This holiday season will be unlike any other we have known. The last time we experienced a pandemic like this was 100 years ago. It helps to remember that life did get back to normal, and a new normal will return again, in time. The reality of this moment though is sobering. We are all living through a “liminal space”, where life as we knew it no longer exists and what comes next is uncertain. The reality of this moment is that we are going through a collective grief and loss period. People close to us and many we will never know, have lost their lives or their loved ones. Many have lost wealth, jobs and financial security. Many businesses are struggling, and some have gone out of business.
While everyone reacts differently to grief and loss, research shows that 3 things help people recover: the passage of time, social support and healthy habits. Once again, the pandemic complicates things, but we can meet the challenge of our time with creativity, flexibility and remembering our common humanity.
Because of necessary restrictions, social support has to look differently than it has in the past. We live in an age of technology where virtual connection is possible; phone, video, text and social media (though this has a dark side as well). When we do meet face-to face we need to keep a distance, sanitize and wear a mask. Here are some basic strategies for coping:
Talk about your feelings with trusted others. This helps break the cycle of avoidance and begins to enlist your social support network.
Reach out and help others and accept help from others. This can help you “get outside of yourself” and bring meaning and happiness to yourself. Volunteer somewhere. Visit (even virtually) someone who is lonely. And allow others to reach out and help you as well. If you need help from a food bank or other resources, reach out.
Avoid isolation. This is crucial, and where it gets tricky because we are required to quarantine and self-isolate. We may need to be physically separate, but emotionally and psychologically we can purposefully reach out and connect. Do so on a meaningful level; this is where social media often falls short, so use other ways.
Foster good intentions for others. Smile at your neighbor and people you see in public, even if all they can see are your eyes. The feeling and energy will come through and will be positive for both of you. It also reminds you of our common humanity, that we are all going through this together.
Accept your feelings but don’t get stuck in them. It is normal to experience sadness, anger and exhaustion. If you feel stuck or overwhelmed, it may be time to reach out to a mental health professional to help you cope and get back on track.
Take care of yourself and your family. Eat healthy, exercise and get good sleep. This is especially challenging now, and all the more important. Practice self-care and check in with your loved ones. If you are struggling with your physical and emotional health, talk to your doctor and reach out to a mental health professional.
Celebrate when you can. For many people the holidays already bring up difficult feelings and going through the pandemic makes it even more complicated. And it’s important to celebrate anyway. We will do it in ways that look different and non-traditional. When you can safely bring in tradition, do that as much as possible. It creates a sense of stability and continuity in uncertain times. If you have lost a loved one, remember and celebrate their lives in some meaningful way. When you can’t gather physically, gather virtually. You might even think of it as an act of rebellion against the darkness of the pandemic. This will sound counter-intuitive to many, I know. You might be asking, “What do I have to celebrate?” Sometimes celebration can simply mean finding some small thing to be grateful for.
Take in the Good. The human brain has a “negativity bias”. Bad experiences stick like Velcro in our brains and for positive experiences, our brains are more like Teflon, they slip in and slip out. There is a simple practice you can start that can help resource yourself with positivity called “Taking in the Good”. Right now, if you were to take a moment and recall some positive experience that happened in your past, you might be able to relive the sights, sounds, feelings, and experience it as if it were happening now. That is because in the moment it was happening, you savored that moment. You spent time drinking it in, you may have even thought, “I never want to forget this moment”. You can do the same thing now. Find some positive experience, even if it is a tiny one, and close your eyes, drink it in and allow yourself to feel those positive feelings. Don’t just think about it but feel it. When you do this for as little as 60-90 seconds, that experience begins to transfer from your short-term memory to long-term memory. This begins to build up your “positivity bank account”, so the next time something negative happens you aren’t so affected by it. The more you do this, the better it works.
Think about it; people who lived through the Great Depression and even World War II still recall positive experiences that happened during those dark times. More often than not, those positive memories are about the collective experience of caring for one another, shared sacrifice, working towards shared values and goals and remembering the essentials of life, the things that are most important. This is why those people have been called “The Greatest Generation”. Look at what they accomplished, working together. Unfortunately, many in our culture have lost that sense of shared sacrifice and working for the greater good, instead only seeing their smaller self-interest. This may be the greatest challenge to our culture and to our survival.
Develop a Gratitude Practice. Start a journal and get your thoughts out of your head and onto paper. Recall the simple things you have to feel grateful for. Or as you’re falling asleep, recall 2 or 3 things you have to feel grateful for that day, even small things like a nice meal or conversation or a feeling of connection that happened that day. Allow yourself to feel it. As you begin to fall asleep your brain waves will “marinate in gratitude” for the next few hours. This can affect the nature of your dreams and your mood when you wake up.
Reach Out When You're Ready.
Address Anxiety and Depression.
When a person grows anxious and afraid the limbic center or emotional center of the brain is activated and the part of the brain that helps make reasoned decisions is literally offline. The brain starts to trick the body into going into Fight-Flight-Freeze mode. If this goes on long enough, it can turn to chronic toxic stress or even panic attacks.
To counteract this, do 2 things: Slow and deepen your breath and change the way you relate to your thoughts. While you are taking long, slow deep breaths ask yourself, “is the story my mind just made up really true”? Many people “catastrophize”, meaning their brain spins worst-case scenarios. It’s a mind trap called a cognitive distortion. Problem is, the more your unchallenged thoughts take over, your biology follows. That kind of stress leads to irrational and sometimes dangerous decisions and damages the body and immune system.
Develop a Mindfulness practice. This is one of the best ways to counter anxiety, stress and a multitude of physical and emotional problems long-term. Mindfulness is a state of awareness you can cultivate that helps you pay attention in the present moment on purpose without getting caught up into thoughts and feelings. It allows you to be present and experience your thoughts and feelings from a distance. That makes them feel less personal and allows you to not identify with them so much. I teach various forms of mindfulness to many of my clients and it often has a profound effect psychologically, physically and emotionally. You can also find some great resources on mindfulness online. Two of my favorite mindfulness teachers are Jack Kornfield and Tara Brach.
Other simple ways to practice Self-Care:
Put out a birdfeeder out and birdwatch. As the days grow colder and longer, this can help you connect with nature in a small but meaningful way. You join the Circle of Life and start to notice how nature survives and continues on, no matter what is happening. It can bring joy, gratitude and beauty to your life.
Use aromatherapy. This can create a soothing effect on your brain and emotions. Essential oils, scented candles and wax melts are simple, affordable and can make a real difference. In particular, lavender, frankincense, chamomile, bergamot and geranium have very relaxing effects on the mind and body.
Engage your critical thinking. There is a lot of dis- and mis-information out there. Get your information from trusted and fact-checked sources and be aware of your own confirmation bias. Don’t just seek out information that confirms what you already believe. That is how polarization happens, how people end up believing things that are not true and end up “down the rabbit hole” of conspiracy theories. Be aware that social media corporations exploit this for financial benefit. Watch the acclaimed and award-winning documentary The Social Dilemma to understand how they manipulate our psychology.
Begin to practice Yoga, Qi Gong or another practice that engages mind and body. There are some great resources you can access to begin a practice right from home; online courses, videos and community resources for connecting with others with similar interests.
Keep it Simple: Wear a mask, sanitize and practice physical distancing. We are all going through this together, not “in the same boat” unfortunately, but in many different boats. That is why it is all the more important to care for ourselves and each other at the same time. That way more of us will be here to celebrate when this crisis is behind us. Here’s to that time!
Feel free to reach out to me if you have any questions or if I can help you with resources in anyway.