Ask a Therapist: How Not to Drown in the Deluge of the Negativity That Is 2020

by Liz Covey, LMHC

Question: I think this year might kill me. What can I do to survive the seemingly never-ending onslaught of bad news?

Dear Reader,

Water imagery abounds in therapy practice these days. 

“I can’t seem to keep my head above water,” says one client. “I feel like I’m drowning with work plus having the kids home from school” says another. A third says, “I feel like a tsunami came and swept away everything that I genuinely enjoyed about my life.”

So when I was reflecting on your succinct and timely question, Reader, something a client said recently came instantly to mind, giving me direction for how to respond. He said: All I can do lately is try to stay afloat.

Due to the catastrophic events of this year, my practice has utterly changed. It has become completely immersed in grief, a thing that is often present in this field, though not completely  dominant like it is right now. During times of grief, we dwell for a while in the realm of deep, existential truths, and we work more directly with symbol and metaphor. These days that means talking a lot about deep and dangerous waters.

In normal times, therapy related to grief is based on the theory that help comes more easily from a person who is not experiencing the loss, and who can assist the sufferer back to the safe shore of a regulated, and increasingly pleasant life. The grieving person regains a small bit of that safe shore a little at a time, until eventually there is once again a sense of normalcy.

But now this grief is felt by everyone, and in a sweeping and sustained way. As you say, Reader, there is an onslaught of bad news, or in keeping with this metaphor, I might say a flood. One that seems to get worse with every passing week. This leaves therapists everywhere asking: how can we help our clients when there is no identified safe shore? When we too are in this grievous mess? And when there is no end in sight?

“No one ever told me that grief would feel so much like fear,” wrote C.S. Lewis in A Grief Observed, a memoir about the death of his wife. I think of this quote often these days, because what we are experiencing now is mountainous, collective grief, and not the kind that tends to make us weepy. Rather, as Lewis describes in detail, so much of grief feels like being rattled and is devastating. Sure, there is sadness. But there is also abundant fear. 

Owing to the magnitude of everything fear-inducing that is afoot today with a pandemic, an environmental disaster, a long-overdue racial justice movement, and economic chaos, I have decided to follow the metaphor through, and to see our plight in this time to be a literal encounter with dangerous, choppy waters at the brink of disaster. Why? Because this is how I experience people are living it.

But I’ve grown tired of making lists detailing how to cope with the tough emotions during these legitimately terrifying times. Fortified by the bad-assery of having been a frontline emotional worker through the whole of this thing (and we’re still in the beginning, I suspect), I choose to run headlong into the dangerous waters, armed with some survival skills. It seems clear to me that our task these days is not to thrive, exactly, but only to prevent ourselves from drowning in the hellishness in our midst. 

All I can do lately is try to stay afloat. Amen to that.

As I turned toward resources specific to water safety, I was surprised to find a considerable amount of common ground with counseling psychology. Survival guides for drowning prevention, in fact, could almost read as therapy manuals on grief. But don’t take my word for it.

In his book 100 Deadly Skills, retired Navy SEAL Clint Emerson wrote about how to prevent drowning by using some of the following guidelines. Here’s the advice I ran across from him, as well as the Red Cross and U.S. Centers for Disease Control, that is pertinent to water safety and which seems to sufficiently mirror our mental health needs in order to survive this doozy of a year: 

Go Prepared, and Don’t Go Alone. Make sure you have all of your needed supplies and equipment — such as life jacketslifejackets and flares (or more appropriately, face masks and hand sanitizer). Meeting practical needs is essential. It is also important to have a swim buddy, so that you have someone to count on if the conditions become rough.

Don’t Panic. A key to surviving a risky water encounter is to avoid flailing about, which leads to hyperventilation, a key factor in drowning deaths. Some survival tips to avoid hyperventilation are to focus on your breath and cue your rational mind to the importance of remaining calm and in the present moment. If this is difficult, try calming your body: tread water or take rhythmic, slow and strong swimming strokes. You might also try floating on your back to initiate relaxation.

It’s All About the Breath, and Buoyancy. Emerson notes that buoyancy is the key thing to strive for when one is stranded in open water. To achieve this, he recommends filling your lungs to make floating easier. Keeping yourself oxygenated in a regulated way is advised. 

Avoid Alcohol. Swimmers need to minimize or eliminate anything that impairs judgment for what might be needed in times of duress. 

Don’t Get Complacent. Remember that water poses danger, so we do well to remain awake to our environment, to current conditions, and to our needs. Use good judgment, and skew on the side of low-risk activity. 

The approach I am advocating to get through this godawful year, Reader, is one of mere survival. We do well in times of abject crisis to aim for what is possible, and for what we can realistically achieve. Today that is to keep our heads above the water line. We can aim for more as the tides turn, and the pressure of today is relieved in the weeks or months to come.

To draw on my client’s words in closing is to point out that he mentioned floating, an activity that I saw recommended in many of these guides as a tip for both survival and for emotional stability in a catastrophic event. 

Float, don’t swim, the guides advise. It reserves energy and induces calm.

Sounds about right to me.

Counselors Roy Fisher and Liz Covey answer readers’ questions for the 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. View a copy of this license here.