Today is Friday, March 20, 2020.
Many of the people I have connected with in the past week are in a variety of stages of their transition toward a socially-distant life. All are experiencing stress – both emotionally and physically – as they navigate the minute-by-minute info dump that spreads as virally as its COVID-19 topic. My practice was closed for 2 weeks earlier in the month, and is only open now so that I can prepare my existing clients to work with me online. Two states are already imposing Shelter-In-Place policies, and I am sure more will follow by this time next week.
Humans are inherently social creatures. I learned this in college while studying Henry Harlow’s experiments with Rhesus monkeys. Harlow’s controversial studies proved that infant primates required physical contact with mother figures – even cloth & wire apparatuses designed to resemble mothers – or they experienced devastating declines to their mental health and physical well-being. Today, quite a few adults are sheltering alone – their cloth & wire human surrogate is replaced by a monitor, a mobile phone, a smart TV or gaming console.
My colleagues and I have been feverishly (no pun intended) activating systems for the use of telementalhealth technology so that we may reach toward those who have come to rely on us to process their thoughts and feelings. Clients have been seeking out private settings in their homes to share their innermost thoughts – locking themselves in bedrooms, bathrooms, or even their cars to obtain a semblance of privacy. Small business owners are trying to stop their own financial hemorrhaging, while also finding their compassionate niche to assist their communities during this pandemic crisis. Students are trying to learn online, find private areas in their homes to unwind/adjust and adapt to the volume-reduction needs of their suddenly-working-from-home parents. Parents of older adolescents are trying to find ways to reconnect with their emerging adults, noticing that this isn’t very easily accomplished.
In essence, we are all attempting to navigate through William Worden’s Tasks of Grief. We find ourselves grieving the life we lead up until the beginning of March. According to Worden, we need to:
1. Accept the reality of our current situation: This is happening, we are going into week two of isolation. The COVID-19 pandemic not easing up. It doesn’t help to think backwards about the way we lived our lives, or to be angry with those who did not quickly choose to shelter-in-place, or fearful of those who are not allowed to currently make the choice to work from home. To achieve this task, and foster psychological flexibility we must encourage ourselves to simply be present-focused. For right now, we have been asked to dramatically change our routines. What do we do today to support our health and the health of those we love (or like, or even mildly tolerate)?
2. Process through the pain: This is annoying for some, really upsetting to others, devastating maybe for a few. Business owners are seeing drastic income reductions and are still on the hook for overhead. Grandparents can’t hug grandchildren. Adult children worry about their aging parents. College students have to leave their dorms, friends and roommates early as their schools shut down. High School Seniors are cancelling proms, class trips, graduation ceremonies. Stay-at-home professionals are finding that they no longer have the privacy to focus on their work, because suddenly everyone is home. And of course, there is the daily mantra of “no toilet paper, no eggs, no pasta, no rice, no beans…” We need to pull out of the shock spiral and see ourselves in context. We have the tools and capacity to live through this.
3. Adjust to a world without social interaction: This is a great time for families to bond, but what about people who live alone? What about senior citizens in assisted living centers who find themselves sheltered in place to prevent the spread of the virus? To adjust we might want to explore our values – who is important to us in our lives and how do we reach out to them during this time? Are there teachable moments here? Can we rise beyond our comfort zone to actually call people we love?
4. Find enduring connections while embarking on new life: After we’ve accepted the changes that have come, can we make something out of this? What changes are faith-based communities making without the ability to commune? How is the small business owner adapting his/her product/sales? One community seems to be hosting dinner in your driveway events, where everyone is shouting across the street to their neighbors to connect. A rabbi in Arizona just posted a lego challenge to encourage the youngsters in his congregation to relate with him. A fitness guru in Italy is hosting rooftop fitness classes for everyone in the building across from him who can interact via their balconies. To achieve this goal, we defuse from the problem and see it with a new set of eyes.
Psychological models and studies from behavioral health science can really help us contain the chaos we are experiencing all around us – and there is still so much to learn. May you all stay healthy and strong. Please reach out to a counselor to help you process through these new experiences as you navigate your own COVID-19 Social Distancing Path.