The Taconic Counseling Group
Patricia G. Thomas, Ph.D.Life in the Time of Corona Virus (COVID-19)
The letters and emails begin with something about "these crazy times" or "these times of uncertainty". I am a psychologist and, while I don't have this thing figured out either, I am going to share my thoughts -- what I know and what I have learned along the way and how I am finding my own way through these times of Corona.
How to create a sense of normalcy in the face of anything but? We take comfort in our routines. So do our children and while it would be tempting to stay in our pj's and pull the covers up over our heads, this virus will last longer than a snow day. Routines are comforting, predictable, and create structure in our lives but routines do more. Some are crucial to our physical and emotional health-- like regular patterns of eating, sleeping, and exercise. Other routines create a sense of normalcy. If you have kids home from school, the same is true for your children; so, in whatever form the structure of a day might take, get up in the morning, get dressed, have a good breakfast, and talk at the table about the day ahead.
How do you "talk about the day ahead" when it feels like a day that is defined by the corona virus? With 24-hour news and media about the virus, everyone's anxiety is heightened. Accepting that we are powerless to control the situation is actually one good way to reduce anxiety. Dr. Martina Paglia, the clinical director of the International Psychology Clinic, wrote that "acceptance is key in helping people to take a more mindful stance about what they can do." So ... let's take that thought in and let it just be, we are powerless to control this situation.
What is also true is that, while we can't control what is happening, we can challenge ourselves to control the way we respond to what is happening. That's where our power lies. We still have choices. One choice is to be protective of ourselves and others, to the extent that we can be. The CDC sets guidelines for social distancing that we hear on the news reports. But if we think about what comforts us in times of stress in our lives, it is the ways that people come together in our families, friendships, and communities. How can we sustain that comforting sense of community in the face of social distancing? We know that stress releases cortisol into our systems but what counters stress is the hormone oxytocin, which is associated with feelings of love, trust, and safety. One source of these feelings of love, trust, and safety is the important relationships in our lives. In our need to maintain social distance, can we think of creative ways of remaining connected to our supportive relationships, the human connections that create feelings of love, trust, and safety? If family dinners have gotten lost in our busy schedules, this could be a time to sit together around the table for meals -- and maybe even work together to create them. Beyond our immediate families, our kids know a lot about the technology of sustaining important connections and may have lots to teach us about that.
Another form of protection is sticking to reliable sources and listening to the news enough to keep ourselves informed but not consumed. Anxiety is contagious and how we manage our own anxiety has a spread effect that impacts everyone that we live with. As a case in point, a little boy complained to me the other day (via the social distance of FaceTime) that his father watches the news about the virus nonstop and that it is "freaking [him] out". Taking care of ourselves by managing the dosage and stress response to media is protecting both ourselves and our children.
In a situation like the current coronavirus outbreak, however, it's not just people who live with a high baseline of anxiety who are "freaking out". When we catastrophize, however, we are overestimating the likelihood of the worst case scenario and underestimating our ability to cope. We lose sight of the fact that there are a whole range of possible outcomes other than the most dire. Our minds struggle to be in the present. We should be feeling worried. Worry is to our benefit to the extent that it guides us to take appropriate precautions; but, if we dwell on the worst case scenario, it takes time from tackling the challenge in practical ways. There will be hardships. There will be new choices. Pause. Take a deep breath. Be in the moment. Be mindful of all that is around you. Take in from all of your senses. What do you see? What do you smell? Techniques like deep breathing and mindfulness meditation help stop anxious thoughts from spiraling out of control and bring attention to the present.
Another choice that we have is to be creative. How can we be creative in the time of Corona? Well, consider that Newton discovered calculus after being sent home from his studies at Oxford during the Black Plague. That's being creative. So, in a practical way, if we can't exercise in the gym or take the kids to the playground, there are lots of outdoor options to "shake our sillies out". Especially with the warmer weather, this could be a time to connect with the nature that surrounds us; such as, here in the Hudson Valley, biking on the Dutchess Rail Trails, hiking Mt. Beacon, exploring the nature trails and parks that run along or overlook the river, including Walkway Over the Hudson, Franny Reese Park, or Storm King, with its open expanses and outdoor sculptures. This could be a time to think about planting, with the sense of anticipation, change, and rebirth that gardens promise and the message that seasons change and this, too, will pass. Especially as a project with children, who understand the passage of time in ways that can be literal and tangible, planting a garden together says that we can look ahead and that life will renew itself.
When I was a little girl, I remember asking my grandmother, "What are we going to do today?" and her response was always, "We are going to just be." Think of this pause as an opportunity to be curious and to have no other agenda than to "just be". A mother was talking the other day about her child's wonder in watching the flurry around their new bird feeder. It conjured the image of two weeks of confinement while recovering from scarlet fever as a child -- pictures in a bird sticker book and Sleeping Beauty paper dolls. And so our challenge and our choices are: How do we sustain our supportive relationships, in this time of social isolation? How do we all learn to "just be"? Our children may have their ideas and we who are older have a history of memories and pastimes to draw from and that conversation creates a sense of getting through this together. What solutions can they discover? What solutions can we discover together? What are the possibilities in the face of all that we cannot control?
Also, know that we at Taconic Counseling Group are here as part of your community to help all of us get through this pandemic together. We are still available, in these times of social distancing, via phone, Facebook, and doxy.me for consultation and psychotherapy.