Unseen Effects of COVID-19

Note: This appeared as an article in my May 20 newsletter. I have chosen to share it as a blog post as well in the hope of reaching a wider audience.

In Stephen King’s novel The Stand, about a manmade pandemic ravaging the world, he devotes an entire chapter to snippets about the people who die because of the illness but not *from* the illness. People who are injured and can’t find help because everyone around them has died. People who take their lives because they can’t tolerate the situation. People who are murdered by others whose sanity is slipping due to watching the illness take everyone and everything.

The Stand, obviously, is a work of fiction, and unlike “Captain Trips,” COVID-19 is not manmade. However, there are some similarities, among them the fact that COVID is having unseen, indirect effects.

Most people aren’t wired to spend weeks on end not leaving their homes. Being so isolated, even if you’re staying in contact with family and friends by video chat or phone, is not usual for us, and can have a negative impact on mental health. The constant information, true or false, that is being shoved at us by sources from the nightly news to the conspiracy theorists on social media raises our own fears and stress.

Being unable to get a break from the people one lives with can have a negative effect as well, even if we’re with people we love and get along with. For those who are essentially trapped in homes with abusers, it’s even worse.

The virus that’s spreading isn’t only the illness of COVID-19. It’s the side effects. The stress, fear, and panic. The increased abuse of those who are now unable to escape to school or work. The arguments among even couples and families who usually get along well. The arguments and endings of friendships among those who refuse to listen to facts and can’t find a middle ground on beliefs.

As restrictions are lifted in various areas, some of these side effects might lessen. Being able to go outside again might help people feel less isolated and trapped. But some effects will remain, and lifting restrictions will bring more impacts such as increased anxiety about being exposed to the illness, panic from people who are unable to wear masks due to claustrophobia, PTSD, or other issues but are told they have to wear them, etc. And the issue of abuse is certainly not going away, especially with schools still closed at least until the beginning of the 2020-21 school year.

As we continue to navigate this time, please take care of your mental health as well as your physical. If you are struggling, please reach out for help; likewise, if you are experiencing abuse, seek help if you can safely do so. Talk to friends or family you can trust, or contact a helpline such as the Crisis Textline (741741) for mental health issues, 1-800-799-7233 or thehotline.org for domestic abuse, or 1-800-422-4453 for help in dealing with child abuse. 

If you have the emotional and mental resources to handle helping others, reach out to your friends and family to make sure they’re managing all right. Some people don’t feel able to reach out for help out of fear of being seen as “weak” or “attention whores.” Sometimes all it takes is someone calling or messaging to say, “Hey, I was thinking of you, do you need anything?” to tip the balance from someone choosing to die to them choosing to live. Even people who aren’t at that low a point are likely to benefit from knowing that someone cares.

Too many people in our society (and in my opinion, even a few are too many) live by the basic philosophy of “I have what I need, why should I care about anyone else?” Now is not the time to live that way. Please consider others. Take care of yourself *first*; you know, that whole oxygen mask thing. But if you are able to do so without stressing yourself, please look out for others as well. Let’s all do what we can to minimize the effects of this virus–both the direct effects and the indirect ones.

How Normal is “Normal”?

One phrase that keeps popping up in news stories and online is “the new normal.” But what does “normal” even mean?

Usually when that phrase is used lately, it’s referring to the current state of restrictions and advisories caused by COVID-19. Those changes have become the way of doing things during the health crisis, and most of them are new to many of us. But are they “normal”?

Normal isn’t a consistent, objective thing. Just as each of us perceives things in our own way, each of us has our own “normal.” For some people with certain health or immune system issues, washing hands constantly and wearing masks any time they leave their home has always been normal. For some introverts, and people with some physical or mental health conditions, not leaving the house for days on end has always been normal.

The “new normal” we’re experiencing now is the same old normal for some of us. To others, it’s anything but normal. It’s difficult, complicated, and, we hope, very temporary.

Another phrase that shows up regularly is “back to normal.” What does that mean? Again, for some people, the current way of doing things *is* normal. If we’re using that phrase as shorthand for “returning to the way we did things before COVID-19,” “normal” will look very different depending on whom you ask. A lot of people consider leaving the house to go to work to be “normal”; those of us who work from home don’t see it that way at all.

When restrictions are lifted and things are reopened, we won’t be returning to exactly the way things were before regardless of what you consider to be “normal.” There will be changes in place to help people stay healthier. Hopefully, people will remember how all this felt, and will be more considerate of their health and of other people. I don’t believe it’s likely at all that things will go “back to the way they were.” Some things will be similar, but I don’t believe much, if anything, will be exactly the same.

Through all of this, people are worrying about whether their reactions are normal. Is it “normal” to be scared, angry, upset? Is it “normal” to have no reaction at all, or to even be thriving during this time?

The answer is… yes. It’s “normal” in that you are not the only one feeling or reacting that way. But more importantly, it’s normal because it is what is happening for you. And normal is subjective.

While we continue through this health crisis, and in any other crisis that comes, try to let go of what is “normal.” Think instead about what is happening for *you* and how that is affecting you. Normal doesn’t matter. What matters is you. If you are concerned about how you’re feeling or reacting, it doesn’t matter if it’s “normal,” it matters that you are concerned. And it’s okay to reach out for help if that’s the case.

“Normal” is a loaded word, and it’s one that you can probably tell I don’t think too highly of in general. Our world has changed, and will continue to change. People have reacted, are reacting, and will react in different ways. And whether it’s “normal” or not, it is okay.

Relax and Breathe

If you’ve been on social media at all, you’ve probably seen the meme that says something along the lines of, “If you don’t come out of this time of quarantine with a new skill, new hobby, or your side hustle launched, it was never a question of time, it was a question of discipline.”

That meme brings up so much frustration and anger in me. Not for myself as much as for the people who see it and believe that they are, in fact, undisciplined failures because of what someone on social media says.

Here’s the thing. This is a time unlike anything any of us have ever lived through. Some of us are worried about losing our jobs; some have already lost them. Some are struggling to take care of children while working from home–and having to become teachers on top of it. We don’t know how long this will last. We don’t know whether we’re going to get sick. We don’t know what the short or long-term effects will be.

And with all of that uncertainty, fear, and struggle, we’re somehow supposed to be able to corral our brains to learn new things and build new businesses? Um… okay, I’ll refrain from profanity here.

Many of us, if not most of us, are living through trauma right now. Trauma causes mental and physical effects, including loss of concentration, memory issues, and exhaustion. Some of us are absolutely able to say, “Oh, yay, free time, let’s do ALL THE THINGS!” But a lot of us are barely able to say, “Okay, I’m going to take a shower and get dressed now.”

And that is OKAY. It is completely okay to not be able to learn new skills and build your side hustle right now. It is okay if you are just managing to get out of bed and put on something resembling clothing in the morning.

Not being able to learn new things and build your business right now does not mean you are undisciplined. It means you are struggling to live in an experience you have never lived in before, surrounded by others who have also never lived through anything like this. It means that you need your time, energy, and stamina to get through the day-to-day pieces of this current “normal,” and you don’t have anything left over for the extras.

It isn’t a question of discipline at all. It’s a question of priorities. Right now, for many of us, the priority is surviving. Everything else can wait.

Take care of yourself, and let go of whether you’re “supposed to be” doing all the things right now. The only thing you need to do is breathe, rest, and trust that this will get better.

5 Ideas for Self-Care

Self-care is more important than ever right now, but some of us are finding it harder than usual to make sure we’re practicing self-care. Depression, whether as a diagnosed mental illness or just a feeling, leads to less motivation in general. If we’re struggling with losing a job, we might feel less worthy, which means we aren’t taking care of ourselves because we, consciously or not, believe we aren’t “worth it.”

Here are a few things you can do to take care of yourself without spending money (something many of us are afraid to do right now) and without taking a lot of time:

  1. Take a quick shower. Even just turning on the water and standing under it for a minute or two can wash away some of the energetic sludge, and for some of us, water feels refreshing and rejuvenating. (Baths work too for some, but those take longer; I did say “without taking a lot of time.)
  2. Practice deep breathing if you’re able. Take 10-20 long, slow, deep breaths in and out. You can even do this while doing something else, but I recommend focusing on your breathing while doing it. This can lead to you feeling calmer, and also helps keep your lungs in good shape.
  3. Step outside. Just taking a few steps outside of the building you live in and getting some fresh air can help short-circuit feelings of being trapped or isolated. If it’s sunny, that can help your mood. And bonus points if you’re able to touch a tree, grass, or anything natural.
  4. Hug something. Some of us don’t live with people we can hug, and obviously we’re trying to socially distance ourselves from the people we don’t live with. At the same time, hugs can be comforting and mood-boosting. If you don’t have a person–or pet–you can hug, the physical act of hugging a stuffed animal or even a pillow can give you similar sensory input.
  5. Practice self-compassion. You’re feeling angry? Cool. Feel it! You’re scared? That’s okay! Allow yourself to feel the emotions you’re feeling. Allow yourself to rant at the wall about the activities you’re missing, or the places you aren’t able to go. Most importantly, honor the fact that you are a human being in a really difficult time, and it is OKAY to struggle right now. It doesn’t mean you’re “doing it wrong” or that you aren’t spiritually enlightened, or anything like that… it just means you’re human, like the rest of us.

I hope some or all of that is helpful for you. And I would love to hear from you: What are you doing to practice self-care right now?

Change Hurts

In yoga teachings, there’s an affliction called parinamadukha, which translates essentially to “the pain that comes from change.” (I have to admit one of the reasons I remember this is that it’s a fun word to say, though the feeling/affliction is definitely NOT fun!)

It’s human nature to resist change in our lives, even when we know it’s for the best. Leaving a relationship is painful even when the relationship itself also hurts. Taking a new job can be terrifying. Moving to a new location is complicated, stressful, and painful, especially if we’re leaving a place and friends we’ve been around for a long time.

At the same time, though, change is part of life. It’s impossible to be alive and never go through any changes at all. Just for starters, we grow physically. We can’t decide as infants that our bodies are going to remain exactly the same for the rest of our lives. Many people’s brains also go through growth and change as they learn new things and have new experiences. Some growth and development happens whether we want it to or not.

Many of us also reach crossroads in our lives, where we have to make some kind of choice, which necessitates some kind of change. Even if we choose not to choose, we have chosen; and that choice causes a change in us. We then have to live with the choice we’ve made and how we feel about it, and whatever choice we’ve made will have an impact on us somehow. If we do make a choice, that choice might lead to things like ending a relationship, moving to a new place, changing jobs, etc.

I’ve spent the past several days dealing with a painful choice that is leading to painful changes. I’m not comfortable sharing what those are, but I will say that one change is the ending of some people’s presence in my life. People I would really rather keep around, except that doing so is becoming as painful as the thought of not having them around.

Most of us reach points in our lives where change has to happen. It’s completely human to feel fear and pain at those changes, to resist them and even deny them, and to need help getting through them. Ultimately, many of those changes end up being for the better. Even when they don’t, we can learn and grow from them.

It’s Okay to Feel

We’re taught that certain emotions are “bad” or wrong. We aren’t supposed to feel them. We’re supposed to suppress them and act like they don’t exist.

The top among these is anger. Especially if you’re a girl, or raised/socialized as one, you’re told to be quiet and “ladylike” and sweet. If you show anger, you’re bad.

This can be common in the spiritual practice world as well. If you’re truly spiritual, so the story goes, you don’t feel anger. You just accept and forgive everyone and everything and feel nothing negative at all ever, because if you do, you aren’t really spiritual.

Bullshit.

Anger, jealousy, fear…all the emotions that some people designate as “bad” are HUMAN emotions. If you’re a human being, odds are good that you feel emotions. Feeling anger is no more “bad” than feeling joy. Emotions are not good or bad; they just are. And trying to force yourself not to feel them often results in just stuffing the emotion down into a little box in your mind—a box that might burst somewhere down the line.

The key isn’t to stop *feeling* emotions. It’s to learn healthy and productive ways to *express* them.

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I was raised in a home where it was not safe for me to be angry. If I expressed anger, I was punished for it, sometimes in psychologically damaging ways. I was told I was a bad person for feeling angry. That “good little girls” don’t feel that way.

In my first marriage, expressing anger was even more dangerous to me, so I learned not to express it to my husband. Unfortunately, that meant sometimes it spilled out onto my children. But more often, I just stuffed it down into that little mental box and convinced myself I’d dealt with it and didn’t feel it anymore.

When I was finally in a place where it was safe for me to express anger, I had no clue how to do so. I had no tools for managing my emotions—any emotions, regardless of what they were—because I’d spent so much of my life trying not to allow myself to feel them. So when something small sparked anger in me, the anger became huge and harmful, with lots of ranting and swearing and punching of mattresses and pillows, because I didn’t know how else to handle an emotion I was terrified to feel.

Note that I am not making excuses. I handled my anger very poorly a number of times, and at times that caused emotional harm to others. I am working to repair relationships that were damaged because of this.

Despite the reasons, ultimately we are each responsible for our own emotions and how we display them, and although I didn’t have the knowledge, skills, or tools to display my anger in less harmful ways, I still take responsibility for how I did display it and the consequences thereof. Part of my healing journey has been repairing those relationships, making amends where possible, and owning my stuff. Part has been accepting myself as a good *person* despite the things I said that I can’t take back, because while I *own* my emotions and my actions, I am not the things I feel and do. Emotions are neither good nor bad; actions can be, but taking a negative action does not automatically make someone a bad person.

It took a lot of work and therapy, but I did learn. I still sometimes get angrier than a situation warrants, but I am now able to recognize when I’m angry beyond what makes sense. I’m able to walk away from a situation that’s causing anger, and sometimes even to say to whomever else is involved, “I’m feeling very angry right now and need to step away.” I go someplace where I can be alone to work through what I’m feeling, and when I feel calm enough, I return to the other person and say, “I’m feeling angry about that thing you did, because it hurt me in this way. I’d like to stop feeling angry with you, so I’d like to talk about this and see what we can do.” It works a lot better.

Feeling emotions is NORMAL. Even emotions we’ve been taught are wrong or bad. Trying to suppress or ignore those emotions can be harmful to us and can lead to them coming up in less manageable ways down the road.

We also dishonor ourselves when we deny our emotions. Many of us who have experienced abuse and trauma have a child self living within our minds, a part of ourselves that became frozen at a time of trauma. In DBT (dialectical behavioral therapy, a technique often used in treating borderline personality disorder and PTSD among other things), that part of us is referred to as the “emotional mind.” In some forms of Witchcraft, it’s Younger Self. Whatever you call it, it’s a part of us, and it’s part of our healing journey to accept, nurture, and work with it. If we’re telling ourselves, “I can’t feel angry, it’s bad, I’m a bad person for feeling this way,” we’re continuing the abuse that damaged us in the first place. We’re taking the words and concepts forced on us by others and internalizing them, and that continues the damage.

Instead, I’ve found it’s far more productive to feel the emotion. To say, “I feel really angry, and that’s okay; how can I deal with this?” Even to express fear of feeling the anger, if that’s present for you. Some coping strategies for anxiety and PTSD can be used for anger as well.

Allowing yourself to feel those emotions and express them in *healthy* ways can help lessen them, and honors you as the awesome human you are.

You aren’t bad if you feel anger. You aren’t “not truly spiritual.” You are human, and you have the right to feel however you feel. You don’t have the right to express those feelings in harmful ways, but you one hundred percent have the right to feel them, and to express them in nonharmful ways. (And if you do express anger or another emotion in a way that’s harmful, that still doesn’t make you a bad person. It still just makes you human. Make apologies, make amends, and get help with learning more effective management strategies if it’s an ongoing problem… but accept yourself as a good *person* who just needs help to learn better *actions*.)

As a final note, if you’re a parent, please teach your children that emotions are always okay to feel, and teach them healthy, productive ways to express them. Show them that they, too, are good people, and that you love them no matter what emotions they feel. Show them how to love and accept themselves even when the anger seems big and scary, or the jealousy overwhelms them, or the fear seems to cover everything else. Let’s break the cycle of people who believe and preach that it’s bad and wrong to feel human emotions—and the people who, because of those beliefs and preaching, believe that *they* are bad and wrong.

Emotions

Emotions can be tricky things. Sometimes they seem to just sneak up on us, suddenly and without warning, and we go from zero to sixty in a second flat. That happens to me sometimes, especially with emotions like fear and anger. I don’t know they’re on the way, but suddenly they’re there, complete with racing thoughts and a running mouth I can’t seem to stop.

But the thing is, I *can* stop the thoughts and the words. I can stop any actions I might be on the verge of.

What I can’t stop are the emotions themselves. Believe me, I’ve tried. And the harder I try to make that anger or fear go away, the more stubborn they become. It’s like the concept of not thinking about the pink elephant. Now that I’ve brought that up, just try to stop thinking about pink elephants. At all. No thoughts of them. None.

See how difficult that can be?

One of the more useful things I’ve learned about emotions is to stop identifying myself *as* the emotion, and instead identify the emotion as something I have. For example, instead of “I’m angry,” saying “I feel angry” helps to separate me from that emotion, which can help the emotion fade sooner. It also prevents me from condemning myself for feeling it at all, which brings me to the second point.

Many of us are taught that feeling certain emotions is just plain not acceptable. You can’t feel anger. You shouldn’t feel afraid. And so on. So we learn to fight those emotions, or suppress them, or pretend they don’t exist at all.

Instead, I believe we need to learn to accept them, and more importantly, accept ourselves for feeling them. I’m not a bad person because I sometimes feel angry, or jealous, or afraid. I’m a human being, and most human beings experience a huge range of emotions in their lives. And that’s perfectly okay.

Anything you feel is okay. It’s what you do in response to feeling that way that matters. So be kind to yourself when you feel a negative emotion. Accept it. Even thank the emotion for what it’s bringing you, or for trying to protect you. And then move on.