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Emotions during COVID-19

The outbreak of the novel Coronavirus has a way of evoking every possible emotion. The short list includes: fear, sadness, grief, anxiety, anger, loneliness, despair, and worry.

 

While it is understandable that we should feel many of these emotions, we face a challenge trying not to miss the opportunities for gratitude, kindness, joy, love, serenity, hope, contentment, and interest in the many things still available to us.

 

Right now there is a focus on both individual and collective anxiety related to our personal and communal lives. Our lives have been turned upside down (for some of us more than others). During this pandemic, feelings that have gone unnoticed or ignored are growing within, forcing their way into the light. It is our choice whether we accept or reject them. Some of our “normal” life coping strategies such as busying ourselves as a distraction can be a way to ignore our internal life.  When we do this, we avoid discovering ways that can help us grow and become “comfortable” with the unfamiliar, the scary, the threatening.

 

Without our routines and everyday distractions, what we are facing can leave us feeling vulnerable and exposed. We wonder how we will get through this. What is essentially important to the process of “getting through” is how we perceive the crisis itself. Our attitude helps us to “frame” it. All of this certainly has the potential to be traumatic, but how we see it and process it will impact the degree to which we are traumatized.  The physical confinement we are enduring may come to mirror some inner restriction and constriction we are facing, and we could lose sight of the liberation we can enjoy emotionally. We can ask ourselves, How will I emerge from this time? How will I transform and evolve from this experience? What can I learn? What can I change that will be helpful to me? In what ways do I need to adapt? What can I control and what is out of my control?

 

These questions will arise day by day. Answering these questions becomes an evolving process.

 

I listen to people share their personal stories of grief. I am deeply touched and often saddened. I try to recognize and validate what is happening with the person.  When possible and appropriate, I offer hope along with techniques to address overwhelming fear and concern in positive and practical ways without denying their experience.

 

I think of:

The woman who could not be with her father who was alone in the hospital, as he breathed his last breath.

The nurse who uses the same mask for multiple patients and wonders if she will infect her family when she gets off her shift.

The 85 year-old-woman who lives alone and delights in the daily call from her grandson who lives 3,000 miles away.

The couple whose long time “critical” communication style keeps them from expressing their concern for each other.

The single mom who was laid off and cannot imagine how she and her children will survive.

The frail people who are now responsible for their own housekeeping in ways that threaten their wellbeing.

The wife of a man who has Alzheimer’s who worries about her husband’s care should she get sick.

The parents and children living together in ways that often overwhelm them.

 

And for so many people, living with a sense of “doom and gloom,” unable to access their inner resources because they are panicked. Everyone is, or will be affected by this virus personally and communally.

 

It can be strengthening when we quiet ourselves for a moment, breathe in, and recall a time when we struggled and prevailed. As we do this we can recall that we probably wondered how we would get through it. Now is the time to think back and recall the details of how we did. We can think of what worked and what did not work and how, today, we can do some of the same things to prevail, and we can alter what might have worked in the past but might not now. We are older, in a different place, but we can still rely on our inner resources. We may need to challenge our thinking and our view of ourselves and the world. We can begin to think of ourselves as capable in areas where we previously thought we were incapable. We can be flexible instead of fixed in our thoughts. Simply recognizing possibilities and thinking beyond our normal ranges helps to develop optimism.

 

Also, it can be helpful to recognize who are role models and discover how they got through challenges. I find myself, late at night, reading and listening to stories of people who have suffered and emerged through the most demanding times. I hear the accounts of Holocaust survivors, prisoners, and refugees. I pay close attention to them and to the experiences of survivors of childhood and other domestic abuse, natural disasters, school shootings, and war. I am in awe as I hear people recount, post the trauma, what they endured and how they live now. Their experiences contributed to who they are but did not totally define them. I listen to how their perception of their experience became part of their life and how they maintained or developed a realistic yet optimistic perspective on life. They did not give up. I am fascinated by what they do and how their experiences informed them as they live their daily lives. I focus on how they weave their own personal life fabric and how the trauma influenced who they are (and are becoming). I listen for the lessons they learned from people they both respected and loved and those they hated. These are people who do not erase their lives but who understand where and how to shine the light on different chapters so they can keep writing their own lives in the healthiest of ways. I listen to my own inner voice wondering what I would like to have done had I been in that situation and wondering what it would take to do that thing.

 

While looking at photos of my recently deceased mother, I remembered her strength. I see her driving, in 1958, when I was 10, alone with her in the car, as she cautiously navigated deserted back country roads in a dark, dense fog, unable to see ANYTHING. As she hugged the side of the road, we sang the entire score of “The King and I” until we arrived safely home. And, in 2003, at 81 years of age, we landed in Hong Kong at night and woke up to the newspaper’s banner headline announcing the arrival of SARS. Despite requests from loved ones at home beseeching us to return, we decided to take our ship’s journey anyway, committed to being as safe as possible. True to her promise, when we arrived in Vietnam the first thing we bought were face masks (not unlike the one I am wearing now) .We wore them for most of the trip, including in Singapore, where we were greeted with the outbreak of the Bird Flu.  I have countless examples of her adaptability and resilience. Upon reflection, this is interesting for me because she was a worrier. No one else in the family needed to worry because she worried for everyone. But what is so significant is that her worry did not stop her. She was smart, judicious, and careful. She ruminated in the space of “what if” and “woulda shoulda coulda” way too long, but she jumped in and then learned from her experience. Every experience was tightly woven into her “fabric.” Sometimes I look at her photos and see both the “fake” smile and the “real” smile. I see the pain and the joy, often both in the same moment.

 

Recently, I guess, as a reminder, a childhood friend sent me a YOUTUBE video of a beautiful acapella rendition of SMILE the lyrics of which are:

 

“Smile, though your heart is aching
Smile, even though it’s breaking
When there are clouds in the sky
You’ll get by

If you smile
With your fear and sorrow
Smile and maybe tomorrow
You’ll find that life is still worthwhile
If you just

Light up your face with gladness
Hide every trace of sadness
Although a tear may be ever so near
That’s the time you must keep on trying
Smile, what’s the use of crying
You’ll find that life is still worthwhile
If you just

Smile, though your heart is aching
Smile, even though it’s breaking
When there are clouds in the sky
You’ll get by

If you just smile.”

 

As a psychologist I have a conflict promoting a song whose message is “hide your true feelings.”  Yet I know that recognizing, acknowledging, and validating feelings is not the same as “staying and getting sucked into those feelings without the ability to move through them.”  Being able to recognize what is going on around us and being present in the pain, allows us to also make room for discovering the opportunities for gratitude, appreciation, joy, and even laughter. It is laughter that can help to maintain our sanity and has a positive influence on healing.  When I click on a ridiculous posting reminding me that it is time to change from my day pajamas to my night pajamas, I howl with laughter. I have the same reaction when I see a cartoon with a dog on top of a high cupboard refusing to come down to be walked YET AGAIN. While my heart is still breaking about the effects of Covid 19, there is a moment of relief that feels so good. These, along with being in nature, meditating, connecting with friends looking at photos of beautiful places and moments with loved ones, are just some of the ways I refill my emotional reservoir.

 

I am concerned that our society will not benefit from the opportunity to learn the numerous lessons from this moment in time. In response to the question of whether something as awful as genocide could happen again, survivors reply, “Yes, definitely.” People did not learn from the horrors.  I look forward to a time when each of us will refuse to go back to what was “normal but unhealthy” for us as individuals, as a community, and a society. Yes, we will rush to hug each other and resume activities that we missed. But the GOOD STUFF that happened while we were shuttered in needs to be preserved so the personal and societal growth after this experience can happen. Otherwise, what will have been the point of this suffering (aside from the fact that we all realize that we need to wash our hands a lot more than we usually do)?

 

I hope that consciously and intentionally, we will want to work together to create a “new normal” (a phrase I have used since first working with parents of kids who have disabilities 50 years ago), where we care about each other, where we know we are all the same, where we recognize how much we need to be helping and being kind to each other. Our survival as a society depends on our cultivation of ways to express and share gentleness, patience, and empathy. These CAN become our automatic responses to our own and someone else’s pain. We have work to do but we can get there. We can be learning from those who have gone through Hell and emerged whole, with love and kindness for themselves and others.

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