As this current world situaton with Covid-19 drags on, the psychotherapist in me begins to be pretty worried about your mental health. Sitting here in La Paz, where I read this morning Mexico is reporting 7 confirmed cases of the virus, social distancing and business closures are just taking off. I keep abreast of news and my social media contacts back home and what I observe isn’t pretty. People have taken to gallows humor (not a bad thing), people report panic attacks, people are becoming depressed and more anxious, losing hope, throwing caution to the wind and rebelling against the new ’stay at home’ orders. The picture is grim.
The collective grief we are all feeling about our loss of our illusion of safety is profound and effects everyone, even those people who deny that Covid-19 is, in fact, a real disease. Their conspiracy theories do not protect them from the collective experience we are having. People feel as though they have lost the last vestiges of control over their lives. The decisions they have made, the plans they have laid, the futures they have worked hard for; all of those things are up for grabs suddenly; as though we have been ripped up by our very roots and tossed into the air by the hands of fate. Seemingly overnight we feel the loss of control over our lives.
So what can we do? Where is our power? How can we get back a semblance of life that makes us feel comfortable and secure, at least in the moment, when we are stuck at home and worried about how we will get by in the world after this novel Corona virus emergency is a thing of the past? And rest assured, it will pass. All things do.
In order to feel like I, too, have some control over my world and can help in any way in this situation, I have created this list. It’s a list of actual things you can DO to regain that momentary feeling of ‘all is well’ during a time that is, to be clear, ‘not well’. Will these things fix the situation? No. Will they protect you from sinking into a well of despair? Well, they will help. That is if you are basically mentally healthy overall, and if you actually do them. Like, REALLY do them; not just think about possibly doing them, which will not help at all. If you already find yourself in a deep well of despair and there is no light in your tunnel at all, please call the local crisis line or mental health center, or your doctor. Call someone. It’s OK to use medication to protect yourself from getting into a very dark place.
If you are part of the millions who have moments of sanity on a daily basis but just want some help getting to the other side of this, I strongly encourage you to just do these things. If you cannot do them all, then pick a few you CAN and WILL do. Some of these are designed to help you use parts of your brain other than your amygdala, a brain system I wrote about way back when I did the Alphabet Blog Challenge and did that long series on anxiety. (I know some of the image links are broken on some posts because they are old. But I don’t have the bandwidth to fix all that. The important stuff is still there.)
You might go back and read those posts (starting Here), even though, upon reviewing them, I realize some of them were too long. (Hey this post is incredibly long, too, so whatever.) Right now, you have time to read long things. There is good information there and you might cherry pick stuff that applies to you. This is an anxious time and so let’s work together to keep that anxiety from grabbing you and not letting go, wherever you are in the world. Let’s keep you from being a zombie because being the walking dead is not a good thing for anyone.
Before we get started on the list, for those of you who have teenagers and very young adults at home, their brains are not fully on line right now when it comes to strong emotions like fear and being able to balance those with rational thought. Please know this. The prefrontal cortex is ‘under construction’ in people well into the first half of their 20’s. Not only that, but their emotions are heightened during this time of intense brain development, even in the good times. Their emotions are more intense than either children or adults, and they cannot help it so please avoid like the plague saying things like ‘just calm down’. Their brain is changing rapidly and it doesn’t develop in a straight line. They are more likely to have long lasting effects from the stress of this time than you are, all other things being equal. As the adults in the home, they need for you to lead the way and show them how to cope and keep hope during this time and to recognize that they won’t be able to do as good a job as you do of staying the course. You are the rock upon which they stand.
I spoke with a young cruiser here in La Paz this week and was really surprised at how afraid he was for the world. Not just for his family or himself, but the whole world. This kid was in tears and my heart just broke for him. His parents had no idea how stressed out he was getting because he was protecting them from knowing, not wanting to burden them further. Just keep that in mind as you navigate the next few weeks and months. Keep those lines of communication open and realize your kid is probably going to vacilate between seeming to be grown up and wanting his binky and blanket. And that’s completely normal.
Okay let’s get to my list. Get a soothing beverage and sit in a comfortable place because this is going to take some time.
1. Stay grounded in the here and now. When you feel the dread of the future and the worry about what will happen and how long this wlll last, stop and notice where you are in space and time. Bring your attention into the present moment and the physical place where you are. Count the number of items in the room, name the colors in the pictures on the wall, talk out loud to yourself about what needs cleaning and putting away, name ten things you have gratitude for right now. The idea is to get out of that amygdala and dampen that voice and balance that out by using your logical brain. Being present in the physical space you are in, measuring it with words and descriptions and being mindful of that turns down the volume on your reptile brain that worries about survival. Do this as many times as you need to all day long. Keep it going, tell your kids how to do it, too and explain why this helps. I mean what color socks are they wearing today anyhow? And do they have any dirty laundry that needs doing?
2. Meditate. Yeah, sorry, that’s just a solid recommendation for this crazy time and I have a source for you! Our Jill’s mom owns a yoga studio in Washington State and is a Mindfulness meditation teacher. She is collaborating with one of her students to open a web based, real time place where people can come together virtually to do all kinds of things, and meditation is where they are starting. This is not an app, but a real time guided meditation so you are connecting with other real people who are doing the real things you are doing to get through this real time. Check it out and do some classes. It’s brand new and still under construction, but it’s up and running. I’m not going to go into all the research that will tell you that meditation is good for your brain because you already know it’s true and if you don’t, then take my word for it and give it a try or spend a little time with your good friend Google. It’s time for a little Nike Therapy. Just do it. I mean, what do you have to lose? This is free. It costs you nothing.
3. Get outside. If there is no rule against it, just go for a walk around your city or neighborhood. And don’t wait until you are stir crazy to do it. PUT THIS ON YOUR SCHEDULE AT LEAST THREE DAYS A WEEK, PREFERABLY EVERY SINGLE DAY. Yes, I am yelling. Why? Because most people don’t want to schedule something as mundane as a walk. I don’t know why. But they think they will somehow work it into their day and then the day goes and they haven’t done it and by the time dinner is over and the dishes are done they are too tired to go. You can walk around and still maintain social distance. Your brain needs natural light, your body needs movement. Put it on the calendar. Go with your kids. Keep your physical distance. If your state says stay in your home, then walk around your yard. If you don’t have a yard, walk in place by a window and imagine you are outside. Those kinds of strict lockdowns are not going to be forever. Get creative about this and do your best to involve natural light and fresh air. This is the first thing I insist my depressed patients do. Truly.
4. Accept what is happening and decide to roll with it. Just say ‘yes’ to all of it with a willing heart and a good attitude. Let go of your resentment because you are literally hurting yourself with it. Acceptance is where your power is. Lean into it and embrace it. The ‘fighting it’ mentality hurts you and doesn’t help anyone around you. Not everything in life is about a ‘fight’. Not to be a Pollyanna, but please make lemonade out of these lemons we are currently dealt. This absolutely will not last forever and you’ve done hard things before and you can do this, too. No one likes to be told what to do but understand that if you are complying with the ’stay at home’ edicts, then you are choosing to do so. You have made a powerful choice. Yes, there may be consequences to choose otherwise, but nonetheless, you are choosing to comply and be a decent person. Embrace the choice to be part of this movement to protect yourself and others.
I’d like to use a visual for this. Imagine you are a surfer and you have just caught a wave. You feel the power of the wave under you and stand up on your board. Now the goal here is to stay on the board and ride the wave until the energy dissipates and then you get to make other choices. You can ride to shore or you can get off the board and swim out. But if you fight the energy of the wave instead of going with it, you are going to crash and burn. Get it? Imagine being that surfer on that board and staying up on the board all the way home. You just ride that energy knowing that you will know it when it’s coming to an end. That’s how it’s done. You can do it. Everyone stand up on your board and ride now.
5. Start a gratitude journal or vision board. Use your hands to write in and on it. Typing on the computer is not the same thing, even though it’s better than nothing. Use colored pencils or pens and make it fun. If you have kids at home, or even if you don’t, perhaps clear a wall and use paper to cover part of it. Every day write or draw something that is positive that could come of this time together if you would let it, and what you are grateful for. I cannot stress enough how much I want you to do this, and how much I insist that this be done in a physical form, not on your computer. Let your kids cut photos from magazines, if you still have such things, or draw pictures of things that bring them happiness in their right-now lives. Talk about and record the good things that happened during the day, even if it’s something small like enjoying a peanut butter sandwich. Help them see that focusing on the good things brings balance to the hard stuff. You help their brains and yours at the same time.
Now here is the very important thing about gratitude journals: you have to FEEL THE GRATITUDE. It’s not enough to just say or write the words. It’s just like all the ‘think positive’ mantras people say to themselves. If you just think the words without stopping and allowing the words to be connected to a feeling, you may as well be shouting into the wind because your brain won’t hear you very well. So for everything you put in that journal or on that gratitude board on the wall, I want you to stand back, focus on that in your heart, visualize it in your mind, and allow your heart to feel the happiness.
Here is what you do: Put your actual hand over your actual heart and close your eyes and just feel the gratitude. Just allow it to be there and allow it to grow big. I want you to pledge allegiance to your gratitude. Truly. Do this right now. Put your right hand over your heart. Spread your fingers wide. Focus on the feeling where your hand touches your chest and allow the gratitude to swell your heart three sizes this day. You might break down and cry. And that would be fine. Just hold that space for a bit.
I want you to hold that for at least 30 seconds. For. Each. Thing. 30 seconds. You are wiring your brain differently. This isn’t some woowoo magic I’m recommending here. This is proven science. The more you do this the easier it is to stay in the happy place. Why? Because neurons that fire together wire together, as the saying goes. That’s another way of saying practice makes perfect.
6. Laugh. Often and long. It’s actually true that it’s good medicine. It tells your brain that you are happy. It gets you out of yourself. Same with watching cat and dog videos. It’s great to do that. Good sane stuff, that. Do your best to stay away from watching things that make you laugh at other’s expense, like those videos that show people getting hurt, or make fun of people. There is hidden anger under those and right now let’s just go for the highest and best laughter, the feeling of joy. I’m going to go ahead and suggest that you schedule in time for cat and dog videos. Do it a few times per day. Put it on your calendar. You now have actual permission to watch cat videos from an actual Psychotherapist. You’re welcome.
And while we are on the subject of entertainment, can I just go ahead and recommend that you turn off the news during the day? I know you want to stay informed but it becomes overwhelming when you see the same things over and over and get the same helpless feelings over and over. You can stay informed and keep the balance. If you have to keep the TV on, then can you make it something uplifting, even funny? Music would be way better. When you keep TV news on all day it’s like constantly bathing your brain in the neurochemicals of anxiety. Ugh. I wish this wasn’t a thing that people did all the time.
7. Do nice things for others. Practice some random acts of kindness in whatever way you can for now. Everyone is suffering and this helps you realize you are not alone. If you have to make a grocery run, ask your neighbor if she needs something. Are you baking cookies? Leave some on your neighbor’s porch with a little note saying you’d give them to her into her hands, but…social distancing. Put on the note something like “these cookies packed with love and clean hands”. Give a little money to someone who needs it. It doesn’t have to be much. Engage your children in the giving. Make sure you FEEL HOW NICE IT IS TO DO THINGS FOR OTHERS WITHOUT BEING ASKED. Action + thought + feeling = new brain wiring. Practice social closeness while you keep physical distance.
8. Be sure you have a routine. All of our regular routines have been disrupted completely. So we need to create new ones that feel as natural as possible. Go to bed at about the same time each night. Get up at about the same time in the morning and put your actual clothes on. (I know a lot of you are hanging our in your pajamas all day long.) If you are working from home, create a space that is only for work, even if it’s just a corner of a room. Maybe hang a sheet from the ceiling to create a visual space that is separate from the living area. Keep a work schedule that allows breaks. If you have kids, try to keep them to a routine as well. Engage them in creating the routine to give them some power in the game. This creates a feeling of safety and sameness. Cook dinner and eat it together. Make the day a bit structured. Is it 10:00AM? It’s time for our walk, kids! Let’s go! We feel safer when we live inside a structure. Make your time structured.
9. Kids. Suddenly homeschooling. I’m going to express a strong opinion here and you can take it or leave it because it’s absolutely my own opinion. (Skip to number 9 if you don’t have kids or don’t care about my opinion. This is long enough already for you.) “But Melissa,” you say, “Why should I listen to you? How is it that you get to have an opinion about this subject?” Ok, fair enough. It’s because I spent 20 years as a therapist working with children and families exclusively as a children’s mental health specialist, including in the schools, before I went in to private practice. I also homeschooled two kids, both of whom grew up to be high functioning, educated adults. Our son missed a LOT of school due to a bad accident. His schooling was very much disrupted over a two year period. I had to let go of the worry that he was losing out on learning because his health and safety took top priority. At age 27 I assure you he reads, writes, ‘rithmetics, is college educated, and has skills. So take this or leave it, but at least think about it.
Many of you have been thrust quite unceremoniously into the role of teacher to your kids and this is a new and unwelcome change for both of you. This adds another incredible layer of stress to parents who are already having trouble coping. When you add the guilt many are feeling about not being able to keep up with their kid’s schooling, well, let’s just say that’s too much. Ok? That’s too much. So I encourage you to stop and take a step back. We are talking a few months of formal education out of your child’s entire life.
Is that going to keep them from graduating from highschool eventually, even if it’s not on time? Is it going to keep them from going to college ever? Is it going to irreparably harm them as human beings? I submit to you that it is not. And I hope you can relax about it and get out from under this burden. Six months of life is a very small percentage overall when people live well into 8 decades or more.
So while I can’t tell you what is right for your own child, I can say that were my kids young during this historic time, I would not be worrying overly much about how much they kept up with schoolwork, especially if it was causing a lot of family stress. I’d do what I could do and let that be good enough, recognizing that the children are stressed out, too. And I would be looking for learning opportunities that were quite a bit outside the box, things they may not get a chance to dive into during a regular school year. I would look at what lit up their curiosity and go with that so that they would enjoy the learning. The world is literally at your fingertips with the internet. I’d find something that interested them and let them explore whatever that might be.
10. Care for your breathing. Notice it. Make sure you are not holding your breath or breathing shallowly in the chest. I’ve seen folks posting that they feel tightness in their chest lately. That’s fear and is probably related to the breath. When you do your meditation (because you are going to do that, right?) do one that includes focusing on breathing. Then during your day, take note of the tension in your breath and let that go. It’s a matter of making a small place in the foreground of your mind where you check in with your breathing regularly. When you don’t breathe deeply your brain takes note of that and sends signals that all is not well, increasing anxiety. Here’s my post called ‘J is for Just Breathe!!
This, too, shall pass. That is my mantra and I stop and feel the reality of this. The world will not stop. If we come together to support each other during this crisis, our country and our world will be stronger. Remember that you are not alone in this. Everyone is going through it together. Make this time count and recognize that you are living through a truly historic event.
And what is S/V Galapagos doing right now? We have stocked up and are ready to greet this crisis by getting off grid and cruising for a month. It might be tempting for those of you back home to think “oh how lucky they are to be on a boat”. Yeah, that’s partly true. I mean, we do feel like we are in a pretty good position for now. Key words: FOR NOW. If you think that the virus crisis hasn’t come home to roost here let me be the first to disabuse you of that notion. Mexico is behind the states by maybe 2-3 weeks. Businesses are now closing, social distancing is a focus.Things change daily for us, just like they do for you. La Paz went from 0 cases to 7 in the last few days. We have no idea how well cases are being counted here so it’s hard to put this in perspective.
Who knows what will actually happen? So the best thing for us to do is ride the wave, right? We practice acceptance and find our power in what we have control over, including our attitudes. We miss our family and wish we were with them during this crisis time. Even though our being there wouldn’t change things, at least we would be with them. Hug your loved ones tightly for us.
Our current plan is to go cruising for the next month, isolating at anchor. We will watch how things evolve both in Washington State and in Mexico. We figure we have until June to get out of here. If we can’t get going safely before tropical storm season starts, then we are here for another year. If things start getting bad in Mexico, we will just go. We are hoping that things will be better up north by that time. Basically we are waiting for things to look better in Washington. Then we can go.
S/V Galapagos, standing by as always on channel 22.