Vicki L. Loyer, Ph.D., LMFT
This article was published on March 22, 2020 courtesy of the Arizona Daily Star.
Meet Unknown. Unknown is your driver, the ride is the COVID-19, nickname Coronavirus. It is taking you on an emotional tsunami in the coronavirus wave that is greater than any roller coaster Disney has yet to build. It buckles you in, deep in the core of your survival instincts.
The primitive self searches for who or what is the enemy. As Americans we grab on to symbols of power and strength to give our primitive self direction. The drive for survival of the fittest meant grabbing as much as toilet paper as possible.
The war of words, another primitive use of self-versus-them helps us narrow who is worthy of saving. Blaming someone outside of ourselves for our misfortune fuel-injects beliefs that if we can be more powerful than the group of others we deem to be the culprits, we can somehow be more safe. And through this process, ambiguity strikes at the heart of our mental and physical well-being, tearing communities and families apart, and leaving a wreckage in its wake where peace would have been possible. Divisiveness works.
Alternatively, a lot of things work. Working in community moves mountains. As an affiliative species we are mentally more stable in community. Learning to ride the tsunami, create community, and calm our response is an option. There are many sources of information that cover how to keep safe from transmitting this rapidly spreading virus. The concern for the mental health community is that the very instructions for staying safe are opposite the recommendations for decreasing addictive behaviors, depression, suicidal ideation, and other issues that cause emotional and mental distress.
This does not mean that we disregard the recommendations of those who know more about stopping the spread of disease as if the choice is to be either mentally or physically safe. It does mean that our challenge is to find the path to community and safety: To create a path of both mental and physical safety. Solutions of both/and are more effective than either/or.
I don’t like change. I am not different from many other people – particularly those of us who are older than the Golden Girls. I don’t understand a lot of technology: I wrote my master’s thesis on a typewriter and carried boxes of IBM computer cards that were hand punched and read by the computer anytime I needed to run data. My dissertation was written on big floppy disks, and my first cellphone was the size of a large brick. I prefer a paper appointment calendar and a pencil, a yellow pad and pen, and hardcover books whose page corners I bend to mark my place. My first reaction to crowd spacing and voluntary limiting of social contact was, “yeah, right.” I continued to mull how is this going to affect people who are already depressed, suicidal, fighting addiction or caregiving for a dependent adult? Yet my knee-jerk “NO!!” weighed on me. There is more than one truth in all situations. There is both/and. There are both mental health needs for connection, and physical needs for separation.
I thought that I had to figure this out alone, and I dutifully went to Google. By the end of the night I was more confused and ready to refuse change than ever, but of course the conflict kept me tossing and turning all night.
At some point I realized, I am not alone. We are a community. Each of us has talents that will help us together learn to ride this steep wave. My job is to help create a connection. I am a therapist at Blue Door Psychotherapy. We started Blue Door Connect, an online gathering place, with a very easy log-in process, free of charge, Monday through Friday at noon. Each day a Blue Door clinician will have a short relevant tip for managing connection in a physical-distance world. It’ll be fun and informative. It’ll make you want to stop by, almost like going for a coffee without the germ sharing. Go to BlueDoorPsychotherapy.com and click on Blue Door Connect (under Resources) to log on. Knowing my preference for paper and pen, you can see how this didn’t just happen. It happened because I was inspired by others who have shared great ideas for combating the downside of social isolation. And it happened because I was willing to ask for help. This is where the community came in. There are people who know how to do this stuff, and I had to be willing to ask for help.
Interestingly, a strategy to lessen depression is to help another person. So much for being the master of my fate: I had to take the first step in learning to ride the wave that resulted in me both asking for help and giving someone else the experience of being helpful.
I called Webmo (the Tucson service that set up our website and keeps it running). I told them what I needed, and they volunteered to research it and tell me what I needed and to set it up. I needed an online meeting space and they recommended Gotomeeting.
I needed to call Gotomeeting but experienced a familiar dread: I wanted to avoid a conversation where I would be reminded how much I do not know about technology. Avoid avoiding — this is a second step in managing the tsunami. I made the call. I learned that GoToMeeting is donating their service for 90 days to businesses like Blue Door Psychotherapy so that our work, connection with others, stays accessible to those who need it. This is just the tip of the “ask for what you need and allow another person to be helpful to you” process. Helping each other allows our community to learn to ride the tsunami, create community, and calm our response.
The next task is to help one another lower our stress level. At the first level of stress we use excess energy to fight off the perceived threat. At the second level, when the stress is not alleviated, our body uses stored energy to fight off stress and becomes more susceptible to colds and flu. After that energy is used up, we are at risk for chronic stress related disorders such as heart attack, stroke, cancer. Learning to manage the ongoing stress, being in a community of healthy others, and learning from each other ways of thinking about this pandemic and its consequences in a more manageable way will decrease the experience of stress. So will tuning into programs that make you laugh, activity that gets your heart rate up (when is the last time you jumped rope?), and finding one pleasurable activity to engage in each day.
You may not feel like participating in purposeful connection such as Blue Door Connect. And finding a specific pleasurable activity may seem like a lot of work. You may find it easier to withdraw. It takes energy to interact, particularly in a new way.
Stay away from the slide into unhealthy behavior by doing the opposite of what your impulse may be: Rather than withdraw, engage. Unfortunately, the human brain is more tuned into things that do not work than what is working well. That means that we do not experience pleasurable activities once those activities become habit. The longer you are married the easier it is to take each other for granted. The better your car works, the less you pay attention to what it sounds like. Deciding to notice what you enjoy each day will help you experience that joy. Researchers have found that we need to have five pleasurable events for every one negative event to stay satisfied. Be purposeful in noticing pleasurable events: Things that upset you will be no problem to find. Researcher and therapist Marsha Linehan discovered that by adopting specific assumptions we can manage emotional roller coasters more easily. Our support and skill groups are influenced by her assumptions: People are doing the best they can. People want to improve. People need to be better, try harder, and be more motivated to change.
Despite the fact that people do not cause all of their own problems, they must solve them anyway. I repeat these assumptions to myself when I am resisting negative thinking and I make the decision to enjoy the small things in my life, to be grateful, and to be kind.
We are not alone. We all have skills and talents to share, and when we connect with other people we improve their experience and our own.