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Ask a Therapist: On Emotions and Covid-19

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Q: The isolation and changes that we are facing with Covid – 19 are affecting me emotionally in ways that I don’t understand. Can you help provide some insight about the variety of emotions I am feeling and why they come in waves with some days so much worse than others?

A: Life as we know it is not the same these days. This global pandemic has caused ripple effects in too many areas to count and every individual, family, workplace, organization, house of worship, and school has been affected all across the globe. The culture is changing around us and we find ourselves in the midst of a situation that we did not expect and certainly did not invite.

Many of my clients (and friends) are expressing challenges with emotional regulation as they seek to navigate these unprecedented times and they are having difficultly identifying the source of those feelings. Most people tend to associate grief only with the loss of a loved one but grief is the healing pathway that we have through any kind of loss, and every single person has lost something in this global crisis.

Grief comes in waves and is unpredictable. Every person’s situation related to Covid – 19 is different so it is difficult to predict how the grief will show up specifically for you. Remember that whatever you feel is normal and okay. There is no formula or timeline for grief so be gentle with yourself as you walk this path. In many ways, we are experiencing a “living grief”: one where the losses are continuing and we don’t know when they will come to an end and what it will mean for us on the other side of all of it.

As noted in a previous column, to help people understand some of the most common feelings associated with grief, clinicians often refer to a Stages of Grief model, usually the Kubler-Ross method, in which 7 stages have been identified in the journey through grief. Although these stages are listed in a particular order they are often not experienced chronologically. And, in fact, in response to Covid – 19 impacts, people will find themselves jumping in and out of different stages and/or circling back to certain stages as they work through ongoing losses, uncertain situations, and new ways of doing life.

It should be emphasized that this model, like all models, is flawed and will not account for everything that you experience during this (or any other) time of grief and you may not experiences all of the stages. Hopefully, however, it can help to bring some clarity and validation to some of what you are going through. As we explore the 7 stages, take stock of your own emotions and see if you have noticed these feelings in your experience over the last few months with the Covid – 19 crisis.

The first stage is often shock and disbelief and this reaction is your system’s protection against being overwhelmed. You might find that you feel numb, disoriented, or foggy in your thinking. You may feel like you are living a bit outside of yourself and this can be distressing. To navigate these feelings, do your best to ground yourself to the present moment and take things in small steps. You can pay attention to your five senses to bring you back into your physical body and your immediate surroundings.

Denial can also be a part of the journey and, in this situation, it is really more about not being able to make sense of what has happened and is happening. Sometimes people deny the reality of the situation and some deny the complexity of their emotional reality. This is a stage where their experience of loss needs to begin to be sorted out in their hearts and minds. It is often a good time to talk with a good friend or to seek personal counselling so that thoughts and feelings can be ordered in a helpful way that leads towards healing.

People who are grieving can begin to wish that they said or did something differently, or that they hadn’t missed an opportunity before it was too late and they can feel a sense of regret about their lack of action or intention before the the crisis hit. This guilt often causes people to be hard on themselves and to blame themselves in some way that is typically irrational. People might say things like, “If only I had build my emergency savings up before this crisis hit, then I would be okay right now.” Getting a healthier perspective involves cultivating self-compassion instead of shame and blame. You will also benefit from telling yourself the truth about the fact that no one can prepare perfectly for this (or any other) crisis! As you begin to reframe your thoughts to a kinder and more helpful interpretation, you will move into a better space psychologically.

Anger can be a scary stage, especially for those who tend to be peaceful and stable most of the time. This intense feeling that things are not right can be directed at the situation, others, or yourself. Sometimes you may find yourself bargaining with God or others in an attempt to change the situation by trying to set up new terms. Again, try to work through your anger and look for healthy ways to express it and for next steps to deal with it. Be careful not to let your anger be directed in ways that cause damage to current relationships as it can be a powerful emotion and you won’t want to further complicate your situation by causing harm.

Grieving individuals may feel particularly alone – especially with this ongoing quarantine – and deeper reflections on the the losses all around us can lead to a stage of depression. This can make it difficult to cope with regular daily activities and can lead to feelings of hopelessness, helplessness, isolation, and melancholy. Moving your body can help significantly to manage these feelings and prevent them from overwhelming you. Don’t dismiss your sadness, though; crying and mourning is a natural way that our bodies process loss and it’s important to be kind to yourself as you move through this time.

At some point, you may move into a stage that indicates that you are ready to move forward or to pivot your response to the changes somehow. You may be able to take care of the practical details of life again and sense more than before that there is some forward motion in this reconstruction stage. This relates to the steep learning curve that many are experiencing as a result of having to change their plans and familiar ways of doing things and figure out new alternatives to keep things going forward.

Gradually, you may experience some acceptance and begin to feel like yourself again. You may be able to chat more about how Covid – 19 has changed and is changing your day-to-day life and move through your days without feeling emotionally overwhelmed. You realize at this stage that your life is forever changed by this pandemic but you will begin to feel hopeful about a new way of doing life after this situation subsides. This is the part of a journey that seeks to understand and find a “new normal”.

Depending on what stage you are experiencing (or sometimes re-experiencing), try to practice self-compassion and self-care to navigate the challenges you are facing due to Covid -19. Always be patient with yourself and reach out for help as needed. There is no formula or timeline for what we are going through – we have not done this before so we are all figuring it out together! Grieving acknowledges that what was lost mattered so it is important to actually feel your emotions (rather than resisting or stuffing them down) along the way in order to facilitate healing.

Don’t be afraid to talk about your feelings with others openly and honestly. We have the unique experience of going through this collectively and sharing what you are feeling will certainly be met with genuine understanding and empathy. Be sure to connect with others for (socially-distanced) support and consider getting some additional mental health support if you are having trouble managing on your own. Be encouraged. Try to focus on what is good even in the midst of such a hard time. We will find our way on this journey together and there is hope for the future.

To submit YOUR question for consideration in a future column or for more information about psychotherapy services that could help you navigate this unprecedented time, email Sarah@SarahJoyCovey.com. You can follow us on Instagram @sarahjoycovey for mental health encouragement and for all the most current updates related to A New Leaf: Resources for Growth – our new office and storefront – located at 21 B Queen Street West in Elmvale. Also, sign up for our FREE NEWSLETTER by visiting sarahjoycovey.com.

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