We are living through a collective trauma. All of us. And there is no right or wrong way to cope. Some are apt to feel anxious, while others may suffer depression. Some will feel numb from having too much to process. Others will fight to regulate their nervous systems and get enough sleep, feed their families, and keep the kids entertained.
You may simply be in survival mode — and survival is a worthy goal. Every day, we are confronted with news of widespread illness and death. Even if the virus has not touched those closest to us, we are grieving our collective loss. No matter who you are, you are facing uncertainty and challenges. We are forced to confront our own mortality, along with existential questions about life’s meaning and purpose. During “normal times,” these thoughts are not always on the forefront of our minds.
Now they are, at a time when many affirming and uplifting experiences have become difficult or impossible. We are separated from friends and loved ones. Many have lost jobs, and with them a sense of purpose. Seniors in high school are missing out on their proms and graduations. We are bereft of normalcy — routines, socializing with people we care about, hugging our friends.
So if you aren’t “living your best life” right now, that’s okay. Perhaps the best you can do is to be gentle with yourself and others, and make it through the day. Yes, survival is enough. Here are a few strategies for coping, which I hope might allow you to become more aware of your feelings, deal with difficult emotions, re-frame your thinking, and help you let go of unrealistic expectations.
1. Correctly Attribute Your Emotions
We have a tendency to displace intense emotions, which can lead to feeling overly-reactive. If you’re nervous about lack of job security, but that’s scary to think about, you may unconsciously deny that negative feeling —and then find yourself yelling at a loved one over a minor irritation, like not cleaning the dishes. We are living in close quarters with our spouses / families / roommates, now around the clock, and we don’t have space (literally or figuratively) to process our emotions in our typical ways. So we risk finding ourselves in conflict, surprised by our own strong reactions.
When you feel anger, stop and ask yourself: Am I upset at my partner, my kids — or at the Coronavirus? Am I channeling emotions caused by something outside of my control, misdirecting them at something closer to home? Rather than reacting fast and lashing out, push the pause button, breathe, and ask yourself what’s truly going on inside. Be more forgiving than usual, with yourself and others. We are all feeling stressed.
2. Take Time for Self-Reflection
People are angry, fearful, and sad. If you have been on an emotional roller coaster, you are not alone. One of the hardest things about living in survival mode is that it’s not exactly conducive to quiet reflection. And being aware of your feelings is an important coping mechanism, as helpful as it is simple.
Check in with yourself. How are you feeling today? It’s natural to feel a range of different emotions right now. If you are weighed down by the world being turned upside down, that’s ok. If you try to ignore it, you won’t succeed. You’ll feel the emotion in your body no matter what. So give yourself space to really feel whatever you are feeling, without judgment, and to do what you need for your own well-being. Again, be gentle with yourself.
3. Cultivate Calm. Utilize Your Spiritual or Mindful Practices
Often humans are troubled by irrational or imagined fears — but this current collective anxiety is in response to a real threat. We are hard-wired with concern for the safety of ourselves and our loved ones. So we are likely to feel fear, which can manifest in different ways. Maybe you are compulsive about reading news updates, obsessed about your finances, your job, or cleaning your house. (Kitchens can feel like a 24-hour diner these days!) Fixating on something nearby and tangible is a natural response, even to a global crisis, but hyperfocus isn’t a solution. It only provides an illusion of control, and can distract us from how we are feeling deep down.
As can social media posts encouraging people to take advantage of this “opportunity” to be more productive, learn a new skill, or start a business. Not only is it wrong to shame people into being productive, but it lacks empathy and sensitivity for many people who are seized with fear, trauma, and uncertainty.
Rather, we must try to find calm, to practice patience and compassion, for ourselves and others. Reading for pleasure, cooking, online art or music, walking outside, rainy day naps — However you can stay present and enjoy the sweet, simple pleasures in life, it will help you cultivate equanimity. And of course the practices of meditation, yoga, and breathing exercises are available and affordable. There are many mobile apps for mindfulness. I like Insight Timer, which has guided meditations, music, and talks. An essential part of mindfulness is acceptance. If we accept life as it is, balanced with hope for a better tomorrow, we can find peace.
4. Focus on the Things You Can Control, Rather Than Things You Can’t
Like it or not, the list of things we cannot control is long. It includes: what others are feeling; the actions of others; how others respond to stress; and of course, the future.
What you can control: Your ability to self-soothe, self-care, whether or not you take things personally, helping others, slowing down, maintaining a positive outlook.
The Coronavirus outbreak raises uncertainty about our lives. When will life will return to normal? Is anyone close to me going to contract the virus? Will I contract the virus? Being human means we want to have control, but it remains unclear when testing and vaccination will become widely available. Anxiety levels peak when we lack control over our lives. So focus on what you can do, and let go of the rest. It’s important to remember this is a temporary state. There have been other world pandemics, like the 1918 flu pandemic. Humans are resilient, we are taking the right precautions, and we can survive.
5. Stay present
Use all of your senses. What do they feel? Your coffee mug feels warm. The blanket is soft. The rain on the grass smells earthy. The sun on your face is warm and energizing. Fresh fruit still tastes sweet. You can feel the breath coming into your body. When you exhale, you feel newly at ease.
Are you focused on the present moment, or projecting into the future? When we stay present, it’s easier to feel gratitude. Perhaps you feel grateful for having the food and shelter you need, for health care workers on the front lines, risking their own lives for all of us. Have faith in (and gratitude for) the scientists who are working hard to develop the right treatment and a vaccines. If you are thinking of worse-case scenarios, make yourself imagine the best outcome possible as well. The goal is to find balance, so that negative thinking can’t dominate.
If you are present, crisis can filter out the extraneous and reveal what truly matters: family, friends, community, health and safety. We are all in this together. We all need each other. Above all else, once again, remember to be kind to yourself, and to others, as we all try to cope with this pandemic. Say ‘hello’ to neighbors from a safe distance, reach out to trusted friends, or to someone you think might be lonely or afraid. Slow down and reflect on how connected we really are.