Written by Allison Allen, Psychologist and Chief Behavioral Health Officer
NorthLakes Community Clinic
No one needs to tell you – these are difficult times! We are all taking in as much information as we can. We are making changes, rolling with the punches…and experiencing a lot of feelings! Some key feelings that may be coming up for you are grief and anxiety, so let’s talk about them.
A recent article by David Kessler, author of Finding Meaning: The Sixth Stage of Grieving, does a great job of identifying the various griefs we are likely to be feeling right now. Grief over the loss of normalcy, loss of connection, and for many the loss of work and needed income. We also struggle with what he calls “anticipatory grief.” This is our imagined grief over future painful losses – the feared death of loved ones, for instance. And finally, at some level we are likely all grieving the way our basic sense of safety has been broken. Normal, everyday activities like pumping gas or picking up groceries now carry seriously threatening overtones. This is sad! And we wonder “will it ever be normal again?”
Sometimes it helps to know where we are in the landscape of our emotions. Kessler outlines the way the stages of grief may be manifesting as we grapple with Covid-19:
Denial “This virus is not going to really affect (my age group, this geographic location, etc).
Anger “You/they are taking away my freedom, my choices and my activities!”
Bargaining “OK, I socially distance, I stay home for two weeks – then we’re good, right??”
Sadness “I don’t know when/whether any of this will end”
Acceptance “This is happening. I need to figure it out and go forward with my life.”
All of these are normal, and they do not present in a nice orderly way. After various messy reactions we may finally arrive at acceptance and congratulate ourselves on our excellent coping, only to find ourselves in a temper tantrum over the latest unwanted change to our routine. Normal! To be expected! We are all doing our best, and a big part of that is offering ourselves self-compassion as we muddle through this as best we can.
So let’s also talk about anxiety.
Anxiety is all about the unknown future, so we are having it in spades right now. What we don’t know about this virus and how it will all turn out is big! And you may notice that your mind doesn’t like that, and keeps trying to compensate by imagining how it will turn out. Often in not very nice ways, and occasionally in rose-colored glasses ways. Both of these reactions are, again, very normal, but we don’t want to give too much weight to either. So what DO we want to do?
Well, when combatting anxiety, the best, most simple responses include:
Noticing whatever you are feeling and labeling those feelings. For lots of great, neuro-sciencey reasons this really helps make our feelings less overwhelming to us. Try not to judge your feelings, compare them to others’ reactions, or ignore them. This ends up keeping us stuck in them. When we just notice and allow them, they really will move on, all by themselves.
Noticing at least two or three things about the present moment. Really basic things like, what color the walls are, what the sky looks like right now, how many red things I can see as I look around, what my feet feel like, pressed against the floor. Just anything to help you lift your head out of the sea of thoughts about the future (or the past) and bring you to the present moment, which, more often than not, is a lot more peaceful and pleasant than whatever we are imagining.
Taking a few slower, deeper breaths and extending the exhales, so that they are longer than your inhales. This immediately begins to balance out your fight or flight urge by signaling to your nervous system that you are not, in this moment, under attack. This is so important; everything we read, hear on the news and discuss with our friends and family right now is about the way we are under attack, and we really need to counter this by noticing safety in the present moment.
And finally, be as kind to yourself, and others, as you possibly can be. We are all under strain right now, and will not always be at our best, so some patience and understanding is going to go a long way.
NorthLakes Community Clinic is currently offering Behavioral Health Services via several tele-options including phone and video and will resume in-person appointments when appropriate. If you need someone to talk to, please consider giving us a call at 888.834.4551.
For additional tips on breathing, please watch this series of Mindfulness videos we produced.