By Matt Eldridge, MSW, RSW
This pandemic has affected us in extraordinary and unprecedented ways. I’m really proud of the way that our country has responded. I’m proud of how serious we, as a nation, have taken this pandemic and I really truly believe we will overcome this and will see the day when we can gather together again.
I’ve decided to write and share my reflections on offering psychotherapy during the COVID-19 pandemic. Throughout this experience, I acknowledge that I am in a very privileged position to be able to continue to work. My hope is that sharing this information will help contribute to the growing body of writing on ways in which we can cope with the stress of this pandemic.
In this article, I’ll share 5 common themes I’ve been exploring in therapy, and strategies you can practice to cope. The 5 themes are: 1) Struggle with worry and concern for the suffering of others, 2) Struggle with motivation and comparison to others, 3) Guilt, 4) Difficulty tolerating powerful emotions, and 5) General mental health tips.
This list is not exhaustive, and does not speak to everyone’s experience. Please feel free to share with anyone you think may benefit from it.
1) Struggle with worry and concern for the suffering of others.
It’s awful to think about those in parts of the world that have been particularly hit hard with COVID-19. It’s particularly hard when we feel helpless.
What can help: Lovingkindness Meditation
Although it does not remove the suffering of others, offering words of lovingkindess and compassion is a way that we, in our homes, can offer our support. With your eyes closed, begin by taking a few deep breaths, and offer the world these words:
May you be filled with lovingkindess, may you be held in lovingkindness, may you feel my love now, may you accept yourself just as you are, may you be happy, and may you know the natural joy of being alive.
2) Struggle with motivation and comparisons to others
The pressure to be productive during this time can feel overwhelming. Even if we really want to be productive, it can be difficult to do so on our own.
What can help: a) Co-regulation, b) Self-compassion
a) Co-regulation essentially means we can calm our nervous systems while doing tasks in the presence of a calm, supportive person. Even though we need to physically distance ourselves, we can continue to support one another virtually. If you’re wanting to engage in a task, no matter what it is: cooking, writing, creating a resume/cover letter, making art, doing a puzzle, doing a work-out, etc…. see if a supportive person can virtually do that task with you.
b) Self-compassion is about being mindful over how we’re feeling (i.e. naming our emotions without judgment), acknowledging these feelings are human and normal, and being kind to ourselves. It can help to lower the volume on the inner critic that can pop into our heads. Try asking yourself: what is a compassionate thing I can do for myself today? Or, practice holding your hand to your heart and telling yourself: this is a moment of suffering, may I be kind to myself in this moment, and may I give myself the compassion that I need.
We are all in this together, and we also have our own unique experiences and responses to the pandemic. Some of us are actually feeling better mentally, and perhaps feel guilty about that. Some of us are upset about changes that have happened in our lives, and are beating ourselves up by comparing our suffering to that of others. Whatever your response to the pandemic, please know that your feelings are completely valid. Perhaps you feel good because you enjoy being at home. Perhaps you’re upset because a contract you had coming up got cancelled.
What can help: Self-Validation
One of the most important things we can experience in our lives, that helps to regulate our emotions, is validation. When we don’t allow ourselves to feel our feelings, whatever they may be, we are invalidating ourselves. Self-validation involves naming our emotions in a nonjudgmental way, not identifying strongly with them (in other words, you are not your feelings, you are a person experiencing this feeling), allowing ourselves to experience the emotion, and reminding ourselves that this emotion makes sense based on our genetics and our history.
4) Difficulty tolerating powerful emotions
At the end of the day, there is only so much stress a person can take. When stress exceeds our “window of tolerance,” we feel overwhelmed.
What can help: TIP skill, self-soothing, worry time, practicing radical acceptance.
TIP*: When feeling overwhelmed, try using cold Temperature (e.g. take a cold shower, hold ice), do Intense exercise, practice slow, Paced, breathing).
Self-soothe*: Pay attention to your 5 senses while doing things that are soothing. For example, use an aroma diffuser or light scented candles, take a warm bath, listen to soft soothing music, look at images of nature, eat something soothing to taste.
Worry time: Set aside 20 minutes a day for worries. Outside of worry time, write down whatever worries come to mind, tell yourself you’ll worry about them during worry time, and bring your mind back to the present by paying attention to your 5 senses. Or, by paying attention to your breathing.
Radical acceptance*: Fighting reality can lead to suffering. Accepting reality doesn’t mean agreeing with, or approving of reality. It means letting go of our own internal struggle and fight with reality, as it is, right now, in this moment. Try to remind yourself that this is reality right now, allow yourself to experience whatever emotions that arise from that acceptance, and remind yourself that life can be worth living, even when there is pain.
5) General mental health tips
There are things we can do regularly, to keep ourselves mentally well.
What can help: Gratitude journaling, reducing our vulnerability to difficult emotions, accumulate positive experiences, journaling, mindful breathing
Gratitude journaling: Write out 2-3 things a day that you’re grateful for.
Reduce your vulnerability*: Get a good night’s sleep, eat healthy, limit drug and alcohol use, stay physically active.
Accumulate positive experiences*: Do at least one thing a day that is just for fun. Be mindful of the positive experience, and unmindful of worries.
Journal: Write down your thoughts feelings and experiences. There’s no need to have a method to journaling. Just write down whatever comes to mind. Journaling helps us to process our feelings, in a similar way that talking does.
Mindful breathing: Spend 5 minutes with your eyes closed, paying attention to taking long deep breaths. Imagine your belly filling up with air like a balloon as you breathe in, and feel it deflate as you breathe out. Try counting each exhalation until you reach 4, and then begin counting at one again. Each time you catch yourself thinking of something else, return your focus to counting your breath. Or return your focus to the physical sensation of breathing.
***Skills with an asterisk are from the DBT Skills Workbook.