The Upside: How to Survive Psychologically in a Challenging Moment

I cannot say I’d choose to witness the Coronavirus pandemic, but here I am, and so are you. What follows is some help in reducing your distress.

I shall not minimize the dangers, but no good comes of either dismissing them or worrying over them as one would a train wreck sure to happen. The situation is neither.

If you are keeping up with public health recommendations, you know this. If you are taking the advised hand-washing precautions, you know this. Moreover, various branches of government in the USA are beginning to reinforce the societal safety net for those who need such assistance.

More action will come, though increased disease is inevitable for a while.

Assuming you are maintaining your social distance, you’ve taken a significant step. But what do you do with a less structured day now, time that used to be organized by meeting friends, going to restaurants or bars, and working in an office rather than your residence?

When our minds are left to themselves, they often travel to dark places. Here are a few suggestions to help you stay in the light:

  • Notice the changes in your life and the lives of others, without catastrophizing. The present is a remarkable time to be observing the world’s reaction to the virus. Be curious, watching and listening instead of evaluating and judging. Meditation may help with this.
  • Many of us have said, “Gee, I wish I had more time.” Now some of us do. What did you mean when you spoke those words? What dreams do you hold you now can begin to fulfill?
  • Reach out to people by phone, email, and social media.
  • Remind yourself of the things for which you are grateful. Daily.
  • Plan your activities for the next day before bedtime. Give yourself a sense of control and accomplishment. Focus on the doable without excess ambition.
  • Do not watch the news or political commentary at every moment.
  • Exercise, if possible in the morning light, to reduce anxiety and improve sleep.
  • Learn something new. The internet is full of educational possibilities, many without any cost. Perhaps something as simple as learning how to tie a Windsor knot:

  • Remember that if you are socially isolated, the prescription of interpersonal separation gives you much company, even if you don’t see those comrades on the street. We’ve been offered an opportunity to make ourselves interesting for ourselves and to ourselves.
  • If you lament the lack of a robust dating life, you needn’t apologize. Many more people are alone because of the dangers of visiting their usual haunts and loved ones.
  • If you are going through hell, keep going. Don’t stop until you find the path out.
  • Religious faith is sustaining at such times. Prayer and reliance on a higher power can be helpful.
  • People are fighting for you in the healthcare system, many also in government. Efforts are being made to ramp up diagnostic testing. Laws are being passed to make the tests free. Legislation providing paid sick leave from work is also in process, though not everyone is yet included in the plan. Watch the brief video below. The outcome is positive.
  • Much political activism is occurring online. I do not mean arguing with people. Engage in making the world better from your home to support your desire to improve the country.
  • The challenge of living in the time of COVID-19 is a chance to develop a new depth of psychological resilience. The Stoic philosophers believed we discover who we are only when we are taxed.
  • Make a list of the difficult situations you’ve survived. What strengths within you enabled you to do so? Tap such qualities once again.
  • Clean out your abode. Donate or dump all those belongings you no longer need.
  • Far more distractions are available than ever before in world history. Use them.

This crisis, too, will pass.

—–

The top image is called Sunset Dancer by Hurriagusto07. It was sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

29 thoughts on “The Upside: How to Survive Psychologically in a Challenging Moment

  1. gb fragmented gumdrops

    Dr. S, I hope you and your family remain virus-free during this time. Thank you for a very thoughtful post. Given my chronic fatigue syndrome, I rarely go out anyway. I’ve been used to this life for a few years now, so not much has changed for me in terms of COVID-19. I also may have a slight tendency to be obsessive-compulsive, so I’ve always washed my hands frequently. I have already made plans before COVID-19 to toss things I don’t need and to tidy the “KonMari” way. What’s most challenging for me is my concern for my family and neighbors. My niece and her boyfriend are taking care of my mother (who is in her 80s), and my niece also has a daughter (about 18 months old). My mother is really awesome with her humor in all this (she got out of jury duty by accident when she called the number up and accidentally coughed right when the lady answer the phone, and she explained that she was in her 80s, and the lady immediately told her that she would be taken off the list). My mother and I both laughed today about that. But my family lives in the state of Washington, and my niece and her boyfriend went out to buy groceries, baby wipes, diapers, and toilet paper. They had to drive from store to store to find things because everyone bought up all those supplies – including baby wipes! Them having to go out to numerous stores puts them more at risk of contracting COVID-19 and bringing it home to their grandmother (my mother) and the baby. It’s observations like panic buying that have put more stress on others. Apart from them, I have a few neigbhors who are in thier 60s, 70s, 80s, and maybe 90s. There are some young neighbors who reside here, and some middle-aged persons in their 40s and 50s as well. What I’m concerned about with my older neighbors (one of whom is in remission from cancer and in her 70s) are the younger and middle-aged neighbors traveling to and from California, Washington, and other areas on a regular basis. Some travel for work, but there are these college-aged neighbors who mentioned that they plan to travel to Europe for one of their birthdays (not sure if they made it there or not, and not sure if they are slated to come back if they have already left). Other young neighbors are taking advantage of the low air fares and low concert or massive event prices. And still there’s this one middle-aged neighbor who traveled to California and back with walking pneumonia. I either heard about this directly from the neighbors themselves or indirectly from neighbors who told me about this. If any of my older neighbors gets it from one of the younger or middle-aged neighbors, they most likely will be quaranined for a little while and then hospitalized. I am 50-50 with my health, given that I’m still a smoker and have gastrointestinal issues, among other things. My neighbors are pretty friendly, so there doesn’t seem to be many arguments. However, our landlord sent out an email to us residents and requested that if anyone has symptoms, knows of anyone who has symptoms, has COVID-19, or knows of anyone who has COVID-19 who either lives in the building or has visited the building, we are to inform the landlord immediately. I’m not sure what actions the landlord will take should that occur, but that reaction was somewhat alarming. There’s no privacy when it comes to this particular virus, which differs from non-pandemic illnesses. Many fears about “Typhoid Mary’s” superspreading COVID-19 are expressed in the comments sections of online social media, and many people are panic buying until the stores are completely sold out. My own OCD-like issues have grown a little, though I’m preparing for the worst and hoping for the best kind of thing. I stay busy, I pray, I prefer to isolate (as usual, but more so now). I just have a more challenging time dealing with therapy since I have requested to go to phone sessions for the time being, even though I’d like to visit my therapist in person (which she welcomes), but I just cannot bring myself to do that when I take public transportation. And I’m sure that everyone is struggling in their own unique ways. The list you provide is helpful. As a survivor, however, I’m just going in and out of dissociation at times and waiting for the time to finally pass and for the pandemic to be over – or for a viable vaccination to become available to all.

    Liked by 1 person

    • The panic buying is being addressed by some local stores. They are limiting purchases of any particular item, often to no more than two. It might be useful to go to stores during off-hours, which might include the time shortly after they open. I can understand the worsening of your symptoms. FYI, young people (children and teens) are the least likely to have severe symptoms, though they can be carriers. Yes, your mom does need to be particularly careful. Hang in there, glb.

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      • gb fragmented gumdrops

        Thank you, Dr. S.

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      • gb fragmented gumdrops

        On a positive note, I’ve cleaned out my emails (saved the necessary ones like receipts in PDF format and deleted them from email), and have organized most of my home. I have three small storage units down the hall from my apartment, and I’ve organized those since the end of last month. I’m still in the process of organizing my paperwork, but I’m hoping that I will be fully organized and have a healthier daily routine after all this COVID-19 panic. I’m also watching some awesome shows and have recently added HBO as a subscription through Amazon Prime. Westworld is one of my favorites on HBO, and on Showtime, I love Homeland (their final season). I pace myself well enough to take breaks in between, since my energy gets depleted easily. I sometimes pretend that the COVID doesn’t exist, even though I’m constantly washing my hands (and they are now cracking, bleeding, peeling, wrinkling, and all). I have never used so much moisturizer in my life! Thankfully, I have a washer and dryer inside my apartment, so I can do laundry daily. Not everyone has that luxury though. Social networks help me maintain some sort of socialization, and to read up on current events. I wait a couple of days before I bring packages into my home to open (I do a lot of online ordering to avoid crowds and lines, especially since standing for a while worsens my chronic fatigue syndrome and puts me out for about 2 days in bed). If I do wind up with COVID-19 from neighbors, I’ll call into the VA and follow their instructions to report the symptoms I have and wait for transport; it’s been advised not to go to the ER or to call 911 unless it is an absolute emergency (such as shortness of breath or chest pains or heart attack symptoms for women, such as upper back and jaw pain), etc. So far, I’ve been relatively good, with only the slight “smoker’s cough” in the mornings. I can tell the difference between panic attacks because I do deep breathing, despite the horrible intrusive memories I get with that. It takes longer for me to make deep breathing work for my symptoms, but my brain is completely screwed up with intrusive thoughts and feelings. Still, I do what I can to “play” and enjoy myself in the comforts of my own apartment – alone. My therapist last reminded me by phone that it is important to play, which is a form of self-care. Up until that time, I thought of self-care like hygiene, “work,” or relaxing/sleeping. But because my life is primarily spent “languishing” (not by choice, but rather due to my chronic fatigue syndrome), relaxation and some other self-care practices are “chores” to me. I was also asked about recalling what kinds of play I remember from childhood. I couldn’t really remember any. I worked since the age of 13, with a permit that is. I knew of only work and survival most of my life. But her suggestions for me to find some areas of play that I enjoy was great. I had no idea adult play time was important for self-care. During a panic, crisis, or anything, there can be room to play. My “play” has typically involved Sudoku or watching movies though, so in essence, I’ve utilized play for a while. But I suppose I could sing, do artwork again, dance without anyone watching, etc. Organizing my stuff may seem like work to many people, but I take pride in my mad organizational skills, and sadly, I see that as play. It may be part of my growing OCD-like symptoms, but having things cleaned and organized helps me to reduce anxiety and de-clutter. The “KonMari” method is also all the rage these days. It makes me happy to do this, and it doesn’t cause much distress, so I won’t pathologize my organizational hobbies. But one day I will feel comfortable doing artwork again. That is a long story, not that this reponse isn’t long enough. LOL. Thanks, Dr. S!

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    • Sounds like you are adapting quite well. Brava!!

      Liked by 1 person

      • gb fragmented gumdrops

        I try. I do my best to be realistic, use dissociation to my advantage, allow my emotions to peek through once in a while (because stuffing or avoiding has only made me worse), and find time to enjoy life, even for just a minute a day. Thank you for your encouragement and reflection! 🙂

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      • You are welcome, glb. One other thought: sounds like the hands need to heal. You might purchase properly sized latex gloves for one-time use, assuming you aren’t allergic, so you can reduce washing.

        Liked by 1 person

      • gb fragmented gumdrops

        I have over 100 disposable non-latex gloves (kind of tight-fitting though, since I underestimated the size). I use these to clean my home and wash dishes, but I might try to use these gloves whenever I go outside to smoke, to reduce handwashing. But in my mind, even if I carefully remove the gloves, I worry about trace bacteria and viruses on the fingertips used to remove the gloves at their bottom edges, so I wind up washing my hands anyway and then consider not using up my supply of gloves. My handwashing issues have occurred prior to the COVID-19 outbreak. Unfortunately. And then when all the news about handwashing came out, I couldn’t take my therapist’s advice anymore to reduce handwashing; it’s now a recommendation by the CDC and others. I’m not fully OCD, as I try to let some things go while I weigh the pros and cons, likelihood of contraction, and the days for which my laundry can sit in a pile before any pathogens – at least the most critical ones – can die off (about 3 days to a week), before I do laundry. I wash my hands before I eat, prepare a meal, take clean laundry out of the washing machine to place into the dryer, and take clean laundry out of the dryer to place into my closet. I sometimes spray my shoes and other items down with Lysol (about once every week or every two weeks), and I only wear one pair of shoes at a time to control this. But I haven’t washed my floors or done laundry every day, though I do wear house slippers, which could have some bacteria and viruses on them, but I do what I can to minimize (because I know that it is hard to eradicate all bacteria and viruses). I try not to dwell on the pathogens too much, and I don’t have energy to clean constantly. I’m more afraid of getting gravely ill than I am with order, though I try to do what I can in little chunks. It’s hard when I feel out of control, so I know I do this to try to maintain some level of control and protection. It’s harder for me to reduce handwashing, even with gloves. But I am trying. This pandemic has come at the worst time for me to work on some of my issues, though I’m hopeful that the pandemic will pass – at least within a year- and then I can try again to reduce handwashing. I have eczema and am prone to contact dermatitis, among other things like cystic acne (which has to do with changing hormones), so none of this handwashing business is fun for me; it’s painful, actually. If I quit smoking, my handwashing would be reduced by at least 10 to 15 washes, as I wash my hands every time I return from going outside to smoke a cigarette. I know this. I wouldn’t have a problem with handwashing if I didn’t smoke; if I’m indoors, the only times I would wash my hands would be before I cooked or after using the washroom. It’s the smoking and then having to wash my hands after coming back in from smoking that’s the issue, and so I have to combat two things at once – hoopefully soon: qutting smoking and therefore reducing handwashing. I won’t smoke indoors. I have to prepare for quitting smoking if I get COVID-19, which isn’t a pleasant thought. I’ve smoked to reduce anxiety, even though nicotine does not reduce anxiety (it’s the cognition that I have about smoking that makes me believe it reduces anxiety). I have multiple physiological and psychological issues going on at the same time, so I have to make a choice and work myself up to utilizing multiple treatment options to help me slowly deal with this nicotine addiction, anxiety regulation, and fear of adding on yet another medical trauma to the list of medical issues I have going on at the moment. Comorbidity sucks when the world is literally in crisis. Contagion spreads faster than wildfire. I’m trying to work on societal-induced panic while also working on my own post-traumatic panic. For those without post-traumatic stress, it sucks. The good news about the maladaptive forms of dissociation is that dissociation DOES help me not panic as much; it has always helped me to survive trauma, and it is continuing to help me and my various parts to survive these current-day traumas. Handwashing has only been an issue for the past year or so, ever since I was diagnosed with many different illnesses at the VA. Medical trauma hasn’t been looked at as often, but it is real. And so is secondary stress to medical trauma. I think the world is in a panic for many survival-based reasons, but also due to medical trauma. When we hear about diseases causing the deaths of others, we worry about ourselves and our loved ones. To me, that’s part of the lexicon of medical trauma.

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    • OCD is a condition for which there is empirically validated treatment with a high success rate. I would only add that if your washing produces small hand abrasions, it is increasing your vulnerability, not reducing it. Consult your therapist and the VA. Nothing I’ve read or heard from experts advises anything as frequent as the washing protocol you have described.

      Liked by 1 person

      • gb fragmented gumdrops

        Thank you! I think I went overboard with this handwashing thing. I’m hoping to heal from OCD so that I can work on other issues. I think the OCD has become a distraction for me to work on other issues, probably since it may have replaced dissociation at some point – when I was in the here-and-now and doing all that I could to not dissociate. I’m a mess. I speak with my therapist on Wednesday. My doctors just tell me to talk to my therapist, so they can’t do anything about my hands because it doesn’t warrant a referral to the dermatologist or treatment in a primary care setting. I do what I can to protect the cuts from the overwashing. I wear gloves. But you are right – too much washing is killing off the good bacteria in my skin, and it’s exposing the cuts to even more pathogens. Thank you for the reality check, Dr. S. 🙂

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    • You are welcome, Glen.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Thank you for your calming and practical words on how to weather this crisis.

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  3. Love this posting! Have already taken up the opportunity to learn something new, thanks to the Old Town School of Folk Music. Although spring classes are now postponed until further notice, I did get two beginner guitar lessons from them, and filled in with the Internet. After only two weeks of hard work and blisters, I can already play “Wild Thing” by the Troggs. Amazing! Will keep it up and look for other things to add. It’s an opportunity as much as a crisis.

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  4. Thanks for reminders on how to cope. I’m on a trip-of-a-lifetime cruise in the South Pacific. Along with approximately 700 others, we are patiently waiting to hear the Captain’s next announcement. One stop already cancelled. Two more left. There’s a lovely camaraderie on the ship, so our waiting is not stressful. That may change, of course, with the next announcement. I’ve always like adventure, so now I’m having it traveling by myself!

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  5. Thank you, Dr. Stein for this post. My husband and I have gone low contact except for trips to the stores for food. It is hard to stock-up because items are missing from the shelves and how does one plan when it is unknown how long this will go on? It is recommended we stay home, but my husband and I have gone for walks in our town or in another town where we have minimal contact with people except for the occasional passerby. I hope this is ok for us to do.

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    • You are welcome, Nancy. Some of the local stores are limiting the number of items any single person can purchase. You might suggest that to your own local vendors. Actions such as those ought to diminish hoarding. Walks sound good. I took one yesterday. People respect the distance and early morning hours offer their own serenity.

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  6. Thank you. This is beautiful & the first thing i’ve read that has centred and calmed me. Take care & stay safe; you’re a wise & gentle man.

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  7. This is a really good post, I think as much as anything else it’s sound, ‘grandfatherly’ (no offence!) wisdom and is quite comforting through its practicality. It taps into that human resourcefulness that has always existed throughout time, and still will now. Always good to be reminded as I’m dreaded being locked down if it comes.

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  8. You are welcome, LovingSummer. Since I’m a grandfather X2, I love nothing more than to hear “grandpa” called by my 4-year-old grandson as he jumps into my arms. (The 10-month-old is too young to say much). For now, we are “visiting” with them on FaceTime. I’m sure you will find a way to manage being locked down, should it come. Control what you can control.

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  9. Yesterday I reached out to my friends online to ask for thoughts, experiences, favorite books, shows, anything they find interesting. I just loved the many responses I got so I am going to keep it going. Right in the midst of this rewarding experience you blog showed up! Yes Gerry, you know how to make an entrance. I forwarded it to my list and it is an instant hit. I’m so glad I know you.

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    • Very kind of you, Joan. Thank you. I feel exactly the same about our friendship. I look forward to seeing you when the world allows. Be well.

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  10. Thanks for the much appreciated, sound advice. As you mention, I’m already drawing on “the difficult situations [my sons and I have] survived. What strengths within you enabled you to do so? Tap such qualities once again.”

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  11. And thank you, Rosaliene. Your indefatigable dedication to making the world a better place takes my breath away. I’d say I was your biggest fan, but I know you have many, many of those.

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  12. While this is a very unsettling and uncertain time, it’s also an opportunity for people to slow down and focus on what’s most important in life. As you said, there are so many opportunities to learn something new. I’m fortunate in that my natural inclination from a young age has always been to self-isolate and enjoy being on my own (learning things, reading, watching great movies/documentaries). But I know that many people will struggle with this. Welcome to my world. My message to others: Try to get as many positive things out of this time as you can. It won’t last forever.

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  13. I think you are on the same team with Brewdun in the wisdom of your perspective. Thanks, Rayne.

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