If you are following social media at all, then you have noticed the outpouring of advice on everything from how to stay safe in the pandemic, to how to work from home, to how to turn your kitchen into a classroom for your children’s at-home learning. Another wave has washed over us with insight on how we are to deal with our emotions in a healthy way. We have heard everything from buck up–you don’t have it as bad as your grandparents did (and certainly not as bad as those on the front lines of our hospitals), to feel your feelings and it is ok to grieve, to get busy and productive so you come out of this thing victorious and stronger than ever. How are we to make sense of the noise?
I confess that I have wrestled with processing the noise and, as a mental health therapist, I have wrestled with whether and how much to add to that noise. In the initial weeks, I was in my own state of shock and paralysis. All I could do was listen and look around in disbelief. Words, wisdom did not readily come. I was simply trying to assimilate the facts as presented by the news and government authorities, as well as gauge the public response. How were people coping? How were they feeling? What were the unique challenges in my community? What did my family need? Would my elderly mother be ok? Would my daughter go back to school? What would my clients need? Would my therapy practice go on? Would I have anything to offer my clients when I felt like such a mess myself? When I found myself feeling lost, I took time to think and to pray and to listen deeply to the pastors, scientists, and mental health experts who inform my perspectives. Indeed, I can hardly say that any thought in this blog entry originated with me.
Eventually, my heart felt a bit more steady and my brain began to balance. I offered some mental health tips that I thought might be helpful. I have encouraged physical self-care such as exercise, sleep hygiene, and sunshine. My work with individual clients has included basic coping skills and deep dives into the heart. Daily, it seems, the public mood keeps shifting. The benefit of working with clients in the privacy of the therapy office is that we can discern with precision what needs soothing, what needs challenge, and what simply needs presence. Speaking to broader audiences, one risks offering the wrong words at the wrong time to the right person, whom you truly want to help. (Credit goes to my dear friend Lisa for giving me the helpful lens of right words/right time.)
Survival or Growth?
Which leads me to the question at hand. As we sort through well-meaning advice, how do we know what words are right for us? How do we find the word of encouragement that we need without feeling pressured to take on more than we can? And how do we decide between the goal of simply surviving this pandemic and the goal of growing from it–the desire to flourish and possibly come out more whole on the other side? The answer, I believe, is that we can do both. We are not forced to choose between two opposite outcomes. It is not one or the other. On surviving, we can offer kindness and compassion to ourselves when we have those days or hours when breathing is the only objective. We can accept that we do not have to write our first novel or train for a marathon or organize our entire house during the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic. Mental health experts agree that we are in a state of trauma or, at the very least, pre-traumatic conditions. Sometimes, the best we can do is feel around to get our bearings and take the next breath until we lay hold of solid ground. It is ok. Disorientation is normal when you experience markers of trauma such as unpredictability, immobility, and loss.
Self-compassion, however, is not inconsistent with growth. In fact, the two are quite compatible. Imagine that you decided to cut out sugar for the remainder of quarantine. The next day you find yourself eating cookies by 10 a.m. It does no good to berate yourself. If we engage our human limits and “failures” with contempt rather than with compassionate care and curiosity, we actually create more shame. Our shame then increases the likelihood that we will do the very thing we did not want to do in the first place in order to soothe the newly created painful feelings. This creates a cycle of despair that is well outlined in Kelly McGonigal’s book The Will Power Instinct (2013).
Thus, we can be gentle with ourselves and yet still orient toward growth. Self-compassion has more than one face. Yes, self-compassion is allowing ourselves rest when we need it, time to breathe when we we are drowning, or the option of NOT setting new goals when we lack the emotional or physical energy to pursue them. But it is also giving ourselves permission to grow, to laugh, to reflect deeply, to pursue dreams, and yes, to even aspire towards new goals for ourselves in the midst of a crisis, particularly when that crisis spans weeks or months. A client asked something like this recently, “Is it ok to actually hope to flourish in this crisis?” Yes! Yes, a resounding yes! Yes, you can honor the losses and tragedy of COVID-19 while also living your life as fully as possible within the boundaries of sheltering-in-place. If it helps you to feel empowered to challenge yourself to one more push up than yesterday, by all means, go for it! If it is a deeper change you long for, then follow the leadings of your heart.
If you agree that we are indeed in a time of suffering (albeit in varying levels of severity), then you will likely discover that you will be changed by the suffering. That is just the way suffering works. We face challenges, heartache, unimaginable loss in life. We face Big “T” Traumas and Little “T” Traumas. Suffering, either in its midst or its aftermath, propels us toward a life that either enlarges toward love or shrinks toward death. If we are going to be changed by the suffering anyway, then exploring who we are becoming, revisiting our values, and realigning our dreams and priorities with those values holds great potential to move us toward love and expansion.
Flourishing Where You Are
What then does it mean to flourish while also coping with the reality of a deeply disorienting crisis? How do we possibly hold surviving and flourishing together when they seem to be in tension? Two suggestions come to mind:
One, honor the emotional state that you are in on any given day. Feel your feelings. Name them. I love long distance running. But one day last week I was overwhelmed with the sadness of grief. I have learned that it is best to move slowly on those kinds of days. Rather than run, I walked. I walked and prayed and cried and texted my friend Christine. She told me that it was ok to be sad and that I was doing a good thing by walking. The sadness showed up for a visit, but it did not move in for good. Grief and emotions are fluid, they will come and go like waves. Honor them and match your daily pace with their rhythm.
At the same time, beware of one toxic emotion–SHAME. Decide that unhealthy shame will not be your parting gift from any conversation, social media post, or accusation from your inner critic. (There is a role for healthy shame to play in helping us adhere to pro-social behavior–it helps ensure the survival of the group. It is unfortunately rarely applied in healthy ways, but that topic goes beyond this blog.) If you find yourself peering over the edge of a shame spiral because an article triggers feelings of pressure, inadequacy, or a desire to hide your true self from others, then that is not the article for you, at least at that time. Rather, it is an indication that you need a different kind of care and support in that moment.
The Allender Center shared a podcast recently on the nature of God’s protection. (Love and Courage in a Global Pandemic, Parts One through Three, theallendercenter.org). At the outset, Dr. Allender cautioned listeners that the discussion may not be beneficial for every listener at that particular time. For some, wrestling with hard realities about what divine protection means might be more triggering than helpful in that moment. “Listener beware,” he cautioned — “Listen until you can’t.” Applied broadly, I would say the same. That is, be kind to yourself. Take what is helpful and leave the rest. For now. Seek comfort. Believe that you are enough exactly as you are in this moment, and believe that you are doing your best. Try to believe that of others as well.
Two, once you have your bearings, move toward your “window of tolerance,” which is that emotional landscape where you can go just to the growth edge but no farther. Go to the place where you can tolerate some discomfort, without becoming overwhelmed. What does growth look like in a pandemic? I suggest that it is actually activity in the most ordinary spaces of our humanity. For many of us, we are being challenged to remain present with ourselves (and others) in the day-to-day matters of life–the waking, the eating, the love-making, the listening. We are being challenged to slow down enough to take good care of ourselves, to embrace both discipline and pleasure, and to show kindness to our bodies and their natural rhythms. I believe that this challenge can provide rich soil for growth in this pandemic. And I believe that the opportunity for this growth lies in the unlikely taproot of trauma and our bodies’ built in trauma response. Let me explain.
Trauma and Growth
Bessel Van der Kolk is a widely-respected trauma researcher and clinician in the City of Boston. He authored The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma (2015), a book which has helped millions of practitioners and suffering people understand the nature of trauma and how it resides in our bodies. He has also been a champion for therapy interventions that engage the human body in healing (beyond the landscape of talk therapy). Recently, Dr. Van der Kolk gave a podcast lecture entitled Nurturing our mental health during the COVID-19 pandemic (see besselvanderkolk.com). Dr. Van der Kolk, like many physicians and therapists, has recommended such things as: daily structure, activating our bodies through exercise, socially-distanced human connection, naming your feelings/”finding words for internal experience” and sharing those feelings with someone safe, deep breathing and yoga, tai chi, or similar practices, and creative endeavors such as cooking a meal according to a recipe. Each of these recommendations stem from a concern that our collective mental health is at risk in the current crisis. Dr. Van der Kolk argues that we have not yet fully studied the effects of pandemic trauma, but several factors that create the pre-conditions for trauma are present now:
Lack of predictability
Loss of connection
Numbing out and spacing out
Loss of sense of agency
Loss of sense of time and sequences
Loss of safety
Loss of sense of purpose
To buffer the potential impact of these factors, Dr. Van der Kolk suggests the coping strategies mentioned above. The strategies are not suggested as a way to add pressure, shame, or more fear, but to mitigate the impact of those things that we know can be damaging to the human psyche.
You may not be convinced that trauma is present for those of us who have not been personally infected by the virus or lost a loved one to it. But if you examine your responses, you may learn something of your own emotional vulnerability. Dr. Dan Allender has noted that the crisis will likely pull up in each of us our typical way of coping with threat. That is, we will often lean into fight, flight, or freeze responses when we are facing harm, loss, or exposure (shame). Fight might be engaging the crisis as though you are certain that you will be triumphant, perhaps warring against it and against the restraint on your freedom. Fight might be going to battle with the virus itself by armoring hard with disinfectant. Fight for some might be battling with anyone who disagrees with a particular strategy for ensuring our collective survival or anyone who defies the mandates for social distancing.
Flight, on the other hand, might be a denial of the problem and an escape into the fantasy that the virus could never reach you or your family. Flight might be spending five days lost in Netflix and refusing to watch the news or to allow others to speak of it. Flight might look like escape into substance abuse or other defenses to numb out the feelings of fear, powerlessness, or anger. The freeze response might look like a complete paralysis in front of the news reports for hours on end, rendering a person unable to move to the right or the left, much less forward.
The strategies for nurturing our mental health are helps to connect us more vitally with ourselves, to stay in touch with our bodies and hearts and loved ones. They are to help us maintain a sense of identity and purpose because those things ground us in reality with meaning. They help us make wise decisions for ourselves and others. Creating a schedule counteracts that aspect of trauma that robs us of predictability, a sense of time and sequence, and security. Moving and challenging our bodies counteracts that aspect of trauma that renders us immobile, trapped, and numbed out. In a separate talk, (When the COVID-19 Pandemic Leaves Clients Feeling Helpless, Nicabm.com), Dr. Van der Kolk recommends not only yoga and breath movement, but also dancing–communal movement, as well as weight-lifting and push ups! We need to feel a sense of our own power and agency in order to connect with our own vitality. Powerlessness is a hallmark of trauma and is the great lie whispered to those suffering with depression. Connecting with our own agency, our ability to make something happen through our efforts — no matter how small–is an antidote to powerlessness. Agency grows far more powerfully through movement and experience than through mere words. (Recall the example above of cooking a meal by following a recipe–the activity helps us rediscover that we can create things and make things happen predictably when we engage in certain actions. Those who are sewing protective masks are likely feeling this benefit also, as well as the sense of empowerment that comes with helping others.)
Moving our bodies also helps us to metabolize the accumulating stress. According to Dr. Van der Kolk, exercise may also help lower the rising rates of domestic violence, child abuse, and relapse from drug and alcohol addiction that are a growing by-product of this crisis. Finally, the value of intentional connection with others can help us undo some of the isolation that we feel. It can give us a felt sense of being seen, heard, and cared for. The impact of trauma grows in isolation.
The Calm Before the Dreaming
So what does buffering the effects of pre-traumatic conditions have to do with growth in this crisis? Everything. If we can return to calm, return to structure, return to our bodies, then we will have far greater access to our creativity and our compassion. It is in these spaces that we might make better sense of what is happening to us, to our country, to our world. It is in these spaces that we are likely to find solutions that will help our neighbor. It is in these spaces that we are likely to connect with our deeper values and set our intentions on who we want to be when we are once again free to engage with the world around us. I do not know what dreams or aspirations may come to you during this crisis. The beauty of being human is that the dreams, the goodness that we are called to bring, and the particular expression of each of our stories is as unique as our fingerprints.
My best advice amidst all of this noise–be kind to yourself. Relentlessly reject toxic shame. Take what is helpful in your search for answers and leave the rest. And from a place of kindness, not judgment, grow in your basic disciplines of being a balanced human. If that feels dull compared to the bustle of your pre-COVID life, try imagining yourself as a skillful warrior. Re-imagine those disciplines as strategic counter-punches to pre-traumatic conditions that have invaded your doorstep. And finally, when you find a moment of clarity and calm amidst the chaos, when you remember your power and the essence of your made-in-the-image of God creative self that cannot be taken away from you, pay attention to any dreams and goals that float into your awareness. Maybe they will, and maybe they won’t. It is alright either way. But whatever shows up, welcome those dreams as gifts and not as tyrants.
With gentleness and love and tremendous hope in you, me, and the God who sees us all… Robie