Tales from the Bunker – Thoughts During a Pandemic

I have been meaning to blog for months and months, so many ideas to share in regard to mental wellbeing. It’s ironic that a worldwide pandemic is what is giving me the time and space to begin, but I’ll take any slivers of silver lining we can find in this uncertain and worrisome time. I hope to give some ideas, share some comfort and inspire some thought as to how to handle the unique situation we find ourselves in managing COVID – 19.

First idea: GET OUTSIDE!

I had a (much younger than me) therapy client ask if I have ever experienced something like this before. “This” meaning the implementation of social distancing and the fear associated with infection. It took me a second, but memories of the aftermath of 9-11 were my first thought. Similar, yet completely different. At the time, I was in a new state, a new city, with my boyfriend (now husband) beginning graduate school. I felt so far away from my family, my support network, so worried about them and myself. My solution was accidental, I did what I always do, go for a run. Luckily for me, I lived minutes from a range of trails in the foothills. It was a constant and steady reminder that while the world felt upside down, dangerous and overwhelming, the earth has seen more episodes of tumult than it can likely count, yet it is still standing. It was a literal “grounding” into the solid rocks and hills, a centering that while this moment seems unimaginable, it is not. I’m again taking to the foothills, this time with two teenagers and a golden retriever in tow. I’m spending time there, finding beauty, reflecting on all that is right in this world, rather than what is currently terrifying me.

Second idea: Turn off social media

No, really, stop looking. And I’m actually saying that to myself, because I tell you, this current meme game is strong! I can’t stop looking, but I can cut back. I am a voracious reader, I was the kid reading ketchup bottle labels at dinner time, I love to consume information. But much of what we are seeing on social media platforms is often incorrect, is certainly inflammatory and can be an overload of information that paralyzes, rather than promotes positive change. Yes, I have learned a lot from these platforms, the videos and articles about social distancing have inspired me to make different choices in the interest of protecting my family, myself and of course, the most vulnerable among us. However, like every “good” thing, there needs to be a limit. Set aside a specific amount of time to look at social media and potentially use a formal timer that makes you get off the platform when your time limit is up. Also consider taking social media apps off your phone so you have to go “old school” and login the old-fashioned way. This gives yourself a chance to ask, “Is this helping me or creating unintended anxiety or panic.” Another suggestion is to only get your information from known, reputable sources. Just because it’s on the internet doesn’t make it true. And resist the urge to create unintended panic. Yes, you likely took a picture of the empty shelves and posted it to educate and get a collective groan of support from your community, but it’s freaking people out!

Third idea: Treat yourself with kid gloves

I am really good at treating myself when I feel like I “earned” it. I used to have a birthday tradition of eating two pints of Ben and Jerry’s for breakfast. Yes, I am good at this whole treating myself, but my brain also struggles to treat myself if it feels like it is for no reason at all. There has to be a “reason” for it. If a worldwide, novel virus pandemic is not a reason for a “treat” yourself, then what is? For me, treating myself right now means setting my alarm one hour later, jogging a little less vigorously (okay, maybe jogging really slowly) on my treadmill each morning, giving myself grace for being a little more grumpy than usual with my kids, watching shows with my husband at night instead of being “productive” and sometimes (okay, everyday) adding chocolate to my lunch. It’s a reminder that this is stressful and it feels like a marathon. What is important is my health (physical and mental) for the long run. This priority shift of wellbeing over productivity feels like the right thing to do.

Fourth idea: Connect with friends and family

Just because we can’t “see” each other in person, does not mean we don’t need them and they don’t need us. Find ways to connect, whether it’s having socially distant (6 feet recommended) meet ups in the front yard, downloading an app that allows for multiple connections and chatting, sharing silly memes and tales from the social distancing. Whatever it is, keep your community strong. We are in this together!

Fifth Idea: Connect with a therapist

I’m a big believer that the path to feeling better is often putting words to the feelings and emotions we are having. There is a certain healing property to sharing our stories and struggles. The more we can speak about what this experience feels like, our fears, our hopes, our frustrations, we can likely find we are more equipped to deal with the situation than we initially thought. Many therapists have moved to online platforms to allow for social distancing and if you cannot afford a therapist or do not have insurance benefits that cover these costs, a great resource is www.openpathcollective.org. Initiating therapy does not mean something is wrong is you, it means you want to feel better and you are willing to try.

Sixth Idea: Utilize some anxiety relieving tools

Some of my go-to tools to reduce anxiety are apps for meditation and mindfulness: “Calm”, “Insight Timer” and “Headspace” amongst many others are great options. When you feel anxious thoughts creeping in or if your flight or fight response gets triggered, attempt a “grounding technique.” This gives your brain a chance to reset and reorient. A favorite of mine is the 5-4-3-2-1. Find 5 things you can see, 4 things you can feel, 3 things you can hear, 2 things you can smell, 1 thing you can taste. Follow this up with deep breathing, in through the nose, out through the mouth.

As you are encountering anxious thoughts, engage the APPLE technique:

A – Acknowledge: Notice the feelings and thoughts of uncertainty you are experiencing.
P – Pause: Do not react to the first thought you have, rather, don’t react at all, just pause and breathe.
P – Pull back: Engage in self-talk that reminds yourself that this is anxiety talking. Remind yourself that thoughts and feelings are not “facts.”
L – Let go: Let the thought or feeling go. Visualize yourself placing that thought or feeling on a leaf that is floating down a stream or put it on a cloud that is floating through the sky. Watch that thought leave, without placing judgment on it.
E – Explore: Engage in the present moment, recognizing that right now, in this moment, you are safe. Notice your breathing, notice your surroundings, then focus your attention to something else.

Seventh Idea: Go back to the basics

Eat well, exercise, hydrate, sleep. We often times overcomplicate what it takes to have mental well being and internal peace. I distinctly remember when my children were toddlers and we would visit out of town family. They had missed naps, had too many sweets because we were on the go and at Grandma’s house and were cooped up in their car seats because of our travels. It wasn’t a pleasant sight. I also distinctly remember how I felt in those same moments, exhausted because the kids weren’t sleeping well at night, eating too many sweets because at Grandma’s house and unable to engage in my exercise class or daily jog because we were traveling. It also wasn’t a pretty sight. Even adults need those basics met in order to think clearly and feel okay. These basics are not a luxury, they are a primary need so we need to start treating them as such and prioritizing them.

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