Being a New York City-based psychologist during the time of COVID-19 has highlighted the extent of adjusting, shifting, grieving, and healing we’ve all had to do. I’ve had to lean into my knowledge about trauma, burnout, grief, and compassion in a different way than before because the psychological impact has been real for everyone involved.
During this time, we might need reminders that help us adjust and grow with kindness and thoughtfulness. Here are a few concepts (with some examples) to hold onto, to help during this difficult period of change.
1) Respect your rhythm and quit the comparison game
Many people come from families and communities where the pressure to compare success with each other is real. Now, more than ever, because of the bizarre newness of a pandemic, you might notice yourself scrolling on Instagram or comparing notes with friends to get ideas to help yourself through this difficult time. You might also notice a soft voice coming back up, “see how _____ is making the most of the situation. Why aren’t you?” Sometimes those comments might be from a well-meaning friend or relative. Unfortunately, these comments can at times feel invalidating and ignore your reality.
What can you do instead?
- Recognize that everyone is coping with this stressful situation differently.
- Recognize that your needs, circumstances, and responsibilities are different from others – for example, if you’re juggling a job search while worrying for your aging parents, what you need and can do will look very different from a friend or cousin who is home-schooling, concerned about furloughs, and managing anxiety symptoms.
- Identify what you need to help you cope/adjust to this new normal and build ways to allow those coping behaviors to happen.
Your pandemic normal is allowed to be different from other people’s pandemic normal, just like other people’s pandemic normal is allowed to be different from yours.
2) Don’t panic if you might feel like you’re “moving backward” or regressing
You may have been working to build healthier habits in your life, and you may now notice that older, less helpful patterns are re-emerging. When stressed and overwhelmed, we often rely on older patterns of coping because they are familiar and less demanding. Some examples of older patterns might be more self-criticism, increased procrastination, or more irritability with loved ones.
If you notice an old pattern re-emerging, you can:
- Put this re-emergence into context rather than criticizing or blaming yourself and others.
- Identify coping strategies that helped shift this less-helpful pattern in the past. For example, you may have found going for a walk helpful in shifting perspective.
- Identify realistic ways (according to your unique new pandemic normal) to rebuild some of these coping strategies into your life. For example, if a walk isn’t that accessible, you might tell your loved one you need 5-30 minutes to yourself, where you take deep breaths, calm down, and engage in an activity that helps distract and provide perspective.
3) Listen to your emotions and use them as data
During this difficult time, there might be a lot of fear, sadness, anger, and worry. These reactions are understandable, given the unpredictability and impact the pandemic has had on our lives. The truth is, many of us are grieving right now and we are grieving differently yet collectively. As a collective, we’re grieving everything from the worry-less touch of a doorknob to the deaths/illnesses of loved ones with COVID-19. When we as individuals are both grieving and playing the comparison game (from point #1), it can get really painful.
During this difficult time, it can be really helpful too:
- Respect your reactions
If you think you or your loved ones might be experiencing grief, I’d highly recommend reading Lori Gottlieb’s brilliant piece on grief for the NY Times. She normalizes our different responses to grief and also highlights the importance of validating our sometimes-very-different reactions during this challenging time.
- Retain, modify, and create rituals
For example, I try to block off my “commute time” even though I no longer commute. Instead, I go for a walk, read a book, call a friend, or watch a show. Depending on the day, some of these activities feel more doable and useful than others, so I allow myself permission to shift when needed.
- Set boundaries
For example, you can set boundaries with your news consumption so you can protect your mood and your energy. You could also be intentional about how and whom you’re communicating with.
- Seek support
If you find that you might need support, reach out to friends and family members who might be able to understand and show support. Consider therapy as well, to help you through this difficult time. Many therapists offer short-term therapy which can focus on reducing symptoms and increasing wellness.
4) Remember it’s a marathon, not a sprint
Now, more than ever, it is important to allow yourself to preserve and use your energy thoughtfully and kindly. Permit yourself to do so.
It can be really helpful to practice looking for opportunities to:
- Pace yourself (e.g., build it rest/recuperation time when possible, say no to non-essentials).
- Listen to what you need, (e.g., you might need quiet time, a nap, a friend, a cry, a call with an accountant).
- Give yourself what you need when possible. (e.g., delegate when possible, communicate with allies/loved ones by stating what you need and building it into your schedule).
When panicked, we often engage in psychological sprinting. This panicked response is so helpful if we’re running from a tiger, though it’s less helpful when we’re battling chronic stressors. When you notice yourself rushing or panicking, give yourself permission to pause and shift your approach.
I hope these reminders help to give yourself permission to respect your process and cultivate what you need at a pace that works for you.