There is absolutely no playbook for what we are all experiencing today. The changes coming at us have been swift, mercurial, and frightening. Governments, businesses, nonprofits, and individuals have scrambled to cope with relentless waves of chaos in the wake of COVID-19 and civil unrest.
I have continued to keep my solo psychiatry practice in Eldorado open and have moved to a telemedicine platform, which definitely has its trade-offs! In the interest of safe patient care, telemedicine is a must, and I am grateful to have today’s Internet and phone services available.
However, the current world situations have thrown an enormous monkey wrench in the doctor/patient relationship.
Generally, the therapist or doctor has the “advantage” of helping the client by not experiencing the situation themselves at the same time, which has made good clinical care these days especially daunting. Those of us in healing fields have been extraordinarily challenged to compassionately attend to our patients and expand our own self-care practices at the same time. However, I have noticed some potentially helpful “coping trends” from clients over these prior months that you may find helpful as we navigate this bizarre year:
1. Don’t beat up on yourself for not being “productive.” There is a lot of information out there these days on “taking this break time to learn a new language, write a novel, etc.” First of all, this time is not a “break!” We are going through a collective traumatic grieving period, and everyone grieves in their own way. Define what “productive” means to you: doing a load of laundry? Going for a run? Talking to a friend? Be kind to yourself if you don’t check everything off your list. Some days, if you just manage to get to the couch, that’s OK! Now is not the time to compare your productivity levels to others either; I haven’t seen anyone jumping for joy these days! Tell yourself, “there is no contest. I am doing the best I can.” Repeat as necessary.
2. The clients I notice that seem to be coping the “best”– (and remember, there’s no “best” way to do this — no playbook, remember?) are the clients who are breaking their days up into small routines and doing the things right in front of them. They are redirecting their minds to the present moments because it is just too overwhelming to try and cope with every possibility that may occur in the future. The brain tends to automatically look for the worst outcome — therapists call this “catastrophic thinking.” The human brain has also inherited a “negativity bias” and will tend to pay more close attention to information that it deems as threatening. Being aware of this bias is key. When you find yourself catastrophizing, gently redirect your mind back to the present- over and over if need be. Think of corralling a litter of puppies — your thoughts — into their playpen.
3. Try not to judge people for not following the government rules the same way that you are. Yes, newer literature is leaning toward masks slowing the spread of the virus, and wearing a mask is such a small way to help your fellow humans. Yes, washing your hands and keeping a safe distance is important. But try not to judge individual behaviors too harshly. Take a few deep breaths and give the person the benefit of the doubt. This time is difficult for everyone. Do this for you, and you will feel better — I promise! Be especially kind to the parents of young children — they are not doing well now.
4. Try to limit your time on the news and negative social media. The messages are often confusing, exaggerated, deceitful, and downright horrifying. Set a timer for 20 minutes a day and stop when the timer beeps. Then go read a book or call a supportive friend. Play with your animals or work in your garden — we can still do these things!
5. I am definitely finding that people who have pets are experiencing more resilience and are able to face the present with a more gentle, empathetic attitude — to themselves and others. Pets are all “therapy animals!”
6. People are also finding solace in community service. Animal fostering, donating food and clothing to the homeless, picking a local business to order takeout from, donating blood, or driving food to people who cannot leave their homes may be some options. Check out your local governor’s or mayor’s webpage for more information.
7. Try a guided relaxation phone app, such as Insight Timer, which is free to use. Other clients have reported feeling more positive and relaxed with the Calm and Headspace apps. These phone apps have plentiful tools for beginners!
8. Don’t chastise yourself if you have a few more chocolate bars these days. It’s tough processing world events, scary health statistics, political scandals, and a countrywide recession, all at once. You will get back to your healthy fitness program soon enough (please see tip #1.) I’m finding that people just taking daily walks or outings in nature are feeling a little more at ease — and still getting some exercise.
9. Be aware of symptoms that may need further follow up with a mental health professional. These symptoms include, but are not limited to: staying in bed, and not eating/sleeping for multiple days at a time, severe panic where one cannot leave the house, any type of suicidal thinking, losing touch with reality, or uncontrolled/violent anger outbursts. You may text a crisis line in the U.S.: text number: 741741 or call 1–800–273–8255.
10. Peer “warmlines” may also exist in your area. As there are too many to list here, type “Warmline [your area]” in your favorite search engine and get support from a friendly peer.
I hope you find these tips helpful, and please discard any that you feel do not work for you. Stay safe, and please be kind to yourself and your neighbors. We’ll get through this.
Alissa Kraisosky is a psychiatrist.
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