Ask a Therapist: Learning to Live in an Indefinite Crisis

by Liz Covey

Question: This shutdown thing feels like it will last forever, even though I know it won’t. At first I was sort of rolling with it, I got some masks, and checked in with my neighbors and all my family members. But now I’m beginning to unravel a bit. I’m not really sleeping well, and my husband tells me I’m being really negative. Should I try to remain positive, even though I’m starting to kind of lose it? There is so much advice out there, I can barely stand to even look at it anymore. What should I do??

Dear Reader,

I sort of miss the old days, when my job was occasionally a little dull. The work of a therapist has a big range, so at times things can be a little low-key. But not these days. It’s a pretty steady hum of intensity now with coronavirus, the shutdown, and the toll this is taking on each of us. And despite mental health work getting overlooked generally as “essential,”  we are often the first responders of emotional health. This gives me something of a window into how we are doing collectively, and it’s allowed me to see some consistent themes arise, week by long week.  

Thank you, Reader, for raising the points that have been particularly trending in this past week, our seventh in quarantine. With a little time under our belts, we have a handle on the basics of how to do this, living as many of us do in a Little House on the Prairie version of our previous lives: forever cooking, cleaning,  and having “school” at home. Except with streaming channels, online delivery- and limitless screens to keep us working or nominally connected to life “before”, with varying degrees of success. That is, if we are even fortunate enough to still have an income, or contact points to our lives before all this began.

But as this evolves over time, things seem to be getting a little more tricky.

The phases I’ve observed seem to go something like this: shock, panic and provision (the toilet paper hysteria), hurried adaptation, and now, settling in with something like acceptance but which also seems to feel a bit unhinged.

These days, my clients and friends are feeling the toll of a long time already in captivity, with no end in sight. And now seems to be the time when we are beginning to see the bugs in our initial systems, the places where this isn’t really working. Many of us are noticing that we need a better plan, and more skills to make it. Or at least make it without losing our minds or hurting our kids or loved ones.

One unique thing of many about this catastrophe, Reader, is that we have huge adjustments to make for now, but it isn’t forever. The amount of time that we are asked to upend our lives is, in a word, awkward: too long to just grit our teeth and push through it, and yet not long enough to completely reorient to a new way of life. It’s a long-term temporary problem, and that makes it hard for our psyches to know how to handle this. One of the few parallels, as many have pointed out, is wartime. No one seems to have much control over how this will go, or when it will end, but it will, at some point, end. And when you consider the threat of the double pandemic– the dual health and economic crises- the notion of what is on the other side of this is also unknown. When we go back to “normal”, what will “normal” be? How many businesses will shutter, and what will civic life be like when this is all over? And how secure are any of us in our jobs, careers, or habits, once the storm has passed? No one can be certain.

As our culture “before” is one drenched in distraction and over-doing it, we are prone to replicate those patterns in our crisis times. So for many of us, that is where we found ourselves up until now: using our clever defenses, our strategies of coping (some healthy, some not) in order to avoid feeling things we were afraid of, in order to adjust. For many this looks like binging TV or our drug of choice. Or overwork and ambitious goal-setting, the sneakiest of our defenses in a culture that prides itself on being productive at all costs. But this energy for most of us tends to wear off as time wears on. When the vigor of the nervous energy begins to wane, or when the binging behaviors increasingly inch toward despair or other problem traits such as lethargy and irritability, we have to face what is going on in a more substantial way. 

The rub is, when we are scared, we are reluctant to do that, because it isn’t very pleasant.

This time brings a lot of reasonable fears. And though it’s counterintuitive, when that happens, it’s time to start really paying attention, and not only to the news, but also to ourselves. Human beings are given to laziness in a way, understandably being desirous of what is familiar and non-threatening. However, in a time of crisis this can work against our more useful attributes of forbearance and insight, things that we need when we are truly being tested. What we are going through now isn’t just stress, it’s an immediate situation of health and safety that is amounting to culture-wide upheaval. So given the stakes, we are called on now, in whatever way our life requires it, to try to stay awake to what is going on around us, and I will propose, within us. Like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz, having survived the scary forest with her compatriots, but not yet arriving at the Emerald City, we are urged in times like these to not fall asleep in the poppy fields.

Believe it or not, the theory of emotions has it that difficult emotions are more likely to be relieved by feeling them as opposed to pushing them away, ignoring them, or burying them. Despite our cultural tendency to act as if emotions don’t matter, we in this profession, and now in the medical establishment as a whole, know better. In a 2018 article in Time magazine, Hilary Jacobs Hendel, a New York-based psychologist puts it this way: “When the mind thwarts the flow of emotions because they are too overwhelming or too conflicting, it puts stress on the mind and the body, creating psychological distress and symptoms. Emotional stress, like that from blocked emotions, has not only been linked to mental ills, but also to physical problems like heart disease, intestinal problems, headaches, insomnia and autoimmune disorders.”

Good medicine, like good psychotherapy, takes a whole-person approach these days. Your emotions actually need to flow to be healthy. A good, if comical, parallel for how our feelings work is digestion: we take things in (through relationships, stress, events in our lives), it gets processed, then needs to come out- through tears, words, or meaning-making of some kind. It’s actually quite straightforward. Our main task is to help that natural flow along, and not impede it too much with avoidance, defenses, or getting just plain stuck there. 

When we talk about resilience, we are talking about people who have learned how to do this. It isn’t a simple metric of hardship + surviving = resilience. Nope, tough times can just as easily lead to an unsuccessful feedback loop of whatever variety, leaving one stuck in something that didn’t work. We all know people who prove this rule, with hardship having made them bitter, or cynical, or really dysfunctional. Make no mistake, this resilience thing takes a little insight and work. But most of all, it requires that we face our feelings without becoming overwhelmed.

So what are some ways to help with the flow of feelings, if you have been emotionally stuck or locked in a pattern of avoiding or over-doing something instead of feeling? Here are some ideas.

Get some perspective. The first thing to do is to not fall asleep in the poppy field: see yourself from the inside out, and look at what is working and what isn’t emotionally and otherwise. For patterns of over-doing and distracting or dysfunction, consider backing off a bit. We need some space to feel, some room in ourselves, which usually means a little time, a little quiet, and unclenching our fists from whatever it is we are grasping, be it marijuana, caretaking others, or Netflix.

Make space to feel, through mindfulness, quiet and times to be alone and reflective. Journal. Pray. Take walks and smell the flowers. Pet the dog. Do a little yoga, stretching, or simple breathing exercises. Do things that make you feel good, or that resonate with who you are at your core.

Project less onto your family/friends, and sit with your feelings. If you are being driven crazy by your spouse or your kids, don’t rush to react, but instead sit with the feeling. If it’s irritation or annoyance, sit with it, listen. Ask what that feeling needs or wants, just to hear it out. Does this part of you want to lie down, take some slow breaths, or take a bath? Or does it want to take a hard run with death metal on the mp3 player? Maybe it wants a good cry, or to shout some choice words into a pillow. Or to turn to someone and ask for help. The truth is, you don’t usually need to do much. Just be there. The intensity will often lessen if you do. Also, when we do this, when we sit with our feelings, we often get insights about how to think and act — also known as “intuition,” something we greatly need in trying times. 

Grow your pleasures and joys. If your difficult feelings are too hard on you, or if you get overwhelmed, or if you really just can’t feel much, consider addressing the flow of feeling by increasing your delights, making a safe entryway into feeling. Shift your focus from thinking or doing, to feeling and being. Bring your awareness down from your head and into your body, and what would feel good. Get creative. Eat a favorite treat, or listen to music you love, and do it mindfully. This means slowly, and with great attention to the taste or sound, to the sensation and experience of it. Notice the experience. Or take a long walk through your favorite part of the neighborhood, the one with the beautiful gardens or good views. Then focus on those things, really take them in.

Don’t be afraid to step “outside of the box” right now. Last week, instead of planning dinner or getting homework finished with the kids at the usual time, I watched a frivolous TV show in the middle of the day. At any other time this would seem completely irresponsible, with me and the kids all on separate devices in different rooms of the house on a gorgeous sunny day. And yet it was just what we needed. This helped me reset my mood in order to get through the afternoon with more savoir-faire. Consider what your unlikely need is, and experiment with fulfilling it.

All this talk today of rallying together brings to mind a favorite TV show of mine from a few years back. Anyone who ever watched the excellent Friday Night Lights will immediately recognize the high school football team’s pregame mantra: “Clear Eyes, Full Hearts, Can’t Lose.” This might be a good slogan for our crisis today, Reader. It’s a good idea to see with open, clear eyes how things are going for you and your loved ones. But as well, it is crucial to have full hearts, or soft hearts, as Canadian psychologist Gordon Neufeld calls it, for that is what allows us to be connected to our emotions in a healthy way. Soft hearts keep us close to our vulnerable selves, the parts of us that can’t be sent packing without a great toll on our health and happiness, in one way or another. Remember that feelings need flow, and then, if you’ll permit me, I’d like to go one step further: with flow comes self-knowledge, in the form of intuition. And intuition being available to you during hard times is a gold mine. One you need to be vulnerable to access.

One more thing, Reader (and all readers): Go easy on yourself. This is a trauma, no matter what your circumstance. You shouldn’t expect it to be made “all better” by a meditation app, a positive attitude, or CBD tincture. We are in unprecedented times. Now, as we come to that settling-in point, reckoning with and no longer denying what a massive, long-term thing this is, we are beginning to get real with it. 

So instead of “grin and bear it,” we need to learn to feel and deal with it. For that is the only way to get in touch with the resilience we all want and in fact need so much in times like these.

As long as we know about, and work with our natural tendencies (and not against them), we will get through this, come what may.

Clear Eyes, Full Hearts, Can’t Lose.

Thanks, Coach Taylor. 


Counselors Roy Fisher and Liz Covey answer readers’ questions for South Seattle Emerald’s “Ask A Therapist.” Have a question about a relationship? Wondering about the struggles of being a parent? Others likely have the same questions and Covey and Fisher bring years of professional experience to provide their insights.

If you have a question, please click here and let us know. We will select two questions each month to answer. The form requires no email address or identification and is completely anonymous. If you are in crisis or in immediate need of care, please contact Crisis Connections at 1-866-427-4747.


Featured Image: “Walking The Ledge Part IV” by StarMama is licensed under CC BY 2.0. To view a copy of this license, visit: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0.7.