I see magazine and newspaper articles, social media posts and memes with long and short lists of advice for managing social distancing, working from home, distance learning with kids and our fears and anxieties about COVID-19. Most of the suggestions appear sound - but, this is the thing - we are all experiencing a collective trauma, we will all respond to it differently based on our personal experience with trauma and our own well-developed strategies for coping with stress. Some of the lists create expectations of how this “should” be done, as if there is one right way to be behaviorally and emotionally healthy in this time of fear and uncertainty.
For example, nearly every list of advice includes adding structure to your day. If structure helps you feel sane and safe, as it does for some, then by all means add structure. Put lists on your refrigerator, time block your Google calendar, make sure you know exactly what you want to be doing with your time. But, if adding structure right now makes you or your family (especially the kids!) feel more tense, trapped, or obligated to do more than you have the energy for, then dump the structure! Eat when you are hungry, sleep when you are tired, go for a walk when you feel a need to move in the fresh air or reach out to a friend via text at any time, be spontaneous and go with the flow. Structure is not a magic way to feel better.
Other lists encourage us to find ways to exercise - some even suggest that we may have time to finally get fit! Of course, it’s true that exercise releases endorphins that can make us feel better, but it is also true that the experience of stress (read - collective trauma) can cause tremendous fatigue. So, maybe you do want to hit the treadmill in the basement or go for a vigorous walk, but it is also just as valid to need a nap or a long rest in a hammock.
Humans are social creatures and wired to connect with others. So, it makes sense that many lists advise us to reach out, connect with friends and family online, keep in touch, don’t isolate! This advice might leave many with feelings of guilt because what they desperately need is some time alone. Being 24/7 in a house full of family might be full of special moments and memories that will be cherished forever and can be incredibly lonely and overwhelming at times. That extra hour you have in the evening after the kids go to bed - maybe you want to Skype with your best friend or maybe you want to sit with your own thoughts, all by yourself.
Some of the memes are more blatantly critical, suggesting that if you aren’t deep cleaning your house from top to bottom, or starting your side hustle, or writing your memoir during this stay-at-home period, then you really have never been “too busy” to get those things done, but have always been a slacker at heart. This is a seriously toxic suggestion. If you are finding that this time is highly productive for you - great! You may deal with stress by doing things and keeping yourself occupied. If this collective trauma leaves you feeling exhausted and overwhelmed, then just getting through it is enough. Your worth is not tied to what you produce, the cleanliness of your house or your level of being busy.
The lists are attractive because they give us concrete suggestions in uncertain times. Beware, however, that they also suggest that there are “correct” ways to be handling this crisis, they invalidate the experiences of some and they contribute to the idea that if we do it “right,” we won’t feel scared or anxious. The fact is that a global crisis isn’t the best time to learn new skills or develop new healthy habits. We will naturally rely on our own well-ingrained strategies for coping right now, even if they are less than ideal, they will help get us through.
My advice? Be wary of any advice for managing this crisis - including mine! Nobody knows how to do a worldwide pandemic well! When taking care of yourself and others in this crisis, keep it simple:
Tune into your body - what do you notice? what does it need?
Feel your feelings and accept them - the only way out of an emotion is through.
Practice compassion for yourself and others - everyone, including you, is doing the very best they can!
Your feelings simply are what they are.
Nothing you do, buy, read or practice can guarantee that you will feel better.
Your experience is valid and real no matter your experience.
by Jennifer Simpson-Dahl MA, LMFT
Founder and CEO of Secure Base Counseling Center LLC