Today, The Healing Collective member, therapist Jennifer Shields shares her tips on managing stress in the face of Covid-19.
Surviving the World on Pause
It’s a difficult time for many, and I wanted to share with you body-based, trauma-informed ways for coping with the current situation that we as a society have found ourselves in. As I sit down to write this article, I reflect that I’m writing not only so that that I can share this message with you, but also so that I can remind myself – it’s a practice to stay grounded and positive in the worst of times, and I’m hoping that the tools that I have found helpful will benefit you, too.
What stands out to me most right now is how much stress we are all collectively experiencing as a result of the widespread health crisis and associated economic uncertainty and social isolation. Since attending a lecture with Dr. Gabor Mate in November, I’ve been fascinated with his research about stress and the impacts that it can have on the body. According to Dr. Mate, there are three factors that lead to stress:
2) lack of information
3) the loss of control
These criteria perfectly summarize the current global landscape, and it’s no wonder, then, that this is a time of significant risk to mental health for all.
The current risk to mental health is further exacerbated by having a previous history of trauma. Here, I’m using the term “trauma” to incorporate single-incident trauma as well as more pervasive experiences of difficulties in the child/caregiver relationship during development. When people have difficult life histories, perceptions of threat are especially heightened, and the body can experience the stress response in a way that may feel unmanageable. What has become apparent to me in my therapy practice is the widespread pervasiveness of those who have experienced trauma in our society, and this makes me think that many people who were already struggling before this crisis may be in need of additional support.
During a time of extreme stress, it is crucial that we employ strategies around:
1) emotional competence (the capacity to feel our emotions, so that we are aware when we are experiencing stress) and
2) emotional regulation (the ability to respond to the emotions we are feeling in a helpful way)
Dr. Mate explains it best in his book, “When the Body Says No: The Cost of Hidden Stress”:
“The role of self-regulation, whether emotional or physical, may be likened to that of a thermostat ensuring that the temperature in a home remains constant despite the extremes of weather conditions outside. When the environment becomes too cold, the heating system is switched on. If the air becomes overheated, the air conditioner begins to work.”
It is safe to say that we are experiencing “extremes of weather conditions outside”, so here are some ways that can be useful to practicing emotional regulation and getting you through this time.
AWARENESS OF FEELINGS:
While seemingly simple, much of the work I do with my clients includes quieting the cognitive reel and tuning into how the body feels. “What are you feeling right now, and where do you feel it?”.
I often use the book “Listening to my Body” by Gabi Garcia in sessions with children and teens to help them recognize the relationship between sensations and emotions. But I also show this book… to adults. If we didn’t learn how to listen to our bodies as children, if our caregivers never taught us, how we would know how to listen to our bodies as adults?
The ability to listen to the body and place language to sensations and emotions is crucial in the process of emotional regulation. In his book, “The Whole Brain Child”, psychiatrist Dr. Dan Siegel uses the phrase “name it to tame it”, which means that once we use our left brains to put language to the emotional experiences of the right brain, the emotions themselves lessen in their intensity. Understanding the sensations we are feeling in our bodies is crucial to emotional competence and, therefore, emotional regulation.
So.. go ahead and ask yourself: what are you feeling right now, and where do you feel it? Have a look at the feelings wheel and go ahead and pick as many as you need to describe your inner experience. It’s okay if the feelings are contradictory. Just pick what you think describes your experience right now and stay with that.
Plutchik’s Wheel of Emotions
ACCEPTANCE AND COMPASSION:
Simply put, acceptance is the willingness to recognize and accept things exactly as they are. Here I challenge you to make a clear statement about:
1) what the situation/problem you are experiencing is right now
2) how you are acting
In order to tackle a problem, that problem to has be defined. Right now everyone is being affected by the current crisis, although everyone’s experience is unique. I challenge you to make a statement about what the “worst part” of your situation is right now. Whether the problem includes difficulties in relationships, isolation, financial hardship – write down what you are struggling with in order to start to work with it, no matter how scary it may seem.
Second, we know that stress, grief, and fear can have us acting in ways that are less than desirable towards ourselves and others. If you are experiencing shame around the way you are acting, see if you can bring some compassion to yourself. Start with a self-statement of what’s going on for you right now:
“I’m being snippy with my [partner, parent, child]”
“I’m finding it hard to be productive”
“I can’t stop crying”
.. or whatever it is that’s unique to your situation.
And then bring a WHOLE lot of compassion to all that is going on for you. You may say “of course I’m finding it hard to be productive, because I’m feeling very isolated”. Or.. “of course I’m crying, my job is uncertain right now!”. Speak to yourself in a way that you would a beloved person. This is a time to nurture the most important relationship you have – the one with yourself.
There is research to show that the repression of anger as a major risk factor for disease (as outlined by Dr. Gabor Mate). I don’t know about you, but right now I’m finding a lot of reasons to be angry, if not for the unfairness of it all.
I’m not saying that you should go and act aggressively towards people (indeed, there is a lot of research to show the relationship between rage and cardiovascular disease). What I’m saying is that we should all find ways to move feelings of anger through us.
I just watched the movie “It’s a Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” about Mr. Rogers. The movie portrays Mr. Rogers as pounding the keys of a piano and going for a daily swim in order to deal with feelings of anger - all necessary ways of letting emotions move through him so that he can otherwise act in a way that align with his values.
In order to manage difficult emotions, like anger, we have to first notice that they’re there, and then do something with them. Whether that’s going for a run, doing yoga, pounding the keys of a piano, cooking, screaming into a pillow, doing 10 push ups – whatever it is, we must to do something to respond to built-up energy.
MAINTAIN AUTONOMY AND BOUNDARIES:
Under different circumstances, I often ask clients to reflect on what they want more or less of in their lives, what relationships they find fulfilling, what jobs they want, and what they want to accomplish. After you figure out what it is you want, you can then maintain boundaries about where you put your energy and attention.
During times of crisis, I’m less interested in the grand scheme of people’s lives than having them answer – what is important to you TODAY? This could be anything from ensuring that a very tiny part of your living space is organized in a way that you like, or that you eat a comforting meal, spend some time playing with your kids, that the laundry gets done, or that a specific task at work is completed. Whatever it is, it’s crucial that we remind ourselves that there is always a locus of control inside ourselves, even in the worst of situations.
So, pick something that’s important to you and try to let go of the need for everything to be perfect – if your goal is to pay with your kids, know that the laundry may not get done and that’s okay. Control what you can and say no to things that get in the way of that.
One day on my street I spotted a line-up of pre-schoolers, walking along holding onto a rope flanked by two teachers, bellowing at the top of their lungs: “I AM LITTLE AND I AM HERE! I AM LITTLE AND I AM HERE!”. The moment absolutely struck me.. what a beautiful lesson to teach young kids, that no matter how little they are, they have an important place here on this earth.
During a time of loss and uncertainty, it is crucial that we assert that we are here, on this earth, and that we have value, independent of our histories, personality, abilities, or the world’s perception of us.
It’s a time when many of our identities are being compromised – often our self-worth is attached to our places of work, learning, and socializing. In western society our identity is also associated with our economic output, which is challenged right now.
Perhaps you may find it helpful to recite the mantra “I am, therefore I am enough”. Or “my worth is not associated with my productivity”. Whatever it is, you may not believe it at first – pay attention to the way your body reacts and see if you can lessen tension each time you recite your own personal mantra/statement of being.
We are absolutely wired for attachment, that is, meaningful relationships with others who see and accept us exactly as we are. During this time of isolation, connections suffer, leaving the nervous system vulnerable to the negative effects of stress.
There are many ways to stay connected during this time, including writing snail mail letters, using Facetime or Zoom for social gatherings, checking in on loved ones over the phone, or watching a show together at the same time.
If you are finding it hard to connect with loved ones, please note that you are not alone. You can reach out to your therapist – many practitioners are offering online sessions – or a crisis line (see the bottom of this article for resources).
If you are having difficulty paying for therapy as a result of lost income, inquire with your therapist about a sliding scale – many therapists are sensitive to the difficulties that everyone is facing.
Last, many therapists, including Dr. Mate and Dr. Brene Brown suggest that being creative is vital to positive mental health and to our humanity. Whether it’s drawing, painting, singing, writing, taking pictures, making music, or even cooking – see if you can use the time at home to practice any form of creativity.
By definition when we are being creative we are being present, and when we are present, it is hard to worry about the future. So…create something – anything – and take a small break from your worries… I promise they will still be there when you are done.
I’m hoping that these guidelines will help make today a little better for you, and know that if you need to talk, I am here for you.
- Figure out how you’re feeling, you can use the emotion wheel as a guideline
- Accept the situation as it is, and how you are acting as a result, with a whole lot of compassion
- Express your feelings (anger) in healthy ways
- Maintain autonomy, set boundaries, and experience an internal locus of control where you can
- Assert your worth in the world, loud and clear, irrespective of the situation you are in
- Maintain connections with other humans, loved ones or helpers – you are not alone
- Get creative, no skill necessary
And if you’re struggling with unmanageable feelings, please know there is help:
Distress Centre of Toronto: 416-408-4357
- Gerstein Crisis Centre: 416-929-5200
- Assaulted Women’s Help Line: 416-863-0511
- Suicide and Crisis Hotline (Canada Wide): 1-800-448-3000