We are in the throes of a global pandemic, which no one has any prior experience in. Yet, advice on how to deal with this crisis is everywhere: "Be productive, write that book, start that business, reinvent your business, do what you previously didn't have time for, work out, take on a hobby, use this time wisely, change the world," they all say.
While this can seem like sagely advice, it is also a bit reckless and inapplicable for many of us. We are living under never-before-lived-through global, health, and financial pressure. While we physically distance, we are now yanked and displaced from life as we knew it. Some of us are outside, fighting an invisible threat on the front lines. Some of us are inside with the same people 24/7, craving moments of solitude.
Some of us are working harder than we have ever worked. Some of us no longer have a job. Some of us are trapped at home with an abuser. Some of us crave a human to touch. Some of us are sick and recovering. Some of us are in shock and grief over those who can no longer fight. Some of us are looking for ways to bond with our families and significant others more than ever. Some of us ended our marriages mere weeks ago. Some of us are financially destitute. Some of us have money but nothing but food to spend it on. Some of us have already closed our businesses. Some of us are fighting tooth and nail to keep our businesses open. Some of us can't sit still with only idle time on our hands. Some of us have less time than we've ever had. Some of us envy those who work from home. Some of us are forced to sit in Zoom conferences with colleagues and strangers speaking right into their bedrooms with only a mute button as a boundary.
We may be "in this together," but each of us is fighting our own unique battle. This crisis is global, but the pain caused by it is unique and individual.
Our roles have been intermingled under this lockdown too: parent, teacher, caretaker, friend, child, personal assistant, physical trainer, therapist, housekeeper, and CFO of our lives.
We are sanitizing, cooking, hunting for paper towels, wearing face masks, measuring six-foot distances distance from each other, making zoom conferences, homeschooling kids, working out in living rooms and on narrow balconies, cutting our own hair, cheering others up, and not touching our faces — while also working, applying for loans, filing taxes, bankruptcies or unemployment.
While many of us may have similar sets of circumstances, each of us is still facing a diverse battle because we each respond to situations differently. You may be reenergized to reinvent your business during this crisis. Someone else may be closing up shop and questioning why they got into their business to begin with.
If you lost your job, you may be feeling the shock and fear of financial freefall. Someone else may be considering losing their dreaded job as a gift and an opportunity to finally do what they really love. You may be enjoying working from home and thrilled about saving time and money to commute. For someone else, it can be a struggle to adapt to remote work and fight distractions at home.
No reaction is right or wrong, and each comes with its own struggles and challenges. We may be "in this together," but each of us is fighting our own unique battle. This crisis is global, but the pain caused by it is unique and individual.
While practical advice can be helpful for some, I don't think most people need practical advice right now. Left with nothing but blank space in their calendar, people know how to fill it even when under a global lockdown. People also know how to use their time in fruitful ways when compelled to do so. No expert or guru can give us better practical advice than the advice we can give ourselves.
The challenge is, we can't be practical and productive without taking care of the impractical parts first. We don't need another productivity expert shouting their "Tips And Tricks To Stay Productive During Quarantine" at us. What we need is to identify and tend to our emotions. Listening to all the practical advice without being psychologically equipped and prepared to apply it leaves us in comparison, guilt, and shame.
If we have anything in common right now, it's loss. Loss of our loved ones, autonomy and ease of movement, plans for the future, habits and routines, escapes and distractions, jobs and livelihood, schools and graduations, weddings and funerals, proximity to each other, sense of comfort and predictability, conveniences and sense of control, and most of all our sense of freedom.
Listening to all the practical advice without being psychologically equipped and prepared to apply it leaves us in comparison, guilt, and shame.
When we experience loss this pervasive, we commonly end up with trauma.
Trauma is a physical, mental, and emotional response that happens after a disturbing or distressing event. Our brain interprets a distressing event as danger, and we start to feel fear on an emotional level. Our brain releases hormones that mobilize our body which creates a fight, flight or freeze response. Once this happens, we are no longer operating at our optimal range or adequately responding to everyday situations.
I know trauma sounds morbid. But even if you think that your health is not at immediate risk (you really have no way of knowing) and your livelihood is intact, events that disrupt normal functioning and set life off-kilter cause trauma nonetheless.
During this pandemic and lockdown, the majority of responses I am seeing swing from anxiety to depression to periods of numbness All of these are typical when experiencing continuous trauma. A lot of my clients and friends report days when they feel okay and even enjoy being home in this new, slower pace of life. But then they will have moments or days of sadness, anxiety, apathy, or numbness.
I also have experienced this personally. Most days I'm working diligently. Other days I submit to my moods, caprices, and desires fully even if it makes little productive sense. Some days I feel peaceful and grateful, and some days I'm mentally exhausted and easily provoked.
We have trauma, people. Any denial of that fact is just further proof of it. Trauma is fear. Fear lowers an individual's ability to cope, diminishes their sense of self, and leads to an inability to feel their full range of emotions and experiences.
I am not suggesting that we need to be consumed by our emotions. But we cannot bypass our emotions if we want to take effective action to deal with this crisis. Any action you take is preceded by an emotion. Whether you've ever built or destroyed anything depends on the emotions you felt. We are first and foremost emotionally affected during this crisis. And those who teach us to bypass or omit our emotions and go straight to action are giving dangerous advice.
We all have different coping strategies and different means of processing our experiences. Under stress, some become highly logical, others highly emotional. Neither is right or wrong, but our society is conditioned to glorify logic and rationality over emotions. This is why "practical" advice is everywhere. We are urged to examine our actions but are hardly recommended to examine our emotions. This is also why we are the most medicated and addicted culture on the planet. We numb and medicate our emotions instead of feeling and working through them.
But even if you think that your health is not at immediate risk (you really have no way of knowing) and your livelihood is intact, events that disrupt normal functioning and set life off-kilter cause trauma nonetheless.
Because we live in a culture that glorifies achievement, it's easy to feel the pressure to jam your day with all the things you've been putting off. But many of us may not have enough mental energy to get all the things done because we are still dealing with this new reality. When in trauma, we are not able to process many experiences at the same time. Most of our energy goes toward surviving the current situation.
This is why the advice of using this time to write that book, start that business, and change the whole damn world is so detrimental right now. Those who have an urge to do something monumental during a global pandemic are naturally doing just that. For other people, processing their emotions and reorienting themselves while their world is turned upside down is what's most needed right now.
So, How Do We Deal With Trauma?
First, Stop Listening to Outside Opinions on What You Should Be Doing
Most times we land on the answers we need ourselves if we allow ourselves the time and space to process what we are feeling and really listen to our inner wisdom. You know if you need to fill your time with relaxation, entertainment, or work today. You know best. And if you end up being wrong, you learn best from your own lessons.
This All Comes Down to Altering Your Expectations of Your Mental, Physical, and Emotional Capacity
Release the idea that you must be doing something earth-shattering and monumental right now. Understand that much of your energy is being used somewhere else. Even if you don't have direct stressors on your health or finances, you may very well be experiencing loss in other areas. You may need to prioritize rest and relaxation, which is dramatically undervalued and vital for our wellbeing.
Examine Your Idea of Productivity
Productivity is a feeling; your productivity is subjective and very personal to you. You can feel just as productive after spending a day relaxing as you would after having scratched off your entire to-do list. What determines how productive you are is what feeling you value most at any given time.
If you are looking to feel focused and accomplished, working, cleaning out your closet, or catching up on reading may all give you that feeling. If you are looking for a sense of pleasure and creativity, maybe making art gives you that. If you need to physically and emotionally restore and renew, reconnecting with friends or doing something pleasurable and indulging can help create that. Being productive is not always a grind.
Accept and Validate Your Feelings
Our lives have been rattled and turned upside down. All feelings are appropriate and natural. When you tell yourself that you shouldn't feel what you're feeling, you're invalidating your experience and creating insidious internal conflicts. Internal conflict turns into shame and emotional deterioration. It is natural to feel exhausted, unsettled, numb, grief, fearful, or anything else you're feeling. We shouldn't negate our feelings. We need to feel our feelings, express them in the healthiest way we can, and move through them.
Take Care of Your Body
Trauma settles in the body as a fight, flight, or freeze response. These responses mobilize our body for danger. It is vital to create habits to burn off this negative charge. Exercise, yoga, dancing, and even cleaning can help remove tension from the body. Also, thinking about your fear or anger in a conscious way helps express it and move on.
Allow yourself to feel all the emotions that come up. Allow yourself to cry when something stirs you emotionally. Crying calms the nervous system, regulates stress and releases endorphins and oxytocin, which are the "happy" hormones.
Allow yourself time to just be. We are trained and conditioned to always do. We have become human doings instead of human beings. Sometimes the best action you can take is to allow yourself to just be. Blank space in your calendar was probably scarce prior to this lockdown, so take advantage of it now. You can fill this time with nothing in particular or with something you enjoy. This can be alone time or time spent with others. The point is to create time when you have no obligations, no responsibilities, and no demands of yourself.
If we want to lessen the stress of this extended uncertainty, we need to start listening to ourselves and tending to our mental and emotional needs first.
This isn't lazy, irresponsible, or frivolous. Leisure is, in fact, what maintains your momentum, releases stress, and keeps you inspired and energized. Leisure produces positive stress called eustress, which is the kind of stress that keeps you engaged and in the flow — when you are engrossed in what you're doing and don't notice the time passing. Eustress gets you motivated and engaged again, and reduces emotional stress and anxiety.
We will be dealing with the effects of living through this pandemic for some time to come. If we want to lessen the stress of this extended uncertainty, we need to start listening to ourselves and tending to our mental and emotional needs first. We need to address our trauma and loss and allow ourselves to simply be. That is the way to heal.
This article was originally published June 1, 2020.
WRITTEN BYAnna Dolce