The Corona Chronicles Part II: Real People, Real Coping

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If your COVID-19 fantasy is to be driving down a country road in a convertible, screaming at the top of your lungs, you are not alone. During this stressful time of the coronavirus infiltrating our national and individual psyches and our lives, I’ve continued my work as a psychologist treating people struggling to cope with the impact of the coronavirus in all aspects of their lives. My purpose here is to share with readers what I have learned from my patients about what works to alleviate their present distress when they have limited access to their normally stabilizing routines, activities and social networks.

Unusual Circumstances Require Adaptive Solutions

Routine: Individuals differ so greatly in their needs and feelings that there is no universal recommendation that will lead to optimal functioning for all. However, it appears almost universally true that the presence of a well-practiced routine, which both anchors and comforts, allows us to operate with greater ease, reducing the amount of thought and preparation and, thus, the mental and physical energy required to sustain activity. Without this, it may be challenging to get motivated and stay focused. Unfortunately, our former routines may no longer apply to the current circumstances and it becomes necessary to develop new ones.

Boundaries: Establishing boundaries around our time and the activities that require sustained, undivided attention is essential for follow-through and task completion. We may be unaware of just how much interference interruptions, even welcome ones, create. It is important to give oneself permission to limit others’ access to us, or to not respond to demands from others during certain times. This may be easier to accomplish if we designate a specific time to carry out a task and a set amount of time for it in order to give notice to others of our availability. This also prevents the intrusion into time allocated for other tasks by those not completed. The nature of the activity is less important than how we handle it. This includes building breaks and personal time into the routine and treating those in the same way.

Schedules: A schedule should allow for time at the beginning and end of the day in whatever activities are meaningful to mark that day as distinct from every other. How that time is spent is perhaps less important than the fact of its inclusion as part of a routine. Additionally, incorporating into the schedule on a regular basis some event that we look forward to can motivate us to face the next day. Discouragement and even depression can arise from our present predicament. Thus, giving ourselves daily reminders of what we are grateful for, what felt good, what made us smile or feel proud of ourselves or others may offer some relief.

Variety and Change: Following routines and staying with unvarying schedules may — for some people — have the unintended effect of producing stultifying boredom. For example, participating in frequent or lengthy video meetings via a computer in the same location while seated in the same chair at the same desk each time can contribute to feeling bored and trapped. Attention can wane and give rise to edginess and irritability. Varying the location in which work tasks are performed may help provide an actual and psychological change of scene that counters this tendency.

Adhering to a routine may be more difficult than it appears as access to our usual activities has changed or disappeared and new ways to meet old needs have yet to be identified. Further, people may feel they should be working and may experience guilt at perceiving themselves to be unproductive. We need to not let work seduce us and keep us from our usual non-working pastimes. We still need opportunities to work out and engage in other activities that fulfill our needs. If our participation in fitness activities depended on a gym being accessible or a class being held, alternatives must now be identified and located. Whether we choose to go outside to get exercise in the neighborhood or to find an interactive online class or video instruction, we must be able to adapt to the changes that are involved, including location, resources needed, coordinating and incorporating these into a new routine, using different muscles, seeing fewer people, and generally accepting visual, social, auditory and physical stimulation that may be different from what we are accustomed.

Our eating habits (and other self-care activities) may also have changed as food shopping has become more of a challenge, with our usual selections missing from the stores and shopping trips occurring less frequently. There may be a plus side to this for some, with more time to prepare food, and the discovery of creative ways to compensate for the lack of the usual foods and supplies. However, with increased time in the home, some people find that the refrigerator calls their name far too often and weight gain has been a result. There may be some protection to be found in a routine that incorporates a set menu with designated meal preparation and dining times. Weight Watchers meetings and 12-step group meetings are taking place virtually for those who need this support.

Getting Out Without Going Out For New Experiences And Alleviating Boredom

Having a variety of experiences can help combat the boredom generated by what may feel like endless hours confined within the same space. Although we may be unable to travel or gain easy access to entertainment, we can find any number of virtual opportunities for diversion including concerts, museum tours, Broadway shows, live webcams at zoos, lectures, classes, outdoor adventures, the wonders of the world, gardens, cooking tutorials and more. The internet is a treasure trove of resources, and I encourage readers to do some exploring of what is available.

Awareness Of Our Social Needs: Not Enough To Go Around

Some of us function best and become animated, energized and productive by connecting with others. It is easy to feel trapped at home, looking at the same faces every day or isolated entirely, with little infusion of new ideas, energy or excitement. With that style, the stimulation offered through social interaction is essential to maintain a creative spark. Such people need to find a way to supplement the loss of that vital life force during this period of relative isolation. Scheduling collaborative work and social activities through online interactive platforms becomes their life force and lifeline. I have been told by several people that they derive intellectual, social and creative stimulation from internet-based interactive book clubs, classes, exercise and walking groups, and more, particularly if work has stalled or is insufficiently connected to others to meet that need. Others are satisfied by meeting in person while practicing social distancing, in parks and yards, on porches, street corners, and even in parking lots.

Awareness Of Our Social Needs: Too Much Of A Good Thing

Alternatively, some people find that there is a threshold beyond which they feel depleted if exposed to what is for them excessive social interaction or other forms of stimulation. These people must protect themselves and allow time to recharge by establishing limits on the amount of contact or stimulation they experience. Having time alone that offers them the chance to retreat, reflect, meditate, perform yoga or engage in some other activity that rejuvenates is critical. Prioritizing these activities by setting aside time in our schedule to engage in them may be the only way to ensure that need is met. This may be easier said than done and enlisting the cooperation of others to assist us in making that time and space inviolable may be required.

The Gift Of Personal Growth

The virus acts as an accelerant, intensifying both favorable and adverse styles of responding to it. A key component of responding successfully is self-awareness, which enables us to function effectively based on knowing how we feel and what we need. Self-acceptance allows us to put into action what self-awareness teaches us about ourselves.

A significant challenge in dealing with the restrictions we face in order to protect our health and that of others during this pandemic is how to act on this self-awareness to meet our needs and provide the type of stimulation necessary for us to stay emotionally and physically healthy. It is, perhaps, a benefit of COVID-19 that we are offered this opportunity to develop such insight. It may take some creative thinking, trial and error, and exposure to unfamiliar experiences or activities to shake us out of old habits and make lifestyle changes. The gift of such growth may last a lifetime.

Adjusting To Loss

Not to be overlooked is the looming presence caused by losses attendant to this virus. These may be as large as death, or nearly so, from the extended recovery and infirmity this virus has inflicted on so many. Also of significant impact are the manifold losses of opportunities to interact freely with others and the ease and frequency with which we have been accustomed to doing so.

Other losses may include a job or professional opportunity, the interruption of education or the loss of hope. The future is even less predictable than during pre-virus times, and planning may yield nothing definitive. It may appear difficult and perhaps futile to plan when what had been relatively constant, such as employment, income and schedules, to name a few, are also lost. With loss of certainty comes loss of peace of mind. It will be necessary to face these losses and find ways to cope with them. This is a topic for further exploration.

Dr. Sheri Bellow is a licensed psychologist in practice in Crofton, Maryland.

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