Practical Tips for Persevering through the Pandemic
By Mari A. Lee, M.A., LMFT, CSAT, CPTT, MBATT
Mari is a Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist, a Certified Sex Addiction Therapist, a Certified Partners Trauma Therapist and the founder of Growth Counseling Services, a private therapy practice providing Telehealth counseling services and phone sessions to California based clients. She specializes in working with individuals and couples healing from sex and porn addiction, women and men suffering from betrayal trauma, and supports individuals dealing with anxiety, OCD, and depression. Mari is a popular national speaker and the author of, “Facing Heartbreak: Steps to Recovery for Partners of Sex Addicts” and “Healing from Betrayal.” She is also a member of Shirlee’s Fitness Club for Women! Mari’s can be reached via www.GrowthCounselingServices.com or firstname.lastname@example.org
As a support to our women, Mari agreed to write the following article. Thanks Mari!
When Konnie reached out to me to write an article about how the current pandemic is impacting mental health, I wanted to make sure that what I shared was informative, encouraging and heartfelt. My hope is that this will providea little ray of light and support as we keep calm and carry on during this time of stress and uncertainty.
Until a few weeks ago not many of us knew much about the Coronavirus. “Flattening the curve” was not yet part of our daily language, and hardly anyone expected to be quarantined due to this pandemic.
I don’t think any of us understood that toilet paper and Lysol were going to be such highly sought after items. My Goddaughter sent me a text today saying, “Scored an 8 pack of TP Aunt Mari, winning!” My response, “Wonderful, can you spare a square for your Auntie?”, which allowed us both to enjoy a “Lol” text moment.
Ladies let me tell you, I’ve become quite an expert at counting squares of toilet paper! This is not something I thought I’d be writing about, yet…here I am along with all of you, doing my best, sending up the prayers, and making it work.
Tomorrow will be two weeks of sheltering in for me. The news from medical experts around the world has contributed to a sense of global worry and urgency. All of us are working hard to keep our families safe and trying our best to help one another while supporting our neighbors and community.
Not easy I know, but we are doing it, one day, one hour, and sometimes, one moment at a time. This resiliency and commitment to doing all we can to move through this time with courage and integrity is something to feel good about– even if this is the very last thing any of us wanted or expected.
As a Psychotherapist, my role is to help hurting individuals and couples heal. A phrase that I often share with my clients is, “human beings are hard wired for connection”, in order to thrive and not just survive we must stay connected.
During my Telehealth counseling sessions over the last week, many of the clients I am honored to work with have shared a sense of overwhelm, anxiety or feelings of isolation and loneliness as a result of the necessity to socially distance.
Just like exercise, nature, healthy food and clean water is essential for health, staying connected to other people is vitally important for physical and emotional well–being. Healthy interactions with people we love releasesoxytocin, or what we in the therapy world call the “feel good hormone.” This can be experienced through hugging, cuddling, orgasm, slow dancing, kissing, massage and hand holding.
It is abundantly clear that we must shelter in place in order to protect our own health, protect our loved ones, and protect the most vulnerable in our society – those with immune disorders, cancer patients, the elderly and other at-risk individuals.
We must all do our part to stay in and flatten the curve of this virus. This means that slumber parties, birthday parties, hang outs, family events, dinners out, and gathering in public must stop for an extended period of time while our world heals. We know this small sacrifice is required for the safety of all.
This will not last forever, we will get to the other side of this, but for now, each of us must do our part to support our medical teams and service people who are putting their lives on the line each day. I am confident that our scientists will figure this out – after all, we’ve put a man on the moon and women into outer space, and we will get through this troubling time.
It is also important to remember that this level of socialdistancing and isolating is not providing us with the same level and release of oxytocin. My clients have shared sadness about missing family members or worries about elderly parents located in a different state. They have wept about having to reschedule important events like weddings, graduations or vacations.
Clients have discussed concerns over homeschooling and if they are doing all they should. Women are missing their routines that may include career changes, school, an exercise class, their friends, even basic self-care appointments like hair and nails. Many of my clients have expressed anger and frustration at those in the community and around our country who refuse to do their part by staying inside so that we can help our medical teams, our doctors, nurses, and service people.
Suffice to say, it is an extremely stressful time for many people. As a therapist, I understand and have deep compassion for my clients. Yet, I am a woman first and am not exempt from stress. We are all in this together.
Even if you are sheltering in with family, the increase in chores, cooking, cleaning, handwashing (oh Lord can we talk about the handwashing, my hands now look 10 years older than me!), homeschooling children, dealing with restless teens, and mounting tensions between spouses and partners can leave even the most patient among us ready to snap.
This new normal of staying in our homes can increase stress, irritability, anxiety and depression. This sometimes results in a decrease of hugging and cuddling, and, in spite of what the funny Facebook memes say about an explosion of babies in 9 months, you may have noticed that your sex drive has decreased due to stress.
Ready for some good new?
Feelings of loneliness, anger, frustration, sadness, and fear are just that, feelings. They are not facts. It is normal and understandable to feel any of this given all we are currently going through in our world.
If you’ve had a human moment of snapping at your spouse or partner, feeling frustrated with your teenager, or feeling angry at the universe – congratulations, you are human. None of us have lived through a pandemic before. This is uncharted territory and some days it is easy to feel like your cheese is falling off of your cracker!
Challenging feelings, emotional ups and downs are a given during the challenging time. If someone close to you is telling you that you are overreacting, or being dramatic, or to “calm down” (by the way, no one ever calms down by being told to calm down, the brain doesn’t work that way), a healthy response might be,
“I understand that you don’t feel what I feel. But I also know that it’s OK for me to have the feelings that I have. I understand that feelings are not facts, but I am also going to give myself the time I need to feel what I feel. I’m doing my best to take it one day at a time, so please give me the space to feel without shaming me and I will do the same for you.”
Then go for a socially distanced walk or have a bite of chocolate – step away for a moment of self-care. Unplugging for a few minutes when you are overwhelmed is the best thing any of us can do at this time.
An important note about anger: Anger is a natural human emotion like any other emotion. However, it is how we express anger that is important. Anger expressed aggressively with violent words or behaviors is dangerous, abusive and inappropriate. Passive aggressive anger, such as silence and stone walling are also detrimental to healthy connection.
This kind of behavior is especially dangerous now when we are confined to our homes. Numerous studies have shown that increased anger and chronic rage, either overt (i.e. yelling, hitting, screaming, name calling), or covert (i.e. internal ruminations, repressed rage, negative thinking, gossiping) lower the immune system. I think we can all agree that now more than ever we need to takecare of our minds, bodies and spirits, and that includes taking good care of our immune systems.
Again, anger is not the issue, we all feel anger from time-to-time, it is how anger is expressed that is important. Anger that is communicated clearly and assertively withoutraising one’s voice, without threats, without pointing fingers, and instead states your boundary requests is appropriate and healthy. Using “I” statements vs. “you” statements is a good tool to practice in order to support healthy communication.
Example: “I am feeling stressed out from trying to homeschool the kids today, can you take over for dinner and do the dishes afterwards please?” vs. “You did not do anything to help me today! These kids are stressing me out and you are a lazy jerk!”
Example: “I’m stretched too thin and I feel like I am starting to crack. I’m taking some me time today between 12-2 PM, I’m going to go for a walk and get some fresh air, then come home and call my sister. It would help me if you and the kids would do some laundry and get the kitchen organized” vs. “You people are making me CRAZY!! I am SICK to death of your voices!! You better do what I tell you are there will be hell to pay you disgusting idiots!”
Paying attention to your “window of tolerance” can be very helpful when you’re feeling emotionally triggered. This term was coined by Dr. Daniel Siegal in helping individuals understand what is happening in their brains, bodies, and nervous systems. Understanding how to pay attention to your brain/body reactions during adversity is key for all of us, especially now.
Siegal’s theory is that each of us have an optimal arousal level within the window of tolerance that allows for the ups and downs of emotions, and the flow of feelings. For example, we all experience feelings of anxiety, frustration, sadness and anger and those feelings may bring us to the very edge of our window of tolerance. In normal conditions most of us can regulate our overwhelm and shift back into a calmer state. However, during a crisis (like a pandemic or health emergency), peoples’ window of tolerance (AKA their emotional arousal state), will likely be impacted.
Additionally, the way we were raised, what type of communication style was modeled in our families of origin, and how we learned to attach to our parents, families and caregivers also plays a large role in our window of tolerance and how we manage emotional activation – especially during stress.
Unresolved trauma (sometimes referred to as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder or Complex Trauma) can also impact a person’s ability to understand, experience and manager one’s emotions. Clients have shared with me that they often experience flooding and disassociation when in a “melt down”, followed by relief and then shame.
Working with a therapist for a period of time can be very helpful and even life changing in learning important tools to heal and grow and build insight as you practice new ways of expressing your feelings and connecting with the people you love. If you struggle with finding your voice and setting boundaries with angry people in your life, a therapist can help you step into a new way of communicating and advocating for yourself.
I won’t sugar coat this part: Change is not easy. It is hard work. Working with an experienced, focused, and compassionate but firm therapist is some of the hardest work you will ever do. With support, courage and conviction you can heal and move forward in creating a life and relationships that are healthy, authentic and joyful.
One important note before I move on, domestic violence can be triggered during periods of social distancing. If you are worried for your safety or the safety of your children, please do all you can to protect yourself as safely as possible. Reach out to a loved one and see if you can shelter in with them (if it is safe to do so). If the situation is dangerous or escalating call the domestic violence hotline for support: 1-800-799-7233. You can call 911 if you are in immediate life-threatening danger. You do not need to live in fear, and you do not deserve to be frightened and abused during this world pandemic.
In addition to the challenging feelings that are emergingduring this quarantine period of time, we are also experiencing a disruption in our day-to-day routines, and that can feel unsettling as well. We may also be experiencing fear and concern around how this will impact us financially, and how long all of this will last.
While we have no control over the future, it is vitally important to focus on what is within your/mine/our control in this moment. We may not have control over how long this sheltering in place goes on, but there are things that we can control.
Here is a helpful exercise:
1. Take a moment to notice how you are currently responding to everything that is going on. What is it that you are doing each day that is helping? Write that down.
2. Next, take some time to also notice the things you are doing that are not helping you and your family, write those things down as well. Here is an example:
Helpful things I can do for myself and my family
• Stay inside unless I must be out in public
• If out in public protect myself by social distancing
• Wash my hands for 20 seconds if I go outside, and frequently during the day
• Pray and/or meditate
• Get outside (safely)
• Stay hydrated
• Get enough sleep
Unhelpful things I would like to change
• Neglecting my personal hygiene due to feelings of fear and exhaustion
• Yelling at my children due to my own anxiety
• Snapping at my spouse or partner due to my own stress
• Staying up too late
• Eating too much junk
• Blaming others
While our ability to fully connect with our friends and loved ones is currently impacted, there are ways in which we can move through the discomfort we are feeling. Here are a few practical ideas as a support:
1. Daily Routine: Create a daily schedule that you can stick with. This will allow each day to feel as “normal” as possible. Having a regular rise and sleep time will be be one of the best gifts you give yourself in the weeks ahead.
2. Count your Blessings: I know it can be difficult to face the day by expressing gratitude during this pandemic. Studies show that starting off your morning by reflecting on what you are grateful for can significantly improve your outlook. Even if it is something small like, “Today I am healthy” or “Today I have a bar of soap” then start there.
3. Get Outdoors: Nature is not off limits during this pandemic. As long as you are careful, get out in the fresh air! Look up at the sky and the clouds. Feel the breeze and sun on your skin. Vitamin D is essential to a healthy mind and body, so soak some up (carefully of course).
4. Organize: Is there something that you can focus your stressful energy on? What about that garage project? Maybe cleaning out the trunk of your car. My closets have never looked so good! Put on some music, sweat a little!
5. Help Others: Is there something you can do right now that might positively impact someone? Perhaps set a bag of lemons on your curb (if you have a citrus tree), or leave a love note for your teen who is struggling, or give a wave to a person during your walk, or say a prayer for a loved one, or give a roll of TP to a neighbor in need.
6. Connect Virtually: Set up a time to meet with your friends and family via Skype, Zoom or Facetime, this can greatly reduce feelings of isolation and loneliness, especially for the elderly, those sheltering in alone, or those who are struggling emotionally.
7. Date Nights: My heart goes out to you if you are are separated from your significant other at this time. One way to stay connected is to set up a date night virtually. Think about how to make this special, maybe get a little dressed up, have fun, connect, learn something new about one another.
8. Facebook Groups: Friendships will flourish on Facebook due to this current crisis. Find a supportive group that you enjoy and jump in! Stay away from the Negative Nancy’s and The Angry Annie’s and connect with good hearted, kind spirited, uplifting people. Our vibe attracts our tribe as the saying goes! And please don’t argue with strangers online, it impacts your immune system and health.
9. Laughter: Is there a TV show, Netflix series or movie that that makes you laugh? I like The Office, Parks and Recreation, and The Birdcage and Best in Show. Laughter has been shown to improve immunity health and mood, so find some joy in the midst of this challenge.
10. Stay Hydrated: Research shows that even 15% dehydration can impact our mood and focus. And, doctors are asking all of us to stay as hydrated as possible given this pandemic. Set an alarm on your phone (if you have a phone) or find another way to remember to drink some water each hour you are awake.
11. Video Games: This can be a great way to engage virtually with others and have fun. Though I am not a “gamer”, gamers have known this forever!
12. YouTube: I’ve been finding some really great videos on YouTube for dancing and cooking (horrible cook here, but I’m trying!). Konnie and the wonderful Shirlee’s trainers have been generously uploading videos for us as well.
13. Projects: Don’t let this challenging time steal your energy. Instead, look at this as an opportunity to dive into those projects you’ve been putting off. Staying productive is a great way to reduce stress.
14. Challenge Yourself: Learn a new skill – maybe drawing, or knitting, or math, or an online class, or learn a new language, I’ve been brushing up on my Spanish and ha sido divertido! Did I type that correctly?
15. Limit Media Exposure: Not easy, I understand! While it is important to stay informed, I recommend taking a day off now and then. Also limiting how much time you are watching the news or scrolling on Facebook. I give myself 40 minutes a day – 20minutes in the morning, and 20 minutes in the evening, and that’s it! I’m hoping to reduce this down to 30 minutes per day with a day off every 3 days starting next week.
Also, use common sense and stay connected to credible sources only, no need to consume fear mongering articles.
16. Self-Care: Read that book you’ve been putting off, try a new exercise video, or take a look at the wonderful videos Konnie has been posting on the Shirley’s Gym Facebook page with our fantastic trainers who are trying to support all of us at a distance.
17. Negative Comparison – Have you been watching family videos, or cute things couples are doing to have fun during the pandemic and feeling like you don’t measure up? You’re not alone, I’ve seen those videos too and wished I was learning to salsa dance with my significant other, or creating family scavenger hunts. Not all couples and families connect in the same way. As a therapist, I can promise you this, even the most seemingly “perfect” couples and families have their struggles and upsetstoo. Please try your best not to compare your family and relationship with what you see on line. That is not the real world. Instead, focus on the wonderful ways you do connect with your loved ones.
18. Embrace your inner Chef: I am terrible in the kitchen but have learned how to make chicken soupand banana bread. Some of you ladies might be chuckling at how basic that may sound, but I did a little happy dance that what I made was actually edible, ha ha!
If food is scarce or only have a few things on hand (like me), then YouTube creative ways to make those ingredients work for you. If you are struggling with food, several of our local churches can help, as well as www.foodpantries.org. Check out the Upland listing for support.
19. Connect to your Spirit: Journal, pray, start a gratitude jar with your family, turn on music and dance, host a virtual wine or desert party with your friends, do something creative with the family. If you attend church, see if they are streaming their services online.
20. Cultivate Kindness: Let’s start a new movement of intentional kindness in our community ladies. I am a true believer in treating others how you would like to be treated – the Golden Rule. Let’s be on the lookout for ways we can safely assist one another. Maybe an encouraging text, a post, a wave, a smile, letting someone ahead of you in line, taking a deep breath and extending the benefit of the doubt.
I realize that for some of you this list of suggestions may feel very difficult right now. You may be experiencing anxiety or panic attacks, or it may be challenging to even get out of bed. If you are struggling and feeling like you could harm yourself, please reach out for support from theNational Suicide Prevention Lifeline 1-800-273-8255.
If you find yourself in a constant state of overwhelm and are having trouble moving through feelings of anxiety or depression, or you would like support due to relationship or communication challenges, and if working with a therapist for a few sessions would be helpful, now is the time to reach out.
It is normal to feel fear and loneliness during a crisis like this, however, if you feel your mental health is worsening then you do not need to struggle alone. In that case, please set up a session with a Telehealth therapist. You may contact me at: email@example.com if I am booked, I will share a referral as a support. You do not have to do this alone, there are therapists who can help. I am currently offering a sliding scale during this pandemic as a support.
Ladies, as I bring this to a close, I am sending all of youheart filled abundant support, love, strength and compassion right now. We will get through this challenging season – better than before. Connect with your inner Wonder Woman and remember: you are stronger than you even know!
With love, support, prayer and healing energy, and a big thank you to Konnie, the Shirlee’s Gym staff, and the trainers for all they are doing for us while we are away from our beloved gym.
Take good care,