Living through COVID - why is everything so hard?
COVID-19 is ushering in an unprecedented time of resiliency, adaptation, creativity, and new struggles and challenges. In times like these, we need to understand the factors at play, our vulnerabilities, and some strategies for coming through.
We all entered the pandemic in various stages: single/partnered, employed/unemployed, financially stable/struggling, citizen/non-citizen, and beyond. For many, the changes forced by COVID have caused major disruptions in job, location, and family structure. Others are enduring pressures and changes on a smaller, but still significant scale. If we entered into this experience in a state of privilege (based on economic class, income, race, ability, ethnicity, gender, nationality, citizenship, etc.) we are learning what it is like for many others who live in fear and uncertainty on a daily basis. For those who were personally struggling with the side effects of oppression before the pandemic hit, this time has requested a level of resilience that is unjust and difficult to summon.
Adapting to COVID-19 has required sweeping changes and collective, sustained action. We have been asked to give up what we knew to be normal, go without modalities of resilience and care, and endure the disorganized and harmful way our nation has dealt with this threat (something familiar to many experiencing multiple crossroads of oppression on daily basis). This is also the most significant generational event that many have collectively gone through. The following are offerings of observation and language to give expression to commonly felt experiences:
Collective grief is present.
With the loss of "normal" and adapting to "new normal," many things have been lost and no one has clarity on when they will return. These include touch, being in close proximity to certain loved ones, a sense of safety in personal sanctuary spaces and groups, community experiences, casual relationships (think your barista, parents at your children's school), and more. It includes the loss of designated spaces for different activities and firm boundaries between roles. The grief includes witnessing the casual or cavalier attitude of many who do not see the collective harm of ignoring safety measures. We are losing our illusion that this would only be a short and temporary adaptation. Many are losing jobs or family members, relationships, and a sense of community. For folks enduring systemic oppression, these losses are magnified, compounded, and devastating. Thoughts for coping:
Make space for expression of grief individually or collectively - this could look like movement to certain sounds or music, crying with a friend or alone, journaling, or talking with someone in your support system.
Know that grief is complex and comes in waves and make space for it. For those in black and brown bodies experiencing recent events and pandemic at the same time will have an exponential component
Connect with any ritual or spiritual practice that helps you to ground and find faith and hope in difficult times
Uncertainty is high.
One of the biggest challenges is that we do not know when restrictions will end and previous activities and lifestyles can return. Prolonged uncertainty, a lack of sense of safety, and difficulty getting needs met is a recipe for traumatic stress. For the privileged among us, it can be an opportunity to observe that many people throughout the nation and world are forced to live in circumstances that ensure traumatic stress even before the pandemic. Perhaps this observation will lead to stronger advocacy for a just world. When uncertainty is high, it becomes imperative to engage in soothing, grounding, and presence. Some ways to support yourself are:
Attune your attention to things that remain certain and grounded (the ground beneath you, the structure of your home, your predictable surroundings)
Reconnect to mindfulness, grounding and present-moment practices
Revisit the work of anyone who inspires you when it comes to resilience and hope in the face of difficulty
Involve yourself in advocacy for change that you desire to see or share resources
Adaptation feels/is constant.
Constant change requires constant adaptation. The demand for adaptation and resilience is increased or soothed by the social structures we live in. So, while some of us are facing adaptations like being home with family all day, others have added layers of job loss, difficulty securing financial stability, and increased racism. The number of people we can safely socialize with has significantly decreased and you may not be with folks who wouldn't have been your first choice for this. As Esther Perel observed, our roles are all now happening in the same place and it has a great impact on us.
Adaptation in this circumstance may include: securing safety, changing housing, household roles changing, income fluctuating, moving away from or back to hometowns, modality of work changing, family structure, breadwinner roles, and adaptation to increased awareness of vulnerability and mortality. If you recently secured emotional and financial stability and have been greatly impacted by systemic oppression, this change can feel incredibly threatening to your well-being. If you are struggling now, but never have before, the newness of insecurity can feel daunting and scary. While adaptation is a strength we can bring to these times, it can be exhausting and overwhelming and unfairly demanded in the absence of socially just social structures. Advice for coping with high levels of adaptation:
Celebrate your adaptations and accomplishments
Create daily rituals and structure that stay the same no matter what (this can be using the same workout channel, reading from 9-9:30, a set sleep routine, a shower sequence every morning)
Get support from resources and people around you
Anger and frustration are going to happen.
A common outcome of restriction is frustration. There is a strong and unmet desire to do everything we used to do in the way we did with the people we did it with. Additionally, future events and excitements have been put on hold, meaning it is a creative endeavor to experience excitement and hope. With anxieties and frustrations running high, we can become frustrated with the way other people in our lives are behaving with us. In our increased stress, we can find ourselves behaving with people in ways we do not normally do. How can we find healthy outlets for our normal frustration in these challenging and restricting times? Here are some ideas:
Vent to a willing listener about everything that is pissing you off
Physical movement to move through stress and frustration
Allow space for your feelings - you don't have to feel good and positive all the time
Do NOT: take your feelings out on your partner, family, or anyone else. It's okay to be angry, but not okay to be mean or cruel just because you're angry.
Modes of connection have fundamentally changed.
One of the biggest stressors of this experience is the fundamental change in modes of connection. Until it is safe to meet in large numbers, socializing is left to online modalities and small, outdoor gatherings with no or little touch. As mammals, our biology is designed for peak health when in a regulated group of humans. Regulated means that the collective nervous systems are nimble and responsive to threat (not under-responsive or hyper-vigilant). We are a social group species and our brains are designed to be soothed by the safe, predictable presence of others. We are not designed to thrive in the kind of isolation that western society has marketed and COVID-19 has enforced. Extraordinary creativity is required to remain resilient, soothed, and connected. Here are some ideas for connection:
Facetime with loved ones - your brain has a different reaction to seeing faces and hearing voices
Spend time in a public space with plenty of social distancing and observe the normal interactions happening around you
Have online meetings during normal parts of your day (ex. have breakfast with another family member, do homework together, work with a video on)
Have conversations with those in your household about needs for touch and space, as your needs are now compounded within a very small unit
Find people to talk about your experiences with, so you do not feel isolated and alone
Make a plan with your partner for how to manage needs for closeness and space during restricted socialization
Touch and acquaintances are gone.
While some may be relishing the absence of awkward hugs, handshakes, and meeting new people, others are deeply impacted by the loss of touch and normal social interaction. Think about how many people you used to interact with in a day before COVID - a barista, other drivers on the road, teachers, parents at the park, friends on a walk home, babysitters. Think about how often you would get physical touch (which, when safe and welcome, releases oxytocin and calms the nervous system). These are gone and our psyches and animal bodies feel the difference. Here are some ideas for coping:
Put attention on and savor small human interactions (think the grocery store clerk, people walking down the street at a safe distance past you, neighbors)
Ask your household members for touch or use attuned self touch (i.e. holding, pressure, running hands down face)
Take your calls in a physically comfortable position
Remember your furry friends are often available for cuddling
Fear and caution fatigue
We are in a prolonged state of uncertainty with no clear leadership, ambiguous rules, disorganized adherence to safety measures, and no known end date. This is a recipe for anxiety and increased fear. Additionally, we are experiencing what the medical field calls "caution fatigue": the exhaustion that comes from being hyper-vigilant about safety. The minute-to-minute micro-decisions we make about how to act throughout the day. Here are some recommendations for coping:
Make a plan and stick to it: decide what safety guidelines you are going to follow, who you will socialize with, how often you will go to the grocery store and decide what would have to change for you plan to change
Do not over-check the news. Chances are nothing is going to change much in the coming weeks, so do not create tension and fear in your body by over-exposure to media. Know the facts and the safety measures and check in once in a while to see if there are significant updates.
Create opportunities for fun, play, and laughter with those with whom it is safe in safe ways. Instead of over-focusing on everything that could go wrong, take fact-based safety precautions and create experiences of joy and play with others (even if it's just with the one person you live with).
It's okay if all you do is get through this.
There can be a lot of pressure in a time like this to "find the silver lining," "focus on the positive," and "find the growth opportunity." This approach, however, disrespects the profound complexity of emotion that many are going through right now. Of course, gratitude and loss, connection and loneliness, resilience and difficulty are related. However, to focus only on the positive gives the false idea that feelings of sadness, anger, grief, rage, confusion, anxiety, hopelessness, frustration, despair are not welcome, normal, or okay. It could be that creating and completing home projects helps you feel structured and safe in the face of global uncertainty. However, that project list could make you feel lacking if all you do is get through the day. This is hard and we will all get through it in different ways. Find the support and resources you need and don't be ashamed of your feelings (everyone is having them)!
For more guidance, I highly recommend the recent mini-series by Esther Perel:
How to adjust to your entire relational world taking place in one place Part 1
How to adjust to your entire relational world taking place in one place Part 2
How to live with prolonged uncertainty and grief
Is there room for pleasure in the midst of crisis Part 1
Is there room for pleasure in the midst of crisis Part 2
Complaining, comparing, and coping