March 2020 came in like a lamb and came out like a pack of rabid hyenas. What started for most of us as distant news and tiny numbers became a plague, social experiment, and economic disaster. Most peoples’ plans went out the window. Grocers, healthcare workers, and others found their jobs had become exponentially more dangerous. There were shortages of everything from toilet paper and flour to surgical masks and virus testing. People who thought they were prepared for anything abruptly discovered that they were not. Social mores and public life took sudden turns toward distance, isolation, and shut down.
Calling these events stressful is a major understatement. Nobody can avoid some level of distress. Everyone has a toolbox of coping skills, and we are rummaging around in it looking for something that will work in the new situation. This is a time of mass psychological trauma. It is a perfect storm. There are so many things to fear; dying, being sick, losing loved ones and friends, losing jobs, suffering financial hardship, losing your home, going hungry, a suddenly more uncertain world. When we most need social support, there are limitations on it. Living situations become claustrophobic, or unbearably isolated.
For those of us with past trauma and/or complicated neurochemical situations, the pandemic can make our challenges increase. And some people who are anxious, depressed, or hypervigilant at the best of times find that the outside world has caught up to their preexisting outlook and are paradoxically taking things in stride. Those of us who use or used alcohol and other mind altering substances as a coping mechanism may feel tempted to use, or use more, and won’t have the option of going to in-person recovery meetings.
When there is no way to control a situation, the only option is to try to exercise control of your reaction to it. Keep looking through your toolbox: you are bound to find something useful. Here are some suggestions:
- Reach out. Call or videochat with someone. Do an online group chat or meeting. Go out and talk to strangers (at a six foot distance). Find a therapist, clergy person, teacher, etc. to talk to.
- Take things one day at a time. Set realistic goals for the week or the month if you like, but realize that you will probably have to be flexible.
- Try to maintain some kind of structure to your days
- Don’t invalidate your experience. Of course some people have it worse, but some have it better. Your suffering is real. Your successes are real.
- Avoid catastrophizing but acknowledge catastrophe. Try not to go to a dark mental space where everything is unbearable. There is enough bad news to go around.
- Go easy on yourself. Even if you accomplish literally nothing, you are still worthy of being happy.