental health,” said Springer, author of a new book called “Warrior: How to Support Those Who Protect Us.”
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Poor sleep is a double-edged sword: Not only does anxiety create poor sleep, a lack of quality sleep can lead to anxiety, stress and depression, a sort of circular impact. The good news is that exercise and practicing good sleep hygiene can often help get us back on track.
2. A focus on bad news
As we shelter in place, a focus on watching alarming media reports on the growth of the virus and the devastation to the economy is another warning flag, according to Springer.
“If we are spending our days soaking in this general anxiety and dread about what may happen, in a sort of foxhole waiting for bad news, that’s another sign that things are getting into a more clinical range,” she said.
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“And there’s the guilt of taking our feelings out on loved ones, which is likely to happen when you’re in close quarters with people for a long time and you haven’t adjusted to that.”
3. Loss of interest and pleasure
An even more serious sign, Springer said, is when we lose the taste for connection to others and stop reaching out to friends and family.
“When we can’t find pleasure in anything and we begin to feel numb rather than connecting with others and doing things we value or want to do with our lives, that’s a sign that we may need help and support, she said.
4. Helplessness or crippling anxiety
If the current threat of Covid-19 has reawakened feelings of helplessness, such as in the face of violence at home, or from a loss of identity and purpose after being fired or furloughed from a job, that can also be a key sign of risk, experts said.
“An overwhelming feeling of helplessness is what often leads to trauma symptoms,” Springer said. “Those of us who’ve been let go from a job can feel as if we’ve lost our identity, due to the absence of the roles and relationships that give our lives meaning, and therefore we feel helpless. We can be at risk.”
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Helplessness can turn to a dark and crippling anxiety, which is another sign that we need help.
“Crippling anxiety is where you feel constantly flooded with feelings of panic and this nameless dread about what may unfold,” Springer said. “You don’t have a sense of a hopeful future. Anxiety creates tunnel vision and it really puts us in a state of fight or flight.
“And when we are in that survival mode for a prolonged period of time, that’s when anxiety goes into a darker phase and it really warrants clinical support,” she said.
5. Thoughts of suicide
Being so hopeless and anxious that we begin to think of ending our life is, of course, a sign that immediate professional help is needed, experts said.
“Military veterans say this is when ‘whispers of our demons’ begin to take over,” Springer said. “When we start to script out a story in our heads of how others won’t miss us or that we’re a burden to those that we love, that is a critical sign that we need to get help immediately.”
What to do to help yourself
Reach out and connect, just not physically. The first thing to do is stay socially connected with friends and loved ones even though you’re physically apart. Technology is a great way for many of us to do that, but some in the family, such as grandparents, may be as adept at using Facebook, Facetime and Zoom, for example.
“Instead of just relying on social media, we can make a list of the 10 or 20 people that we care the most about and put them in our phone on a rotating basis,” Springer said. “We’re going to call one of those people every day.”
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Next, Springer suggested adding more people from our outer ring of friends and associates that we may not be as close to and put those people into that daily call rotation. That’s especially critical if you think those people may be especially isolated right now.
“Reaching out and connecting with people, especially those who are especially isolated, and giving them space to talk about their experience and anxiety during this unprecedented time of anxiety and then sharing our own experience is how we will get through this,” she said. “When we connect, we survive.”
Breathe deeply. In therapy sessions, Webber said, “the thing we teach most is deep breathing. It’s free, it doesn’t cost anything and it really works.”
Here’s how to do it properly, she says: Breathe through the nose, hold it and then exhale very slowly out through your mouth like you’re breathing through a straw.
“And when you breathe slowly out, you improve your whole picture of life and you reduce your nervousness,” Webber said.
Practice gratitude. Science has shown that people who practice gratitude are happier and more optimistic — and you can easily teach yourself how to do it.
“One thing I recommend to everyone in scary times is to write two or three things each day of what you’re grateful for. It shifts your view of the world,” Webber said.
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“I’m grateful for my daughter because she is home with me right now. I’m grateful for my son, the nurse. I’m grateful for my other son who has figured out every possible way of getting food online that there is in the entire county,” she added with a chuckle.
Take control of your mental state. Fight back against anxiety turning darker, experts suggested, by taking control of how you think.
“One of the ways to do that is to take out a sheet of paper, put a line down the middle and on one side write down the things we can’t control right now, and on the other write what we can control,” Springer said. “And then we form a plan of action that allows us to move on those things that we can control.’
This stops us from “soaking in that feeling of helplessness or if you will just be sitting in our foxhole and waiting for more bad news to come,” she said. “We’re actually moving on things that we want to be doing with our lives, even if there are some very challenging circumstances right now.”
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For some people that may not feel possible, especially if they lost a job or were furloughed when the economy came to a screeching halt.
“Losing a job is a seismic stressor, one of the most stressful things that can happen to you,” Springer said. “But you can sit and ponder on your negative situation or you can use the time to learn something new or deepen yourself or gain some skills.”
She points to the many high quality, inexpensive or free training programs on the internet today that can add skills to your profession or even help you transition to something new.
“So people can use this time to build skills and become smarter and stronger and more prepared for when the workforce really kicks back in and full force,” Springer said.
Establish a schedule. Our days and nights are blending together, and many people find themselves working more hours, or if they can’t work, fretting about finances. One way to fight back to is establish a schedule that separates work or job search from family and play time, especially exercise, which is critical for boosting our mental mood. Meditation or mindfulness are also excellent options to schedule into our day, experts said.
“We have to create routines in order to get through this absolutely surrealistic world right now,” Webber said. “Focus on the little things, such as making a lunch in a special way, knitting, crocheting, meditation, mindfulness, yoga or walking or running to do something physical to help us reach a more calm mental state.”
Be careful with media, especially social media. Be sure to limit the amount of time you spend watching the news, especially if you feel it makes you anxious, experts said. That can also apply to social media, said Arthur Evans, the CEO of the American Psychological Association, in a recent interview for the Washington Journal section of CSPAN.
“There is a lot of misinformation on social media,” Evans said. “When you couple that with a lot of contradictory information, it creates more anxiety for people.”
For example, he said, social media is filled with conspiracy theories and other wrong information that “is contradicting what we are hearing from professionals who really know and understand these issues … so limiting the information to reliable sources, sources you can trust, goes a long way in helping manage that stress.”
Crack a smile. It’s long been said that “laughter is the best medicine,” and that applies to the anxiety of our times, experts said.
“Remember, you can’t be anxious and smile at the same time. That’s a physiological thing,” Webber said.
So watch funny movies, listen to comedy routines, ask everyone you talk to on the phone to tell you a joke. Give back to them by doing the same.
Stay optimistic. There are so many unknowns when it comes to this new disease that is terrorizing the world. Will it ease over the warmer summer months? Get better or worse as the world begins to open back up? Even worse, will it return with a vengeance in the fall and winter?
Don’t let those unknowns shake you or take away your optimism, Webber said.
“I consider optimism both healthy and an Achilles heel, because of course, being too optimistic might let you down,” she said. “But if I had the choice, optimism is always better than pessimism. And optimism is always better than realism. If we have hope that the best will come, we might be disappointed, but that hope, I always believe, will get to the person that you love.”
Most everyone in the world, for some time now, has been experiencing the anxiety, losses, uncertainty, and constraints of social distancing related to Coronavirus. We know we’re living in an apocalyptic scenario, we hear all the gory details on the news and from each other every day. The people who seem to be surviving best in this new “normal” are the hard-core introverts, and even they are weirded out. I am not a cryer, but have done my share in the last few weeks, so I get the trauma in all this.
However, there are also some pretty bizarre and funny things going on which I think it would be therapeutic to notice and share. We’ve gotta find some humor amidst this crisis, so I will be doing my part here to spread the word about what’s laughable and inspiring in our current reality.
“Big Night Out – Suicidal Grocery Shopping at BJ’s”
After a few weeks of this self quarantining my husband and I noticed a serious lack of freezer paper, cheese and Half and Half. We could deal with staying at home 24/7, being online 24/7 for all work and social contacts, the losses, the ongoing experience of Russian Roulette about who would die next, but no freezer paper? No cheese? No Half and Half for the gallons of coffee we’ve been drinking? No way! Besides, it was Friday night, and time to go out!
I’d heard from a few clients who are high up on the medical chain that yes, we should be wearing face masks to protect each other, but my idea to strap a huge towel around my head wasn’t so great – too much possible absorption of respiratory droplets for me while being socially altruistic. They both were adamant that glass or plastic face shields are what docs use in certain surgeries and risky situations. And yes, a motorcycle helmet would be fine. So, here I am above, following medical wisdom, preparing for our Friday night foray to get “desperately needed” supplies at BJ’s Wholesale Club.
Imagine Darth Vader walking around in front of you in a store. It was the perfect setup for social distancing! People around me probably thought I was either a psycho or someone about to rob the place, so nobody came near, even the customer service people who ordinarily assist when you’re useless at the Self Check Out line, as I generally am. It didn’t help that I was also wearing a giant scarf to seal the bottom opening of the helmet, so my hair was plastered down with sweat and the plastic shield was all fogged up from the heat condensation. Then at BJ’s you have to look for half boxes to pack your groceries in – uh oh, cardboard! More Coronavirus droplets about to pounce! My solution was to get this Big Night Out over and done with at top speed so my immune- compromised husband who was waiting in the car, wouldn’t worry that I’d succumbed to evil Covid-19. Of course it was pouring outside, and he’d parked right in front of the store, way too close to other people who were loading up their cars. He was less than 6 feet away from them, ready to help me! Of course I starting shrieking warnings at him from inside my Darth Vader getup, now soaked from the rain as well, so those people also backed off. (Handy)……….
I think the “insanity posture” may be very effective for our Covid-19 existence. It certainly worked when I lived in Manhattan, would be coming home from work on the deserted subway late at night, and approached by some menacing creep. I’ve never carried any weapon except the ability to appear totally crazy, loudly shouting out psychotic rants, which I’d witnessed at Bronx State Hospital where I’d worked on the ward with folks who were in a different state of reality. Nobody wants to screw with an insane person, so in my later middle-of-the-night homeward bound subway rides I never got mugged or attacked. Shady characters would always back off. It was my perfect New York defense. If you’re not too self conscious I’d highly recommend it when clueless people get within 6 feet of you nowadays, especially the friendly ones.
The good news is that we had our Big Night Out and now have lots of freezer paper, cheese and Half and Half. Hallelujah!