I was feeling mightily sorry for myself the other day. My job is incredibly hard right now, harder than it has been at any other time since I became a licensed psychologist 28 years ago. A couple of other notably difficult times come to mind: the weeks after the September 11th, 2001 terrorist attacks on American soil and the weeks following the 2016 presidential election. Neither of those times comes anywhere close to the challenge I face in my work with clients these days.
I was feeling mightily sorry for myself the other day, AND I realize that so many people have it much, much harder than I do: frontline healthcare workers, teachers, grocery store employees, bus drivers, train conductors, people who have become under- or unemployed as a result of the pandemic, people who have been sick with the COVID-19 virus, people who have lost loved ones. I know that my family and I have been very, very fortunate. Find more on the power of that little word, and, here.
I gave myself a day to sulk, and then I tried to look at my work with clients from a different perspective. It is true that many of my clients, especially the children and adolescents, are downward-spiraling, AND it is true than many of them are demonstrating amazing resilience. This post is about the latter group.
Back in the good ole days of March 2020, when we thought the stay-at-home order was going to be a month, tops, I encouraged all of my clients to dedicate themselves to a mission. When again, I asked them, will you have so few demands on your time? What is something you would love to do that is possible during the pandemic restrictions? This question was really hard for some of them; others answered immediately. Here are some of the responses I heard, some as soon as I posed the question, others a week later:
- My uncle has a ukulele that I’ve always wanted to learn to play. Maybe I could teach myself from YouTube.
- I know it sounds boring, but I really would enjoy clearing out the stuff we don’t use from all of the closets in my house.
- Maybe I could get through some or all of the Jane Austen novels.
- We’re going to get a puppy and really focus on training him before we go back to work and school.
- I’ve had an idea for a short story for ten years. I can work on it while my kids are doing their Zoom classes.
In our family, we all identified goals and dedicated a lot of our newfound free time to pursuing them. My husband has been making great progress on a bunch of house and yard projects that he enjoys. My son became a certified personal trainer and started a small business. My daughter is becoming a certified pet sitter and continuing to build her business. My goals were to do a lot of creative writing and to stay in shape even though my gym was closed. A third goal – to learn vegan cooking – presented itself when my son began following a vegan diet.
It is clear to me that clients who took this advice to heart are faring better during the pandemic than those who chose just to wait it out. It’s been six months, there’s no real end in sight, and it is not too late to create a mission.
In addition to creating a mission, I challenged my clients to find ways to socialize safely on a regular basis. Many started having get-togethers via Zoom, playing smartphone-based games or videogames with friends they couldn’t see in person, or planning small, masked, and socially distanced outdoor gatherings. Tennis players kept playing tennis. Some clients found walking or hiking partners. Others created book groups on Google Hangouts or hosted Netflix parties. I’ve seen a big difference in emotional well-being between those who have found ways to stay connected and those who have become more isolated. It is not too late to get reconnected with friends and family members you can’t see in person, and there are lots of creative ways to do it.
Finally, and this last one is a toughie, I have noticed that clients who are more politically minded are having a harder time coping with the pandemic than those who are not. I don’t need to tell you that the coronavirus came to the United States at a time of intense political divisiveness. I myself have been struggling with the anger I feel about the lack of strong national leadership in responding to the pandemic, about people who refuse to wear masks or host big parties or spread misinformation, and about the lack of creative problem-solving of many school districts at a time when young people desperately need some semblance of normalcy. And you know what Mitch Albom says about anger? Holding anger is a poison. It eats you from the inside.
Each and every time I encounter people who tell me they don’t get involved in politics or they think national leadership is doing everything possible to control the spread of the coronavirus, I am taken aback. While I don’t understand those perspectives, I would love to be living through this pandemic without the extra burden of all the anger I feel. I wish I had a great suggestion about what you could do to make the anger go away. I don’t. I can suggest a few strategies that can minimize the toll the anger is taking on your emotional well-being. First, do whatever is necessary to encapsulate the anger. Limit how much time you spend watching the 24-hour news stations and scrolling through social media. Have anger-free zones such as the dinner table and the bedroom where politics and current events are verboten. Feel free to tell friends and family that you want to enjoy your time with them, and discussing politics and world events will make that hard, even if you all have similar viewpoints. I am not suggesting that you should be uninformed or disengaged, just that you do not let all the negativity pervade your daily experience. Also, when you are engaged with politics and world events, don’t just stew in them, take action. Volunteer at the polls, make get-out-the-vote calls, raise money for candidates who represent your views, collect food for local food banks, attend demonstrations. Finally, spend part of every day with an intentional focus on the blessings in your life, even in the suckiest year of most of our lifetimes.
One of my clients whom I will call Isla, a college freshman who is stuck at home taking classes virtually, screen-shared a page from her gratitude journal at a recent telehealth session. With her permission, I am sharing it here:
Things I feel grateful for on September 20, 2020:
- The life and legacy of Ruth Bader Ginsburg
- Not being in high school anymore
- My health and the health of most of my family members
- A new friendship with my college “roommate”
- The chocolate chip banana pancakes Dad made this morning
- Settlers of Catan Sunday nights with my family
- Today’s weather
- A professor who allows us to submit ungraded first drafts
- Apple-cinnamon tea
What impressed me so much about Isla’s list is that she was able to create it during a time of intense stress and anxiety. She is very politically engaged, has been phone-banking for the Harris/Biden ticket, and shared in her session that she cried as if she’d lost a grandparent when she heard the news of Ginsburg’s death. The end of her senior year was ruined, her plans to go away to college were thwarted when the school chose a fully virtual semester, and she is not sure she will get to play collegiate softball in the spring. This client has a family member who has severe asthma so she has had to follow COVID restrictions much more strictly than most of her friends. Virtual learning is quite challenging for her because she has an inattentive form of Attention Deficit-Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and finds it hard to focus on both Zoom classes and material presented asynchronously. Despite all of this, she surpassed the gratitude journal assignment – meditate for five minutes every day on one blessing – by a mile! Isla still struggles at times with the anxiety she has experienced since she was a little girl and she still has to cope with the challenges of inattention and distractibility, but she has become neither bitter nor depressed.
Back in March, Isla came up with a mission for the quarantine: to be in better physical shape when she goes to college than when the stay-at-home order began. She extended this goal to the start of spring semester when she learned she couldn’t move onto campus for the fall semester. When a neighbor offered her some sourdough starter, she added a new goal: to teach herself how to bake bread. She has been very invested and successful in both of these pursuits.
In addition, Isla has been very creative about staying connected despite the restrictions. She set up a badminton net and a bocce court in her backyard. These are both games that can easily be played while maintaining social distance. She arranged a biweekly Zoom gathering with her college softball teammates to check in about training and to encourage each other. She and her family have weekly game nights. She hosted a Hamilton watch party with her high school friends. Most impressively, she made peace with her sixteen-year-old sister so that they could go on outings such as hiking and biking together.
Finally, Isla has converted her anger into action, sometimes making hundreds of calls over a weekend to get the vote out for her candidates. She has signed up to drive voters who need rides to the polls on election day even though she will then have to quarantine in her basement afterwards until she can take a COVID test and get the results. She has been recruiting peers to work at the polls or give rides to voters on election day. She is tireless in her efforts to see change in this country. And, she has begun a daily practice of gratitude as a balm against the anger.
Hopefully, these tips – creating a mission, staying connected, turning anger into action, and practicing gratitude daily – will be helpful to you and your loved ones as the pandemic drags on and on. Full disclosure: you can do all of these things really well and still feel down and weary and worried at times. Those are normal emotions during times of crisis. No one, not even the most resilient among us, will get through this public health crisis without tough times. A focus on self-care and building resilience can minimize the suffering.
[Names and potentially identifying information have been changed to protect privacy.]