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Pandemic: What to do When the Worst Actually Happens

So... I've been monitoring the web topic on COVID19 for a moment and I'm seeing article after article with good intentions but mediocre at best advice on how to handle anxiety in a crisis. They're useful, but you won't find that here. Those of you who work with me know I like to look things in the face.

This blog was inspired by this:


 

Frankly, I'm loving the therapist memes. They're hilarious. And humor is so important in a situation like this. Keep 'em coming.

And so my initial response was a snort laugh and then a hahaha... ohhhh *sad face* and it made me think. A friend posted this on their page and my response, after laughter, was "A good therapist doesn't teach you to relax and pretend that bad things will never happen to you. A good therapist teaches you to trust yourself, and learn that you are capable of managing bad things when they come your way."

Here's the reality of the situation: We all feel like the world is on fire. It kind of is. People are dying and we are re-learning what it's like to realize that disease can kill you. Even more so, for those of you who work with me and have trauma or a diagnosis of Post Traumatic Injury- the rest of the world now has a point with which to come together with you. In this event they know these feelings of terror, lask of safety, predation, vulnerability, mistrust, helplessness, and more.

Here's where I'm going to diverge from the other "How to Handle Anxiety in a Pandemic" articles: "THIS ANXIETY DOES NOT NEED TO BE "FIXED."

Now, they are correct in teaching you helpful techniques to manage anxiety. All of the things I teach in session too: mindfulness, rational thinking, radical acceptance, physical coping techniques, etc. Those are useful in anxiety management. However, THIS IS FUNCTIONAL ANXIETY.( *I say this with the caveat that you are being aware, being careful, but not overdoing it in the sense of washing until you bleed or panic attacks*) I told one of my clients the other day that this was the most unfortunate laboratory in learning to differentiate between functional or motivational anxiety and dysfunctional anxiety, which manipulates our actions and controls us.

For my clients, what everyone is feeling right now is their daily life. We are suddenly in a world with an invisible enemy, one that can strike at any time, is unpredictable, and nobody is safe. This is how traumatized people feel all the time. This situation is kind of a traumatized person's worst fear! Right now, everyone is in fight or flight. This can be a good thing for starting conversations about symptoms, so it's not all bad. However, it makes the experience in the moment particularly difficult especially for those of you who co-regulate, or rely on others to be the emotional barometer of when to panic. This is what is so difficult for those of you who have experienced trauma and gotten stuck there. You're not sure when you can trust yourself and when you can't. "Am I overreacting? How do I know when it's appropriate to panic? I can't protect myself. I'm unsafe." In our work, we call these "stuck points" or dysfunctional thoughts. They're not entirely true, but they're not entirely untrue either. So- what do we do when the stuck point turns out to not, in fact, be a stuck point but is simply a fact? Then what?

Well, I'm going to advise that we look it in the face.

Look at what the facts are, accept them, and then look at what you are able to control and capable of handling. Your brain is telling you that you're a sitting duck. No defenses. Screwed. It may feel this way, but what do I ALWAYS tell you my clients? All together:

Feelings aren't facts!

This is the beauty of the work we do. The reason you're having trouble differentiating between the functional anxiety right now is because, to you, it feels like every other day. Remember, you came to me because you got stuck. This was once functional for you and it is functional now.

Let me explain...

Emotions move us to act. They send us messages and tell us what we need to do in a particular situation. This goes haywire when you aren't allowed to act, or are consistently told that your instinctual actions to solve the problem are wrong. When that happens it creates dysfunctional emotions: emotions that don't move us to act, but actually paralyze us. We fear that we can't trust our viewpoint, our way of resolving the situation, and that we're incapable. Dysfunctional anxiety may come with a stuck point of "I'm not capable of handling this" or "I can't protect myself." There are times when these are truly stuck points.

However, how about now? "I can't protect myself." This isn't entirely untrue. Can you completely one hundred percent avoid COVID? Probably not. However, there ARE variables that you are in charge of like washing your hands, not unnecessarily exposing yourself, and supporting your immune system by meeting basic needs.So, even though you feel like you can't protect yourself, this isn't entirely true. Find the kernel of truth and act accordingly, and then release attachment to the outcome- the part you can't control. THIS is what functional anxiety looks like. "I'm in danger. I need to figure out where I can act to minimize that risk."

This is much more useful than psychological defenses like denial, magnification, or trying to predict a future we're uncertain of.

It is VERY difficult to maintain control when your Amygdala is screaming- but that's exactly what you need to be doing right now. Allow it to do its job- allow it to move you to action. BUT take calculated action.

Fight or flight looks like hoarding toilet paper, buying perishable goods in bulk that you can't possibly eat before they rot, being afraid of everyone around you, running the 24 hour news cycle, and isolating out of fear.

Appropriate action looks like buying what you need to have enough, ensuring that your needs get met first but realizing that a community increases the odds of survival, appropriate hygeine, limiting newsfeeds, and remembering to connect instead of isolate. (Physically distancing is a better term than socially distancing.)

Don't let your emotions control you, let them motivate you.

 

More to come soon, because I'm quarantined and I have a lot to say. And as always, if you need me, reach out.