Empathy is a trait all counselors seek to embody. It’s the ability to feel with another, to tap into that person’s pain and experience it alongside them. Trust me when I say, I am feeling with you in this crisis. After this first week of homeschooling kids, moving my clients to online therapy, and social distancing, I am feeling all the feels.
I daily cycle through fear, sadness, gratitude, and anger. I wouldn’t be human if these events didn’t shake me. We are creatures of habit. Our brain loves patterns and predictability. Many personality types crave structure. Now that daily routine is gone, we’re left unmoored.
Though loss of routine is trying, perhaps the most distressing change is social distancing. We are social creatures being told to hold ourselves apart from those who make our life richer and more fulfilling.
We are born wired to connect. Even in the first moments of life, we instinctively reach out to grasp the finger of another, to snuggle in close to their warmth. We cry out instinctively, “Hold me! Comfort me!” We spend childhood co-regulating with our parents. As adults, we are primarily soothed by our spouse, but close friends and extended family still play a crucial role in mental and emotional wellness.
So what are we to do when our pool of comforters is reduced? How can we go on without weekly church gatherings, play groups, and meals out with friends? The very things we’ve thought we can’t live without are gone: daily trips to Starbucks and the gym, meeting up for happy hour or Saturday brunch. What is the toll of this new isolation?
We will all be affected; there’s no denying it. So, the question now becomes, how can we minimize distress and learn to thrive in this new normal? How can we remain in our window of tolerance? “Window of tolerance” is therapy speak for staying in the range of emotion that is bearable for us personally. Staying within our window of tolerance means feeling our feelings but not allowing our feelings to catapult us into a state of agitation and anxiety or bog us down to the point of shut down and depression. We want to be aware of our emotion yet calm and in control.
I’d like to share a few practices you can add to your upcoming week to make sure you are staying within your window of tolerance. Last week was a trial run. We now see quarantine could last for a while. And, friends, we need to do more than just hang on, grit our teeth, and soldier on. How can we truly live and keep ourselves mentally strong for the next few months?
For many adults, the idea of planned, consistent self-care is foreign. With only twenty-four hours in a day, we give the bulk of our hours to career and family. Our mental, spiritual, and emotional health are placed on the back burner. Last week I outlined a few things you can do to allow and act on your emotions during this difficult time. We must all slow down and tune in to what our feelings are telling us now. If you missed that blog, you can find it here.
My suggestions in that blog are solid but worthless if you do not implement them. If you do not block out time in your schedule to work on your mental, spiritual, and emotional health, you will find yourself overwhelmed or shut down. It’s just how human nature works. You likely learned in the past to block out time for physical health. (It’s why recent gym closures are so painful for you.) Why not do the same for emotional health right now?
Journaling, meditating, reaching out to friends, praying, listening to calming music, breathing, yoga—it all counts. There’s no one right way to care for self. So, tune in to your inner wisdom. What was missing from your self-care routine last week? Did you get up early to pray and meditate, or did you sleep until the kids woke up and then let the day carry you along? Did you call a friend when you felt yourself getting blah and hopeless, or did you self-medicate with social media scrolling—a poor substitute for hearing a friend’s voice?
Did you get sucked into panic and find yourself holding your breath? Practice breathing while you are calm so you can call on that practice when you feel tense. Two apps I recommend to cultivate mindfulness and presence are Calm and Headspace (and both offer a free option).
This week is a new chance to pay attention to the cues your body is sending you and, in return, to send cues of wellness and balance to your body by devoting time to self-care.
Plan to Get Good Sleep
Sleep is often an overlooked but critical part of self-care. Friends have long laughed at how seriously I take sleep: a fan for white noise, a blind to cover my eyes, room temperature just so. I know I can’t function well without eight hours, so I do all I can to increase the odds of that happening.
You may scoff, who has time to sleep? But I’ll tell you, sleep is one of the first things we prioritize in therapy—we triage quality sleep as a top concern. You can’t attack bigger issues if you are physically spent and frazzled from lack of sleep. And trouble sleeping can signal underlying anxiety that must be addressed.
What can you do to get in bed on time? Netflix is so darn temping! Gaming on your phone or scrolling social media also seem appealing. Set an alarm on your phone twenty minutes before lights out and develop a routine for sleep (google “sleep hygiene tips” for more). Not only will your emotional stability increase after a good night’s rest but your immune system will also be stronger.
Monitor Outside Information
This is a tough one. How do we stay informed of what’s happening in the outside world while also being wise about what we allow in? Everyone reacts differently to the daily news cycle. Some find comfort in knowing all the facts and latest research, but most of us experience an uptick in anxiety the more news we consume. How do we strike the balance of being informed but not overwhelmed?
I recommend designating one time of day for news media. Perhaps you read or listen for fifteen minutes as you get ready each day but then abstain from the constant reiteration of what you really already know. NRP and The New York Times both produce a daily podcast of fifteen to thirty minutes that gives a straightforward, un-sensationalized account of what’s new for the day. Boom. You’re aware and can move on to more important things (like relationships and self-care).
Also, consider carefully what you consume on social media. Is it time to block the Debbie Downers and instead “like” inspirational or funny accounts? I highly recommend Thoughts of Dog on Twitter for a daily reminder to sneak a snoozle with those you love. For you Enneagram lovers, check out Enneadog on Twitter. Hilarious!
Think about Your Marriage
Perhaps while stuck at home with family, you may forget from time to time—or hourly—that your most precious others are still quite near. While we’ve naturally turned our attention to our children as school is out but lessons are still on, let’s not forget our marriage.
Our spouse is our greatest source of connection and coregulation in adulthood. At times, we take this relationship for granted, assuming we’ll find each other again when life with kids and our career settles down. But the time is now. More than ever, we need each other’s presence. And without youth sports and extracurriculars to gobble up your spare time, you likely have more time than ever to invest in this precious relationship.
So, during this time of slow down, why not block off time to be intentional with intimacy? We need the solace of physical touch from our partner. Might we spread germs? Perhaps. But we are talking about the one with whom we already share food, bathroom, and bed. I am no expert on infectious disease, but abstaining from sex may not keep us safe and will definitely deprive us of a source of comfort and pleasure. (If your spouse is in the medical field, has been exposed to a confirmed case, or is high risk, please take extra precaution and realize this recommendation may need modification.)
Amazon is your friend here. Lube and lingerie are just a click away. Being stuck inside does not mean you have to be stuck in a rut. Put sex on the calendar. Take turns planning something new to try. Sex is an amazing stress reducer, and we are leaving a valuable asset unutilized if we push sex to the side for the next few months.
Be firm with kids’ bedtimes. Even with no bus to catch, they don’t need to be up until ten or eleven. Getting kids to bed early ensures the sleep they need and a few hours of alone time each night for you and your spouse. If your kids are teens and stay up later, teach them that a closed bedroom door means privacy. I bet they already know.
Choose Your Attitude
We’ve often heard, “Attitude is everything.” Right now, attitude is not only everything, it’s the only thing we can control.
Folks, we are not in control of anything else. Not a bit. We can’t completely control coronavirus’s spread, how long it can exist on a surface, or how long it can be carried in a human without notice. Our physical well-being can’t be assured.
We can’t control the stock market, the consumer, or unemployment rates. The economy can’t be forced out of a tailspin. Our financial comfort is threatened.
However, the one thing we can still control is mental attitude. I’ve thought so often lately of this quote, written by Victor Frankl, psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor, in Man’s Search for Meaning:
Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human
freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose
one’s own way . . . Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space
is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our
I read Man’s Search for Meaning, Frankl’s memoir about his time in Auschwitz, while in graduate school, and it made for interesting class discussion. The idea of persevering against an overwhelming threat was all theoretical. We found it easy to applaud Frankl’s bravery in the concentration camp because it was abstract, a history we had not lived.
Now, I am in no way equating our current circumstance to the Holocaust. Please hear me on that. However, I see overlapping themes.
We are now in a situation no one could have conceived one hundred days ago. Remember Neville Chamberlain’s 1938 declaration of “peace for our time” after talks with Germany? Everyone wanted to believe the best. No one could predict how the world would turn upside down in unprecedented ways. Humans exterminated? No way.
Remember the “it’s only a virus, like the flu” line of reasoning? We all wanted to believe that COVID-19 was a blip, a few days out of work. This reaction is natural and understood. After all, we’ve never lived through a similar experience. We have never been asked to keep kids home and shelter in place. How could we know? How were we to see it coming? How were we, the wealthy West, to envision a time hospitals would not have enough beds, enough supplies? Nonsense.
But happen it did. Against all logic and reason, here we are. Truth can be stranger than fiction, and so we must respond to a trial that seemed unthinkable only last month.
So, what are we to do? How do we face day after day of uncertainty and fear? We choose our attitude. We get up every morning and thank God for the day. We name the things we are grateful for. We prioritize prayer, breathing, and connection. We offer and accept soothing touch. We take care of ourselves and check in with our feelings. We allow all feelings and reach out for help when we need to process our experience.
Now, I am not delusional. Sex and self-care doesn’t erase the effects of a pandemic, but we will be crushed if we camp out in the gravity of our circumstance. We must hold on to hope and look for the good that is still around us.
You are writing the story of your life with the decisions you make each day. Will you choose a narrative of fear and defeat or one of growth and resilience? Will you tolerate your circumstance or will you thrive?
If you need professional help sorting through your feelings or processing the struggle, I am now offering tele-mental health sessions to my counseling clients. “Tele-mental health” simply means I send clients a link to a HIPPA-compliant platform through which we can talk via video during the appointment time. It’s like FaceTime but with technology that protects your privacy.
If you’d like to hear more, please reach out: email@example.com or 404-507-2163