“I don’t know why,” she said to me. “I just feel like crying all the time.”
I could understand the feeling. When much of what you know and have come to depend on goes out the window, it’s unnerving. For some, especially those struggling with anxiety, it’s more than upsetting. It’s a fear firestorm. Here’s why “hunkering down” for two or more weeks can be difficult and what you can do about it.
Why It’s Hard
Social distancing is unnatural for many. In times of uncertainty and perceived danger, we naturally flock together. Birds and animals do it; so do people. We believe there is strength in numbers and comfort too. We naturally feel better when we can talk with friends and family. Having someone hold your hand or touch you on the arm when you’re about to undergo a medical procedure typically slows your pulse and helps bring down your blood pressure. It’s calming and soothing. Now we’re being told that what we do by instinct is irresponsible and potentially dangerous. It all feels very unnatural and it is.
Routine is reassuring. Even though vacations and holidays are pleasurable experiences, most people also enjoy a return to routine. Our bodies function best when we retire at a regular hour and wake-up on a similar schedule. (Consider how you feel the week after daylight savings time or when you’ve crossed several time zones and experience jetlag.) We are meant to have similar schedules and routines mentally, physically and psychologically. When these are disrupted for an undetermined length of time, we struggle to handle it well.
We prefer to have an end date or goal in mind. Most people will tell you they can handle just about anything if they know when it will end. “When will I stop feeling like this?” they wonder. “When will this be over?” “How long am I going to have to live like this?” The problem with the COVID-19 pandemic is that we don’t know how long it will last. What will happen next is uncertain. We wonder if we have what it takes to stay the course.
It’s hard to grieve ambiguous loss. There are a lot of losses associated with hunkering down for two weeks or more. There’s the potential loss of the remainder of the school year and all that this entails—regular contact with friends, end-of-the-year field trips, prom, athletic competitions and so much more. It will be the “lost year” for many children and their parents. It’s also the loss of family gatherings, special trips and important anniversaries. A lot has changed in a very short period, just as in the death of a loved one, and we struggle to accept the new reality.
What You Can Do to Keep Your Cool
1. Develop a new routine as soon as possible. We are naturally creatures of habit, so developing some new habits will help. Get up at a regular time. Establish a meal schedule. Allow for exercise or play time (outdoors if possible). Decide on work time and space. Schedule time to connect virtually with friends and family. It may not be easy, but creating a new structure for doing life will help everyone involved. As my father used to say about the start of family vacation, “It’s just takes a few days for everyone to get trail broke.”
2. Write, draw or express creatively about the experience. Someday, this will be the story you and your kids will tell their kids or grandkids—the Great Pandemic of 2020! Think of it. We love movies, stories, paintings, photographs and other works of art emanating from periods of time in our history when people had to adjust. Beautiful quilts were constructed during some of the most difficult days of our pioneer history—often in sod shanties in the middle of nowhere on the great prairie. People wrote music and sang songs of hope and courage. In difficult times, the human spirit is capable of creating beauty. Set aside time each day for yourself and your kids. Don’t miss this opportunity to create something meaningful.
3. Acknowledge losses versus pretending they don’t exist. Talk about what you will miss. Be realistic. It’s okay to shed some tears about things you’re sad about. In fact, it’s much better to acknowledge loss and sadness than to act as if it doesn’t matter. Those who have experienced loss will tell you that talking about it, processing loss and disappointment, will go a long way toward helping one accept the new reality and move forward.
4. Innovate and create new options and opportunities. While most of us chafe at having to do something different or in a new way, it’s actually very good for us and our brains. We activate more neurons when we can’t do things in the same way we’ve always done them. There are books you’ve always wanted to read, but never had the time. There were skills or hobbies you hoped to pursue, but kept putting off. There were games you promised to play with your kids, but struggled to find time in the schedule. Now, you have time to play board games, teach your kids to cook, practice a musical instrument. Look for new ways of interacting and learning together as a family. Read or listen to books together about other people who faced challenging circumstances and not only survived, but thrived in the process.
5. Focus on what you have over what you don’t. Challenge yourself and the members of your family to make a list everyday of at least five things you have and for which you are grateful. One day’s list might include the following: 1) Roof over my head. 2) Time to read a new book. 3) Opportunity to try something new in the kitchen. 4) A good night’s rest. 5) Spring weather.
If you are experiencing some sadness, some gloomy thoughts, a general feeling of uneasiness, you are not alone. You’re human. These are uncertain times. It’s normal. It’s also possible to take charge of some parts of our life in a way that will help you to feel less sad, less anxious and more content. Try one or more of the five options above and see if it doesn’t make a difference.
For more great insights and tips be sure to subscribe to our Good Dads Podcast, and check out this Keeping Calm episode, where we talk to two dads about not hitting the "panic button", and keeping their kids calm in a time of uncertainty.
Jennifer L. Baker Psy.D., Founder & Executive Director of Good Dads, is a clinical psychologist and family therapist with nearly 30 years of practice helping individuals, couples and families.