By: Michelle Palmer, LICSW
Clinical Social Worker
Executive Director, Wendt Center for Loss and Healing
It feels like a perfect storm, as we enter month seven of enduring lives upturned by the pandemic while navigating a charged political season, the Black Lives Matter movement, racial violence, concerns of the upcoming flu season, and the doldrums that often naturally result as days grow shorter and colder. Even for the sunniest among us, these are dark days.
As a clinical social worker and executive director of the Wendt Center for Loss and Healing, it’s undoubtedly the most unique period of my career, and as much as we’ve all probably tired of the terms ‘silver lining’ and ‘unprecedented,’ there are aspects of this shared experience that are worth exploring, understanding, and learning from.
First, the silver lining
There is a growing understanding that we are experiencing a societal grief moment, as more people than not are suffering from loss. In normal circumstances, grief can be incredibly isolating; even if you have a wide circle of close friends and family, it is usually only a select few who share in the experience of your grief. That can make us feel very alone. During this pandemic, however, we are all—on some level—sharing grief and loss, and there is absolutely a benefit to sharing this experience. It’s the reason ‘we’re all in it together’ signage now seems ubiquitous, whether on banners in windows or chalked on sidewalks.
But (you knew there would be a but, right?)
The amount and intensity of our losses—and how we individually relate to them—varies enormously. On March 13, when much of the country seemed to shut down overnight, some of us were living life fairly smoothly and normally, and recalibrating was stressful but didn’t feel impossible. For some, it was a proverbial snow day! For others, who were already stretched to capacity before the pandemic arrived, the March 13 recalibration felt like a crushing blow; their emotional bandwidth was already stretched, and the pandemic stretched them beyond their limit. Some hit the pause button while others hit the ‘I can’t do this’ button.
Seven months later, the ‘snow day’ feeling is long gone. Those who already felt crushed may be even further underwater. There are actions—none of them overly burdensome or hard—that we can all take, though.
For all of us working from home, create a routine for yourself that is as similar as possible to your routine when you went to school or work. For kids, especially teens, build in release valves that correspond to breaks you would normally take. At noon, take a break just as you would for lunch or recess. At 3:00, when you’d normally go to soccer practice or walk home or go to a club meeting, build in that same recreational and social time. Those same release valves are important for adults too, but we tend to have them interspersed throughout our day more organically. We’d go out for lunch, chat with colleagues, take a bathroom break. Now that we’re home, those natural breaks are gone, and if we’re not careful, we’ll find ourselves sitting in front of a computer for a solid eight hours. That’s unhealthy physically, emotionally, and mentally, so be intentional and plan the kind of work break that used to come more naturally. Start work at a certain time, and end work at a certain time. Get outside for lunch. Catch up with a friend during a walk. Try to replicate in some way those workday release valves.
For parents who are trying to be educators and employees: Stop. It’s out of balance and unsustainable. Have a frank and honest conversation with yourself and your employer about what must get done, and what during normal times would have been a goal to work toward. Can you focus on the musts and shelve the goals? Self-advocate for something to come off your plate, because let’s be realistic: We’re not working at home during a pandemic. Rather, we’re living through a pandemic while trying to work from home.
As we think about approaching holidays, being cooped up inside, and the confluence of flu and COVID, it can feel scary. But again, there are strategies for making this next phase more manageable. First, know thyself. If you already struggle with winter, think now about ways to build up internal emotional resources to get through. Just as I used to think about how many cords of wood I’d need to get through a Vermont winter, we can ask ourselves what we need for our emotional health. For example, purchase a light to help with seasonal affective disorder. Be honest with yourself and others about your struggles; if having something to look forward to helps you, schedule distanced get-togethers now, so you have several set up in the coming weeks. Schedule phone check-ins. Whatever you need to do to feel less isolated, set up systems now—when you’re feeling stronger and more in control—rather than waiting until you feel underwater.
Enter the holiday season with a Plan B and C. Don’t approach any special event with an all or nothing approach; think of your ideal holiday, and then come up with several alternatives in case your plan A doesn’t pan out.
Step away from social media, TV, or whatever your personal ‘news cycle’ addiction may be. If you find yourself endlessly watching cable news or refreshing your go-to website, think about what will bring you more peace. If you leave the TV off or never read the comments, will you be happier? You ultimately have control over what you bring into your living room and your mind, so ask yourself, will it be joy or divisiveness? I know it’s not easy; our connection to the news cycle or social media can be truly addictive, and weaning yourself from it will be a process. But if you want to take that first step away, frame it in a way that feels less about cutting yourself off and more about protecting your wellbeing.
And if you can’t step away entirely, at least limit your consumption. Remember that everyone views issues through a unique lens informed by their own, personal experiences. There are equally brilliant minds on every side of an argument, so it’s okay to just prioritize keeping the peace by not talking about the things you know you can’t agree on. Develop rules of engagement, even if they’re as simple as ‘I love you, and I don’t want to fight.’ Decide that your relationships are going to be free from strife and political bickering. You have that power. Now it’s up to you to use it!
Looking for more strategies to quiet your mind and expand your ability to cope, react, and manage stress? Our next piece will feature Mick Neustadt, LICSW, and focus on mindfulness. Watch your inbox or social media feed for this important segment!