29 Apr

Well here we are. Still. For many of us, this is the middle of week 6 or 7 of social distancing. Life as we once knew it is becoming a distant memory, and we are wondering when things will return to any semblance of normal. Or if they ever will. Some people may be settling into their new routines; humans are highly skilled at adapting, even to the most extreme circumstances.

I wanted to write a little bit about coping during this pandemic, and for those who are struggling to find a sustainable rhythm (many of us!), to acknowledge that these are not normal times, and it is okay and reasonable if you are feeling everything from grief to anger to complete overwhelm (is this a word? It is now.) 

Bessel van der Kolk, a renowned Dutch psychiatrist who specializes in trauma, has discussed how the COVID-19 pandemic meets the preconditions for trauma, and there will surely be people who come out of this experience traumatized by it. These conditions include:

1.) Lack of predictability (When will this end, how long will my kids' school be closed, will I be taking my summer vacations?)

2.) Loss of a sense of time, space, and sequence (What day is it? Every day has a monotony about it, and the days tend to blur together.)

3.) Loss of a sense of purpose (Especially for those who can no longer work, go to school, or are missing other meaning-making activities.)

4.) Loss of a sense of safety (This is an insidious illness that is infecting many. Very few places and people feel safe to us anymore.)

5.) Loss of connection (Most social opportunities have been canceled. We are distancing from friends and family we are used to seeing regularly. Our villages have been disrupted.)

6.) Immobility (Some people may not be as active, we are quarantined in one or only a few spaces, we may have a sense of feeling "trapped.")

So what can we do? While there have been silver linings to this situation, and a unique chance to reconnect with life's simpler pleasures, many of us are needing to adjust in some significant ways. Research shows that if we can accept the things we cannot control, and stop fighting their reality, we adapt much more effectively and resiliently. We are freed up to figure out how to cope, because we are not putting our energy into "wishing away" an unchangeable situation. 

If you are struggling with acceptance, here are some other ways to address the above conditions:

1.) Create a schedule. Put things in your calendar you can look forward to. Give each day a theme. Create predictability in your routine. Go to bed and wake up at the same time each day. Eat meals at designated times. Create clear "stops" and "starts" to your activities.

2.) Practice paying attention to the subtle changes each moment brings. See if you can sense how the environment is always in a state of flux, as are your inner experiences. Try tuning into sensations that come and go. Even the breath is in a constant flow of change. You inhale, you exhale. Air comes in, then it leaves your body, transformed. Nothing stays the same.

3.) Set 2-3 goals for yourself. Make them specific and small. Give yourself a timeline for completing them. Tell other people about them. Try not to entertain self-judgments. Start a new project. Join a virtual book club. Take advantage of the myriad free resources on the internet now: museum tours, academic courses, yoga classes. Be intentional about your activities, and connect the things you do to the reasons why they matter to you.

4.) Create safety in your immediate environment. Engage in self-soothing (take a warm bath, curl up in a blanket, snuggle your pet, brush your hair, drink a mug of tea, listen to your favorite music, look at pictures of friends and family). Remind yourself regularly of your safety and of what you control. Spend time in nature. Hug the people with whom you are distancing. Take slow, full breaths. Roll your shoulders back and relax your body. Carve out opportunities for your own privacy and space when you can.

5.) Connect with others in new and creative ways. Schedule game nights via Zoom. Create a daily ritual of calling someone you love. Write letters. Send cards. Play games and music and cook with the people at home, or try a new recipe virtually with a friend. Meditate on the idea that we are all sharing this experience together. We are doing all of this in a massive act of compassionate solidarity.

6.) Move your body. Notice at the deepest, most cellular level, how natural and even joyful it feels to move. Find the way that your body loves to move. Dance to your favorite song. Do Yoga. Re-arrange furniture. Stretch. Go for a walk.

Lastly, notice the habits you might be falling into that don’t serve you in the long-term. You might be disconnecting, numbing, or avoiding in other ways in order to cope with all of this. Have compassion for yourself, because in times of stress, we often default into the familiar, "easy," sometimes harmful habits associated with "checking out" or immediate reward. Remind yourself of what's important to you, and do the next best thing.

And remember, as with everything else in life, this too shall pass.

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