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Anxiety, Grief and What We Do Now

I’m going to level with you. I typically don’t write about anything until I’ve figured it out in my own brain. Until I have thoughts that are concrete and maybe even helpful. I’ve spent the last three weeks trying to wrap my head around the constant changes happening around all of us: changes to routine, fears about one of my people getting sick, not knowing how long this will last, financial instability. The ripple effects of this virus and the changes surrounding it feel endless. We are collectively dealing with what is happening in so many ways ranging from fear and obsessive behaviors to anger and blame.

During times like this, people often search for something or someone to blame. Another person. Another country. Something that can be focused on and targeted as our source of difficulty. Blame and anger are used to cover other, often more painful, emotions that are closer to our lived experience. Somewhere between the funny memes and irritations about toilet paper is the real stuff. The understanding that there are some parts of life that are utterly out of our control.

When we look at anxiety disorders, the reason we refer to them as “disorders” is because they are typically not functional or based in reality. We treat them because they negatively impact the way people want to live their lives. Right now, anxiety is real and it is incredibly functional. Sometimes people who typically do not struggle with anxiety begin experiencing symptoms because of outside circumstances like these. It feels disorienting. Anxiety takes a lot of different forms, but the primary thing to know is that all anxiety is based in discomfort related to unpredictability, which is to some extent our whole environment right now. Additionally, we are also dealing with all of the things that were potentially making life difficult before this situation became front and center, which adds another layer to the challenge. (And if you're wondering the answer is yes, I've always been told that I'm super upbeat.) Our minds begin to show us images of the things we are afraid of: the worst case scenarios. The goal is not to ignore these images or make them go away; the goal is to find balance in the way we are thinking. There is no guarantee what the future will look like, which means it also may not end up being the worst case scenario. Finding this balance and flexibility in thinking, rather than denying it or pretending the opposite is true, is what helps decrease anxiety symptoms.

When there is change there is also inevitably loss; change never comes without loss. We have currently lost quite a bit in terms of how we typically operate and can look ahead to what the challenges may be once we are all able to resume our routines. That is grief. And if there are two things we have never had great models for it is grief and conflict. The heartbreaking piece that I can’t really move past is the idea that such an incredible loss of life often overshadows the loss of one person. If it was my person, I would not want them to be a number in a large group. I would want their life to be honored, not because they died in an epidemic, but because they are important to me. As the numbers continue to rise, we must learn to sit in the ache of what that means for those who have lost someone who is important to them.

I’ve been asked now by a couple of groups to provide some kind of guidance about how to manage this time, which to be honest feels a little like the blind leading the blind. I’ve read several articles or emails giving suggestions, which are always true and helpful, but seem to skip over the emotional experience. As though if we have enough coping skills, we will get a pass on the emotions that come with this time. But when I sit quietly and listen to what I know is always true, it is these things:

· Focus on what is actually in your control and keep doing the next right thing.

· Connect with people you love and tell them how you're really doing. Ask how they're really doing. Have compassion for the people around you; we don't know what anyone else is dealing with unless they're willing to share.

· Recognize however you are feeling. It is never wrong. Emotions are like weather systems; they will move through and shift with time, but when it’s raining you can’t make it stop raining. Might as well play in the puddles.

· Remember what makes you feel happy and calm and then do those things. Exercise, hobbies, writing, hot showers, reading, playing with your kids, coffee, singing in your car, good food, favorite movies. Whatever makes you feel more like you.

This is not a time that we should feel pressure to thrive; this is about survival and taking care of our people. Our goal right now is to learn a little more about ourselves. About pain. About sadness. About loss. Because within that pain is a deeper understanding of what we are capable of, and once you are no longer afraid of those emotions you can do anything. We’ve been handed an incredibly shitty opportunity to feel in a way that is unencumbered by the tasks of daily life. I say we take it.

The root of the word crisis means “to sift.” Which makes sense because when we are in a crisis, all of the things that we thought mattered but really don’t begin to fall away. Until we’re left with the only the most important pieces that define what matters to you. That. Is clarity. And it sucks that sometimes it takes a crisis to get us there. At some point things will be okay again, but my hope is that we remember what was really important to each of us when things were quiet and dark. That we don’t lose what we will have learned. Because maybe the things we learned were about honoring our experience and emotions, protecting each other, appreciating the things we often overlook, and showing up as imperfect and messy and wonderful.

To the doctors and nurses and first responders: Thank you. We know you are exhausted and overwhelmed by what is being asked of you. And you’re doing it anyway. Thank you for showing up.

To the people who work with older adults and those with compromised immune systems: Your sadness will be different than the rest of our sadness. You will lose some of your people. The people you fought to keep alive. And it will take you time to heal from this, because you’ve been caring for a population that is suddenly deemed as an acceptable group to lose. They should not be dying. And I am sorry.

To the rest of us: We can do hard things.

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