You are in the midst of an unprecedented life experience as you face this period of rapid change and the multiple consequences of the COVID-19 virus, sheltering in place, and economic shutdown. It’s a chaotic and scary time, and you likely have a variety of reactions to what’s taking place in your life right now.
No doubt, you are facing several very important challenges at once. At the minimum, your physical, mental/emotional, and economic health and well-being are under the microscope. Demands have increased–you may have children home from school who need someone to guide their learning, schedules and meals; you may have parents you are trying to prevent from socializing with others, or they may be in poor health already; you may be home from work with a spouse or partner who is now also home; or worse there may be increased financial strain due to lost wages or lost work and growing conflicts because of all these stresses. After a few weeks of this shelter-in-place order, you may feel strained at every level and are ready for this new not-so-normal way of life to end.
The brain handles life experiences by taking our “current life experiences” and our “anticipated future experiences” and comparing them to the ones we’ve had in the past. Except no one has been through what we are going through right now. So there’s no place for the brain to put this experience, and go, “Okay, I got this one. It’s like what you experienced when you were ___.”
Consequently, you may end up feeling more disorganized and unsettled because there has been nothing like this before and no place to mentally “put” this experience. When an experience / event / situation is unfamiliar, a common first response of the brain is to feel less safe and maybe threatened. The more familiarity, the more the brain can settle down. Given that the only thing to anticipate right now is uncertainty and unpredictability, feeling off-center, off balance and a bit wobbly makes a whole lot of sense.
I know that very legitimate feelings of fear and anxiety may be at the forefront of your thinking. Perhaps you have faced anxiety/panic attacks in recent days or felt like you had to be super alert or hypervigilant about whatever is coming next. Because this is also a time of great loss, you might even have reactions of numbness, confusion, or shock; then followed by an even greater range of feelings that might include sadness and tears, disappointment, despair (tied to helplessness), anger, or rage. Or maybe you’ve tried to distract from or bury all of the above reactions.
All these reactions are very normal given the circumstances.
Let me repeat that: all these reactions are very normal given the circumstances.
Anxiety and worry compromise and deplete the immune system, and if there is one thing you need in this moment, it is a strengthened immune system. Besides, I believe there is a different way to look at and understand the fear, anxiety, and worry that you may be feeling.
Let’s start with fear. Generally, psychology defines fear as “danger in the moment right now.” If you have contracted the virus or know someone who has, or you have lost work or lost income and are already in severe financial strain, or you are without food or shelter, then it makes sense that fear is prominent; each of these situations can be understood as dangerous.
If, however, you have shelter and food, you have work or a financial cushion and the people you hang out with are healthy, then please stop using the word “fear,” just using the word heightens your perception of the threat or danger.
What next? Well, you might say that you “have anxiety” or “feel anxious.” It makes sense that you would use those words, and they actually seem to describe the situation pretty well. Psychology considers anxiety a “diffuse sense of apprehension about some aversive event in the future.” However, I were to ask 10 people what they meant when they said they are anxious, I would hear 10 different responses. Anxiety is too vague and similar to using the word fear, saying you are anxious simply maintains that general sense of unease. In fact, anxiety masks a variety of other feelings.
Vulnerability (an awareness or sense that you could get hurt) is the feeling people most often cover up when they say they are anxious. Experiment with substituting feeling vulnerable in place of feeling fearful or anxious. Generally, I find that when people recognize they feel vulnerable, it actually elicits a greater sense of calm–it feels more manageable and allows a greater sense of control.
If you remain anxious, choose one of your worries and let’s walk it out to its logical conclusion. With your worry in mind, ask yourself, “What’s the worst thing that would happen if my worry about the situation came to pass?” If it did, then what? Keep asking these two questions until your worry can go no further. Write out every answer you have to each round of those two questions and also write down the resources you might need at each step of the way. Keep writing until you reach a sense of completion.
And what do you do about all those other feelings besides just vulnerability? As I said earlier, feelings like sadness, helplessness, anger, disappointment, and frustration are common and normal responses to the upheaval we’re in the midst of, and you could be using the word anxiety to mask them.
Believe it or not, you actually want to lean into those feelings and not bury or avoid them–they are real genuine and true reactions to what is taking place and many of them are feelings of grief tied to the loss we’re dealing with (loss of income, loss of freedom of movement, loss of being with loved ones, loss of a sense of stability or certainty, loss of . . . ).
Feelings are transient – they are felt in short-lived bodily sensations waves (e.g., heat in your face and neck when embarrassed), even though repeating thoughts and memories leads to a sense that the feelings linger way longer. Allow yourself to feel the sadness, helplessness, disappointment, and anger. Feel what you feel. And when you go to express your feelings, say them rather than escalating and yelling them. In fact, if you tell someone that you’re angry, they will hear it much better than if you explode with anger. The first is much safer.
It’s an uncertain and unpredictable time. It makes sense you’re feeling vulnerable. It also makes sense that you’re feeling a wide range of other feelings too. Being aware of and in touch with the whole range of emotions that you’re experiencing can actually help you move through this uncertain time with greater ease. It’s a healthier and more genuine response to the situation at hand. And as everything unfolds, this genuine response will bring greater calm, inner peace, and resourcefulness to the challenges that lie ahead.
I’m in it with you. Be gentle with yourself and others. It’s a very trying time. Stay safe. And, stay well.