In a World Called Catastrophe: Coping with COVID-19
What exactly are we trying to cope with during COVID-19? Are we all impacted the same? How might this unprecedented stress affect our coping strategies?
Image: Groundhog Day (1993)
“Why can’t I just get my sh*t together?” I groan out loud, as I once again rub my temples and lay my head down on the desk. A version of this thought has been plaguing me for the past month. I’m trying to finish another one of my psychoeducation videos, this one on tips for coping with COVID-19. I’ve been working on it since mid-March. I know in theory what I want to talk about. I have media clips ready to go. I just can’t gather my thoughts. I could take home gold medals in both internal screaming and procrastination, and not just for this task. It seems I can’t really get anything done. Even though I have the time. I just want to keep lying my head down on the desk, bed, couch, against the shower wall.
Of course, I am hard on myself about this. I've got a long list of books to read, documentaries to watch, at-home workouts to try, things to do around my apartment. I've "got the time now" so what's the issue? Don't be "lazy," I tell myself. I'm hard on myself professionally. I told people I would be making this video and series. I assume my problem is a combination of writer’s block and the self-doubt that often seeps in. Only this self-doubt is amplified now because I missed the whole “Helping Clients and Yourself Cope During a Global Pandemic” part of my therapist training. Normal imposter syndrome is heightened due to the awareness of my own struggle in all of this. Should I really be giving professional advice?
And what am I giving advice on exactly? I think a large piece of my writer’s block has stemmed from trying to accurately capture and conceptualize what we are trying to cope with. I touched upon some of the complexities, commonalities, and differences in my open letter. This makes me think of the saying circulating now: “We are all in the same boat. We are not all in the same storm.”
I would go further and say that we might all be trying to stay afloat, but we aren’t all using the same boat, as different people have different levels of support and privilege.
So, what are we, in different ways, weathering? And why am I having such a hard time getting my, er, ship together?
Certainty and Ambiguity
We are dealing with a unique combination of certainty and ambiguity. We are all trying to process what has happened and how quickly it happened, but we are aware of the reality and weight of the situation. We know the current impact on our families, jobs, finances, health, the economy, and humanity, but we don’t know what this impact will look like in a few months’, or even years’, time. We just know there will prolonged impact and there is no return to “normal.” So, how long am I trying to stay afloat and what waves am I bracing for? Many of us were already dealing with other storms when this one hit, or had finally reached a place where we were managing to just ride the waves out.
We are dealing with an unprecedented amount of adjustments and learning all at once. I like Brené Brown’s term “F*ing First Times” (FFTs). Maybe the FFTs you are dealing with include online learning (for yourself and/or your kids), being a new parent with limited social support, and job disruption and financial insecurity. My FFTs include working remotely, working from my home (not the same), counselling virtually, and providing psychological support for a shared trauma. This is also my first time living alone, my first time not knowing when I will see my family and friends again, my first time being immunosuppressed during a public health crisis, and my first time relying on others to get me supplies. And you know, this is my f*ing first global pandemic.
I have never experienced a compounded storm like this one and I don’t even know what my boat needs to have.
Perspective and Powerlessness
We are dealing with a lack of control over more than ever before: our environments, what others are doing, what the government decides, what happens with our jobs, what happens with the economy, what happens with our health. We are also dealing with a unique combination of perspective and powerlessness. During times of trauma or grief, it is common for us to take stock of our lives and focus on what really matters. This realignment in perspective encourages us to pursue our goals and passions, spend more time with family and friends, and partake in those activities that fuel us. Sometimes there is a sense of urgency to this. However, in many ways our lives are on pause right now.
I literally cannot “hug my friends and family a little bit tighter.”
When existential insight is not followed by action, we are left feeling helpless, as though things are slipping through our fingers when we just realized how much we want to hold onto them.
But the reality is, the world is not on pause. Life keeps going. Cancer is still diagnosed, prior traumatic stress endures, climate change continues, and mass shootings and domestic violence still occur. People are dying from coronavirus. Individually, we are not just dealing with one trauma, and collectively we are all still reminded of the suffering in the world and humanity’s vulnerability. The compartmentalization necessary to just function throughout the day becomes harder to do when it never stops raining down. The psychosocial effects of COVID-19, including isolation, disruption to routine and care/support, and lack of stimulation and positive events, will continue to exasperate underlying mental and physical illnesses. Yes, the pandemic will “end” in one sense, but for many, this will just be the eye of the storm before the real damage begins.
With so much externally for us to respond to, it’s natural that we are dealing with conflicting emotions. I know I am feeling so grateful for my family and friends and job. But I am also resentful and frustrated about the situation, where I am stuck indoors, what I am missing out on, and what plans are now interrupted indefinitely. And then I feel ashamed about feeling this way because I know others have it so much worse. This is known as comparative suffering. Conversely, you may be struggling to feel gratitude and your suffering results from your awareness of how much easier others seem to have it. Emotions are likely also coming in waves. One minute I am feeling calm and capable and believe I have put things into perspective, and the next I am engulfed in panic and self-doubt and hopelessness about everything and everyone.
I cannot settle on a belief or a feeling about the situation and my brain does not like this.
What to think. How to adjust. How to cope. How to spend your time. How to be productive during a pandemic. What perspective to take. How to feel. *Deep breath*
Not only are we just trying to figure out our own boats, but we’ve got others yelling over at us with their own tips and input on how we’re doing. This unsolicited advice isn’t uncommon. This happens during a crisis, when others want to help (or unfortunately pass judgment). But right now, we’re not just getting suggestions from well-meaning family and coworkers. We are bombarded with recommendations through social media and the news. Every talk show. Every magazine and podcast. It's all everone is talking about because everyone is impacted. There are a lot of implicit “shoulds” circulating and these easily breed shame. Because just like the world hasn’t paused, neither have our innate desires to be “good.”
We are all still trying to be the “good parent,” the “good daughter,” the “good friend,” the “good student,” the “good employee,” “the good community member.”
But our “good enough” blueprints for these roles haven’t adjusted to accommodate our new setting. I know some of us also feel like others haven’t adjusted their expectations for us either, and this may elicit feelings of helplessness and unworthiness.
Like so many, I’m still trying to be the “good worker” and “good team member.” I am still trying to be the “good therapist” and a “good member of the mental health community.” There are pressures to be grateful, wise, and positive. Many of us may be trying to prove our value as employees. Or, just the value of our specific roles. It’s natural to worry how likely post-COVID budget considerations will impact decision-making upon return to work. If we don’t do much during this period, will it just show we are dispensable? Or, if we do too much, will we be setting the bar too high for the remainder of this or for when some normalcy returns?
So, we are dealing with a lot of new, a lot of unknown, a lot of helplessness, and a lot of threat. Basically, our stress response is in overdrive right now. (Sorry, I couldn’t think of a boat analogy for this…this brain fog will make sense soon; also, this is just due to my general lack of wit). In my series on Stress Management, I talked about the stress system and how it activates us in response to challenges.
This response is supposed to be for short surges; for sprints, not month-long marathons with obstacle courses.
To provide an oversimplified explanation of this: constantly scanning our environment and being in “survival mode” means we are experiencing significant drain while simultaneously activated.
We are fatigued and exhausted but also restless and unable to sleep. We may be more irritable or emotional than usual due to our amygdala (the emotional processing part of the brain) being more sensitive during times of stress and trauma. Patience is running thin. We are thinking about so much while also having difficulty concentrating and processing information. That is why I am spacing out so easily and struggling more than normal to complete tasks. I am learning and processing and outputting more than my brain can handle, and it is hitting a wall and going, “Alright, that’s enough for now.” It may also elicit a mental/behavioural shutdown process if it interprets my energy is not useful, which would happen during a pandemic as I am constantly reminded of what I don't have control over.
I am exhausted but also feeling like I should be getting sh*t done because my brain is in “action mode.” This means I will feel physical and cognitive discomfort when I am not “doing.” Or rather, what I have been socially conditioned to believe constitutes “doing” right now.
So, really then...am I really struggling to get my sh*t together or am I just reacting to the situation? What would “having sh*t together” and "getting sh*t done" during an unanticipated pandemic look like? And isn’t reacting a sign of strong psychological reflexes? Isn’t my response equivalent to my movement during the knee-jerk test my doctor does? Aren’t we all just going to react however we are going to react?
This is not the new normal, but our reactions are.
It's not okay that we are in this situation, but it's okay if we're not okay. It's okay if you're struggling to feel grateful right now. It's okay however you are feeling. It's okay if you are not as productive as you'd like to be. It's okay if it is taking you longer to do things. It's okay if this is frustrating for you. It's okay if you're not taking this time to learn a new skill or to learn about yourself. It's okay if you're not taking this time to finally get things done around house. You might not be okay right now, but you, whatever you are doing and however you are doing it, are inherently okay and enough.
So, can I adjust my definitions of “productive” and “good enough” right now?
I think I need to.
I do want to help. In my role as a therapist, I have done up a list of COVID-19 coping resources, a summary of general stress and coping resources, and a series on stress management to help with some of this situation. But I’ve decided not to make the COVID-specific video or blog series. My automatic response is to view this as "hours wasted," but I know this is not a helpful way to frame my decision. I have to hope what I am doing, professionally right now, is good enough, because I've pushed myself too hard up to this point, based on my own unrealistic expectations. So I am hastily writing out this post, with what I know is not the most original content. As a therapist in the best of times, it’s normal to feel the pressure to say something insightful (I have like a 62% success rate with this). I don’t know what else I can offer now, except maybe some normalization of what we may all be experiencing in some shape or form.
I recognize that I have the privilege of flexibility in my work and personal situation to do this adjusting. But because of that, I am going to take advantage and alter some my standards to better fit my boat and respond to the storm.
I will be “pandemic productive.” Which also means not getting caught up in the concepts of productivity and "appropriate" coping strategies/balance.
I hope this release on evaluating my value based on what I have done or accomplished, even day-to-day, will be a residual effect from this; tying our self-esteem to doer-ship is not healthy. I also am trying to be kinder to myself and recognize I am reacting however I am reacting, and I will cope however I can. I will be taking more breaks than normal throughout my workday. My head will continue to be laid on my desk. I will be setting different boundaries with clients and others. My sleep pattern is likely to remain erratic, my eating habits less than ideal, and my affect different than usual. I am giving myself permission to not really be myself right now, in any realm of my life. On the other hand, I recognize I am just being myself as someone in turbulent waters.
Featured title lyric: In A World Called Catastrophe (Matthew Good)