3 Ways to Keep Pandemic Stress from Becoming Chronic Stress
You have been stuck in your house for 50, 60, 70 days. You're noticing that as things open up, you're feeling cautious, wary, and anxious. You're noticing that while you're happy that the cases of Covid19 have been reducing generally across the board and that the curve has been flattened, your stress still is there and though things aren't as bad as they were in the beginning. You're still feeling raw.
This time of quarantine has been hard on everyone, especially those of us who are in the caregiving professions, physicians and frontline providers, and parents working from home, balancing careers and homeschooling. The heavy load-- worrying about getting sick, being separated from our friends and family, how to balance 6 Zoom meetings per person on one computer--these worries are becoming less pressing as schools are letting out, people are going back to work, and the world starts to tentatively open up.
Yet you're not feeling relief. Instead, you're worried about new financial stress that was not there 3 months ago. You're worried about whether school or sports will return for your stressed out kids. You're worried about whether childcare is actually a safe place to send your baby. You're worried about whether this will all come back in a few short months.
Pandemic anxiety is real. Most of us have it to some degree, as what we're going through is a collective stress, not just an individual or self-contained one. There are some blessings in this--the idea that we're all in this together, that we can collectively support each other, and that we are absolutely a part of a whole--that can be reassuring in our dark times. Despite this, we are still faced with so much uncertain, worry, and often, justifiable fear.
A metaphor to consider
I often reflect on how this feels like a storm of sorts. We are all in our separate boats, being battered by a force that is unseen but knowable and definitely causing serious fear and worry. Just like in a storm, we are not sure when it will pass, but we do know, like all storms, that they do. But also, when we are battered by a storm, we are not called to make sense of the storm when we're in it. We batten down the hatches, hold on and pray.
How can we translate this metaphor to our lives?
1. Batten down the hatches.
This means to recognize what is loose on your "deck" and get it secured. Know what is "loose" in your life takes real reflection and self-awareness. A better question may be, what is working right now, and what isn't? What--or who--is helping me cope with life, and who or what isn't? Perhaps that means reducing your work load, taking fewer meetings, being more diligent about your self-care, reducing how many chores you're doing and soliciting the kids' help. Perhaps it means reaching out for support from those in your life who are most helpful and encouraging in times of stress. Perhaps it means looking at ways you distract yourself from life with self-sabotoaging behaviors and instead choose healthier ways of living.
2. Hold on.
This means to recognize our helplessness. This means vulnerability, awareness of what is happening, and some allowing of what is to be, to be. "What we resist, persists." When we push back, strive, shake our fists at the storm, the storm doesn't care, it rages on. This is an opportunity to listen to the storm, to listen to your heartbeat that thumps in your chest, to be self-compassionate about that fear and discomfort and worry that is swirling around you. This is a time to hold on to those healthy people and behaviors that help lift you and lighten your load.
Releasing your non-control in to the universe is a wise way of coping in these stormy times. Non-theistic and religious folks have their own idea of prayer--connecting to music, to love, to connection with friends or family. Whatever your "god," prayer means we release that which is not in our control. Prayer could mean being present to your children in wonder as you are reading to them. Prayer may mean watching the birds fly past in formation. Prayer may be shaking your fists in anger at the injustice at it all, then making yourself a warm cup of tea and call a friend. When we release our sense of control, when we allow, we are able to let the waves of the storm roll over us and allow the storm to pass without getting wrapped up in it, angry, upset, overwhelmed to the point of fight, flight or freeze.
Moving from fear to resiliency
These three ways of managing pandemic stress can help prevent chronic stress. When we go through something like this collective crisis, it serves as an opportunity for us to realize what is working in our lives and what is not when it comes to our emotional health. The storm around us can show us in sharp relief those habits that have been crutches for you, those places in your lives that have been neglected, and where self-care and self-compassion is greatly needed. When we notice these places, we are better able to acknowledge how we got there, and how to cope moving forward. And when we learn to cope, we can better stave off any chronic stress and instead heartfully embrace a full life with resiliency and hope.
Blessings in the storm,