“When we hit that wall, sometimes courage looks like scaling it and breaking through it. AND sometimes courage is building a fort against the wall and taking a nap. Hard days are real, because this is hard. Stay awkward, kind and brave enough to feel.” ~ Brene Brown
Every one of us has been shook to the core by this worldwide, coronavirus pandemic. The way we work and live has been dramatically altered. We’ve had to adjust our lives to an entirely new reality in an incredibly short amount of time.
As frightening as the virus itself is, we’re also in the midst of paralyzing uncertainty. The plans we had, completely upended. And there’s no way to know how long this is going to last, what things will look like on the other side, whenever ‘the other side’ is. How do we reliably make plans for the future?
It’s no wonder emotions can get overwhelming. It can take courage just to get through a day. I have yet to talk with one person, either in my professional or personal life, who isn’t contending with some combination of anxiety, sadness, anger, fear, even panic. We’re experiencing a collective trauma that’s very real. It can be hard to focus, hard to sleep, patience runs low, we’re irritable, we’re exhausted while doing less, or in trying to do more. Our brains are overloaded in ways we may not even be aware of because we can’t see it. I think of that mind blown emoji often!
It’s tempting to minimize the very powerful impact this pandemic is having on us. We might expect ourselves to be able to cope better, get over it and be more productive. It’s important in the midst of this crisis, to acknowledge how hard it really is.
I’ve studied several experts in recent weeks, professionals I look up to and learn from, to help myself, as well as best be able to help others. Here are a few suggestions that most resonate with me for getting through this difficult time.
First, I think we need to reconsider the meaning of our stress and anxiety. The presence of stress means something meaningful is at stake. Our body naturally responds with a fight, flight or freeze type reaction, readying us to take action in some way. When we interpret this stress response as something that shouldn’t be happening, that needs to be shut down, we’re actually fighting against ourselves in this circumstance. I notice, and can speak from personal experience, that under stress, people are then inherently hard on themselves. We tend to beat ourselves up, channel our inner drill sergeant if you will, to try and get back on track.
When, however, we interpret these same responses as natural and healthy, as signals that our body is trying to tell us something, we are manually engaging a very different part of the brain that creates a less reactive, more flexible, open state of presence. In other words, the fear, anxiety, panic emotions are upon us. They’re happening, it’s not our fault, it just is. But we can consider that these feelings are here to help us. We can consciously choose to respond with support and self care, rather than self criticism. Maybe we decide to take a nap, to go for a walk, or just pause and breathe.
This is a call to nurture self compassion. The research is clear, when we first accept ourselves for who we are, how we’re feeling and where we’re at, with compassion and kindness, our motivation, self confidence and persistence actually increase.
We can embrace becoming a compassionate mess (thanks Dr. Kristin Neff), especially in such extreme circumstances – while owning our strength and resilience to bounce back. A recent definition of compassion I absolutely love is, “a melting of the heart in the face of suffering; a beautiful mixture of joy and sorrow.” Isn’t that what so many of us are experiencing? For example, joy at spending more time with our kids, at the same time they’re driving us crazy. In awe and gratitude over the doctors, nurses, and so many others saving lives, at the same time we’re heartbroken over sickness and death.
Three core elements help to grow compassion: mindfulness, kindness and shared humanity.
Mindfulness is about being in the present moment. I’ve become keenly aware that my most distressing moments are when I’m wondering and worrying about the future, foreseeing possibilities that are scary and hopeless. When I bring myself back to the here and now, I notice that today is enough. My calm increases.
My favorite website, mindful.org is full of informative articles and practical exercises to build up mindfulness muscles. It’s useful to nurture practices that help us focus on one day, sometimes one moment, at a time.
I also recommend downloading a mindfulness/meditation app, such as Calm or Headspace. One mindfulness practice daily is shown over time to improve integration and emotional regulation in the brain. This means more calm and emotional health!
Kindness toward ourselves and others is so beneficial. Understand how hard things are right now, remember the trauma we’re all experiencing, and give yourself grace. Give those around you grace. Be extra nice to the cashier, send a fun text to your neighbor, all that good stuff. In fact, if you can only do one thing, I suggest being kinder to yourself. Life is hard enough, especially now. There’s no reason to add to the weight.
Shared humanity recognizes that we’re all struggling. Not equally. Not all the same. Many people have a harder fight. But we’re all human beings facing very real losses. Let’s ask, how can we help each other? We can acknowledge others’ struggles, while also validating our own. I adore loving kindness meditations for this very reason. We can send love out into the world, while feeling that love inside ourselves too.
We will get through this crisis, by cooperating together, even as we stay physically apart. By caring about one another, encouraging one another, while also sharing that same compassion and support with ourselves. Building up our resilience in the face of difficulty, as we weather this storm.
“Being fully human is not about feeling happy, it’s about feeling everything.” ~ Glennon Doyle
Jennifer Gallagher, MA, LLP
Limited License Psychologist