My Story: An Exercise for Coping with COVID
A grief therapist reveals her own up and down journey in the past few weeks.
I love change. I know that sounds strange, especially during this global health crisis, but I tend to feel energized when life gets switched up. I actually enjoy the challenge of thinking creatively, shaking up the usual humdrum, day-to-day tasks. I don’t prefer last minute surprises, but very rarely is my daily schedule exactly the same two days in a row. As a therapist and small business owner, my ability to roll with the punches is a benefit.
But just like for you and everyone we know, this pandemic has turned my world upside down. I feel like I’ve been knocked sideways, and I’m having some trouble getting myself upright again.
When I look at the positive side of this change, I feel released and relieved from this month’s previously tightly packed schedule of committee meetings, professional conferences, and speaking engagements. Social obligations and networking opportunities magically disappeared from my to-do list. If you asked me last month, I would have said I don’t mind attending all these events and I typically enjoy reconnecting with colleagues and friends every chance I get! But for now, my newly empty calendar feels like freedom: more time with family, more time for myself. Just *more time* in general.
Then the guilt sets in. My Shame Brain takes over: I don’t have a right to enjoy this downtime when so many others are truly suffering. I should fill those empty calendar dates with even more volunteer activities, spend more time at the hospice house, and offer more pro bono counseling sessions for grieving frontline workers. When does helping my community become “enough”?
Eventually, I catch myself lost in those negative thoughts... take a breath... and regroup. What is that message that I share with all my clients? I don’t need to do All.The.Things. I do enough. I am enough. Just as I am.
It turns out therapists need to hear the same reminders that clients do!
So let’s look at what is already working for me.
Then you can use this template for your own personal growth exercise. Send me an email request and I will send you a blank template to use!
Planning: My daily planner book (yes, I still use an old fashioned paper calendar!) is my lifeline. This planner is broken into 30 minute increments, so I can schedule client sessions, business-related tasks, phone calls, errands, and even family meals and household chores. Seeing my entire weekly schedule plotted out in pencil gives me a sense of control over time management, even if plans change constantly.
Health: I start every day with about 20 minutes of gentle yoga and meditation. This calms my anxiety and allows me to set an intention for the day. Even on my busiest days, I make sure that I get outside, if only for 10-15 minutes. I might read a research journal or listen to a training webinar while sitting outside, but just being outdoors is a proven mood booster. I also take a brisk walk every evening after dinner. As a lifelong insomniac, this exercise habit, along with a relaxing bedtime routine, helps me sleep better.
Yoga, meditation, and outdoor time qualify as self care, but here I really mean self-soothing. My favorite spot for this is my bench swing in our backyard, under the giant water oak tree. I often look up through the branches, admiring the sky, while listening to the song birds. Usually my journal is open in my lap, to jot down my internal and external experience.
When considering your own self-soothing sweet spot, ask yourself: what brings me a sense of awe?
Immediate family: Even in this time of mandated stay at home, I have to be mindful about family time. Since we are all home most of the time, it is easy to stay busy with our own distractions in opposite corners of the house. Since the safe-at-home order, we have been eating dinner together just about every evening. We also enjoy more frequent family walks around the neighborhood (staying socially distant from the neighbors, of course) after dinner since everyone is home. Lately, we all gather in the living room to rewatch old funny favorites, such as The Office.
Community, friends, and extended family: Love it or hate it, technology has certainly made social distancing a whole lot easier to bear. My extended family lives in multiple states on the east coast, so we use and ongoing group text for daily updates. Zoom meetings keep me connected to my colleagues. Many families use social media to share photos and who would have ever thought we’d be attending weekly church services on Facebook Live?!
Worldwide: It seems like the news updates are shifting every few minutes during this pandemic! I can easily get lost in the media frenzy, which feeds into my anxiety. So I decided to limit my exposure by only checking the news updates 3 times per day: morning, noon, and evening. This is still probably more news than I really need, so I limit each of those times to about 5 minutes of reading the highlights.
And now, what is not working?
Planning: Adjusting to working from home has been a bigger challenge than I expected. My home office is a work in progress: I am using a makeshift desk made from a folding table, set up in my adult daughter’s old bedroom. My family is home. They are respectful of my need for a private space to work, but they can’t always prevent the noise of daily life. My husband cranks up our circa 1985 riding lawnmower - so deafening, the whole neighborhood can hear it rumbling around the yard. Then our little dog starts barking at random passing cars. My white noise machine only works so well...
Health: Even with my solidly established exercise and sleep regimens, my sleep is often disrupted, and some days I have trouble falling asleep, despite my exhaustion. I attribute this to my heightened anxiety about what is happening in the world due to the virus. This extra anxiety, and feeling tired, is driving my urge for comfort foods and overeating in general. I have done more baking in the past month than I have in the past two years!
I thought that having more time at home would allow more time for my usual outdoor-oriented self-soothing activities. But I was wrong. I realize now that the changes in our family routine have shifted everyone out of their previous habits. And since everyone is home, and not sure what to do with themselves, I encounter far more interruptions to my quiet time than I did in the past.
Immediate family: It is hard to remember the benefits of extra family time when your family is now underfoot 24/7. Balancing alone time with family time can be a struggle, riddled with a mix of guilt and gratitude. Both my kids were born in April, but this year was different. They were understanding when I warned them that this year their birthday celebrations would be noticeably more low key than in the past. Their thoughtful friends chose Zoom and socially distant drive-bys to send their well-wishes.
Community, friends, and extended family: One issue that adds to my anxiety is the knowledge that I can't help all the folks who are truly struggling during this health crisis: financially, physically, emotionally. On top of the fear around the virus, regular life continues on. One of my closest friends, whom I have known for 26 years, was diagnosed with stage 4 pancreatic cancer in early March. She lives near her family in Massachusetts, and I was planning to buy a plane ticket to visit her in May, one last time to say goodbye. Now she is receiving hospice care and, of course, due to the virus risk, my chance for long distance travel is no longer an option.
Worldwide: Every country, every culture, every citizen of the world, has been impacted in some way by this pandemic. I find myself frustrated and sometimes, angrily judging others for not “social distancing” enough, for not taking the risk seriously, for some who are demanding leaders to “reopen” the economy. I have to remind myself to step back and recognize the universal fear and the grief, as folks around the world confront the reality of this silent, unpredictable, borderless enemy.
What are my lessons?
What we resist, persists. Healthy grieving requires an openness to sitting with what is, even when emotions feel overwhelming. Just like you, I want to push away the negative feelings. But I know that allowing the waves of painful emotions to crash over me is what will allow the pain to wash away.
Control freaks, unite! Even though I appreciate controlled change, I know that my anxiety ramps up when my life enters uncharted territory. Pandemic-related news evolves constantly! So I know I need to accept that this situation is out of my control (and out of everyone’s control!), as uncomfortable as that is. Humans thrive when they feel safe and secure. I will focus on what parts of my life that I can control, and continue to maintain a sense of safety around me.
Releasing shame, embracing service. I am working on letting go of the guilty feeling that my family is currently safe and healthy, in the midst of all this suffering. Instead, I will focus on helping others by being supportive from a distance.
I hope you find this exercise as helpful as I have. I invite you to consider what your life was like in the B.C. era (Before COVID-19) and how you want to shift things moving forward. Consider the new possibilities. Is this a chance for a do-over, before your social life restarts?
Don’t forget to send me an email request if you would like a blank template to use for your own inner exploration!
Questions about grief therapy? Give me a call today!
Brought to you by:
Pam Kuras, MSW, LCSW, GC-C