By Jennifer Pearlman, LMHC at North Shore Child & Family Guidance Center
I keep waiting for this to end so I can tell my family and friends about this crazy, unrealistic movie I watched about the entire world shutting down over a contagious virus called COVID-19. And then I must remind myself that this is not a movie, it is the current reality of the entire world.
Everyone is now in a scramble, trying to adjust to the “new normal.” We are all being severely impacted by this pandemic in very real, serious ways. Loss of life, loss of jobs, loss of stability and security, loss of education, loss of business, loss of human contact and socialization and loss of control. That is a lot of loss.
While many people are making sure to take care of their physical needs (washing their hands, stocking up on food, social distancing, etc.), we need to take care of our emotional needs as well. We are in completely unchartered territory and, in a matter of days, we have gone into a state of complete uncertainty, fear and unpredictability. There is an understandable and palpable increase in people’s feelings of anxiety and depression.
The question is, how do we make sure to address our emotional needs during this crisis? Often, we go into “autopilot” mode and focus on taking care of everyone else’s needs, but we manage to let our own needs fall to the wayside. As therapists, we feel this need to take care of everyone else’s anxiety and panic, to help others through this crisis. We are wired to help people.
The anxiety and panic that people are experiencing is so real and so palpable. We have no idea how things will play out. Many of our clients are reaching out for help. Many parents are at a loss as to what to tell their children, or how to help their kids when their own anxiety levels are through the roof.
As therapists, it is imperative that we remember that in order to be able to take care of others, we must take care of ourselves as well. I’ve had so many fellow therapists reach out asking how they are supposed to help their clients through this crisis, when they themselves are falling apart and barely functioning. I am going to give a couple of suggestions that I have personally found extremely helpful.
1. NORMALIZE YOUR OWN ANXIETY: You are not superhuman and it is COMPLETELY NORMAL to be feeling a tremendous amount of anxiety over the change, uncertainty and fear surrounding this new pandemic. Trying to “get over it” or minimizing your anxiety is only going to make it worse. Think of what you would tell your clients. Just as you would validate your clients’ anxieties surrounding what is going on, make sure you are validating your own anxiety as well.
2. IDENTIFY TRIGGERS AND LIMIT THEM AS MUCH AS POSSIBLE: The news media and social media are two of the biggest triggers that have been raising people’s anxiety, panic and hysteria. While it is important to stay up to date and know what is going on (mandatory quarantines, shutdowns, school closures and more) it is not necessary to incessantly check every single update and every new confirmed case of the Coronavirus. When the news puts up videos of empty shelves in grocery stores, it leads people to a complete state of panic where they feel the need to rush out and stock up on inordinate amounts of food. There is a lot of misinformation out there, especially being posted on social media. If you are easily triggered by these things, please do yourself a favor and limit or take a break from it for as long as you need. There is nothing wrong with acknowledging that certain things are just not working for us. In fact, it can be extremely empowering and brave. Watching all these reports and seeing the barrage of messages posted on social media can be very detrimental to our mental health, and it is not productive.
3. SELF-CARE: I cannot stress this enough. Self-care is like oxygen during a time like this. We need it to survive. You may have to get a little bit creative in thinking about how to go about that (with everyone home and in tight quarters), but there are plenty of things to do that don’t involve going out to the spa and getting a massage. You can read for 30 minutes with a hot chocolate and your feet up on your couch; you can go run around the block for a jog; you can take a bubble bath and listen to relaxing music; you can Facetime a friend and just talk; you can watch your favorite movie…. Figure out what works for you and make sure to set aside some time to do it, daily!
4. FOCUS ON THE THINGS THAT ARE IN YOUR CONTROL: While there are many things that are completely out of our control, which has contributed to the fear a lot of us are feeling, there are still things that are very much in our control, and it is extremely helpful to put our energy and focus on that. We can control how much time we spend reading the news and going on social media; how we choose to use our time; how we take care of ourselves and our families; our perspective; and our attitude and behavior.
5. RADICAL ACCEPTANCE: ACCEPTING THE THINGS THAT WE CANNOT CHANGE. While difficult to achieve, this can be very liberating. We spend so much time and energy on things that are way beyond our control, which generally only increases our feelings of fear, anger and sadness. By fully accepting the way things are, we are not discounting our feelings around what is going on; we are simply acknowledging that it is beyond our control.
6. THERE IS NO ONE WAY TO GRIEVE: A close friend of mine suddenly and tragically lost a very close relative of hers. I remember going over there that night and, while there wasn’t much I could say other than just hug her and cry with her, I remember the one thing I told her family. There is no one way to grieve. Everyone has different responses to trauma and grief, and we need to accept where people are in the process. The same is true for what is going on now. There is no one way to handle a crisis. Everyone needs to figure out what works for them, and we need to be tolerant and accept people’s responses, even when they vary greatly from ours. Some people will need to talk about it a lot, while others prefer not to. Some will choose to self-quarantine out of precaution, others will choose not to. There is no one right way. Remember that. Don’t impose your opinions and beliefs on others, just be there to support each other through this really hard time. We are all in this together.
7. BE PREPARED, NOT PANICKED: There is a big difference between taking precautions and being prepared and being panicked. Panicked is going out and buying 12 years’ worth of toilet paper. Being prepared is having enough supplies in the house in case there is a mandatory lockdown or quarantine for 14 days. The panic and mass hysteria are what leads to people feeling the need to hoard items and food so there is a complete shortage of certain supplies, further increasing the panic and hysteria. Take precautions. Prepare but try not to panic.
8. STRUCTURE: Even if you are in quarantine, it can be extremely helpful to add structure to your day. Wake up, get dressed, take a walk outside, do an exercise video, get work done on the computer, make lunch….create a routine for yourself that works and try to stick to it as much as you possibly can.
9. SOCIAL DISTANCING DOESN’T MEAN SOCIAL ISOLATION: Just because we need to physically distance ourselves from others doesn’t mean we need to isolate. Pick up the phone and reach out to family and friends. FaceTime those who are close to you. It can be extremely lonely to be at home and not be able to go out. Make sure to reach out and find other ways to connect to people.
10. TAKE ONE DAY AT A TIME: Don’t start thinking eight months down the road and catastrophizing that your kids are never going back to school. Focus on putting one foot in front of another and taking one day at a time. You just need to get through today, and you will worry about tomorrow tomorrow. Mindfulness and meditation can be a really helpful way to train yourself to stay focused on the present moment. There are many apps available that can help you with this.
11. REACH OUT FOR HELP IF YOU NEED: There is no shame in acknowledging you need help. Almost all therapists and agencies are now offering Telehealth, so you don’t need to leave your home to get the support.
While these are extremely trying and scary times for everyone, this is going to pass. It may take some time, but we have survived pandemics in the past and we will survive this one as well. We are all in this together. Sending lots of love and support everyone’s way.