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  • Kathleen Choe

Staying Connected During the Coronavirus Pandemic

With all the uncertainty and concern about the spread of the coronavirus, I wanted to reassure you that I am continuing to offer sessions as currently scheduled.  l know that all of you have been impacted in some way, whether by school and daycare closures, being required to work from home, having concerns about vulnerable friends and family in high risk categories (including yourself), the potential impact on your business/income, not to mention the fear generated by mis-information and hoarding behaviors (who knew toilet paper would become such a hot commodity?)

Remember, unpredictability is a form of trauma in and of itself, and all of the uncertainty about how long these closures, quarantines, shortages and overall threat will last is unsettling and upsetting to our minds, bodies, emotions and spirits.  Although I respect that social distancing is a helpful way to slow the spread of this disease, isolation and lack of connection itself compromises our immune system and makes us more susceptible to both physical and mental illness.  I want to assure you that I am disinfecting all of the surfaces at my office location between sessions, and will respect the 6 foot rule by not hugging or offering any form of touch at this time.  I am also offering video and phone options for any clients who prefer this format or are unable to come in person for sessions, or who have children at home who are usually school during their session time.  If I can accommodate you with a different appointment time please do reach out and I will see what I can do.  For my EAP clients, the 6 foot rule is a bit easier to observe, and thankfully horses have not been found to carry or transmit the coronavirus (they also do not compete for toilet paper)!  If we have to meet at our indoor meeting space at Scattered Oaks Farm due to inclement weather, please be assured that we are disinfecting those surfaces accessed by clients as well. 

It is probably safe to assume that most of us have (thankfully) not lived through a pandemic before, which renders this a new and potentially bewildering and frightening experience for most, if not all, of us. New claims and information seem to come out daily, much of which contradicts each other, and we have all learned a new vocabulary with previously unheard of phrases like “social distancing” (which the mental health community is trying to re-phrase as “physical distancing” because we want you to stay socially connected for your mental and emotional health!) and “shelter in place” which extends to some but not all services and businesses (ice cream and coffee appear to be “essential” as long as they are “to go”  – thank goodness!).  It is very confusing to sort out exactly what is advisable and permissible and our brains do not like this uncertainty and unpredictability one bit.

In times of crisis like these, it is very helpful to maintain (or begin) a mindfulness practice.  Basically, mindfulness is just being in the present moment, rather than ruminating on the past or trying to forecast the future, attempting to solve problems that we essentially do not have enough information to deal with.  Mindfulness pulls us back into the here and now, reminding us that in this moment we are still breathing, relatively safe, and ok.  It might be as simple as noticing how the floor feels under your feet, or how the sunshine is slanting through the window and catching the reflection of a picture frame, or how the breeze feels on your face if you have ventured outside for a moment.  Essentially, it is allowing some form of sensory input (taste, touch, sight, smell, sound) to pull you into the present moment, and give your nervous system a chance to re-set.  Remaining on high alert, being constantly hyper-vigilant, does not actually protect us from harm – it just fries our nerve endings and leaves us feeling exhausted.  Our survival mechanisms were meant to respond to an immediate threat in the environment, and then relax and re-set.  Being in a state of chronic alarm just sets us up for all kind of health problems and doesn’t actually keep us safe.

My 89 year old mother mentioned to me recently that this coronavirus pandemic reminds her of the months leading up to World War II.  “There were so many rumors about whether and when the war would actually happen, and how long it would last.  People started hoarding and stock-piling supplies and the uncertainty was terrible.”  She ended up in a concentration camp for most of her adolescence; and what she remembers most about that time is how much everyone pulled together and took care of each other.  This is our opportunity to do the same thing.  As much as we would like to value our independence and strength, the truth is, we need each other in times of stress more than ever before.  It is not a weakness to admit that we are afraid, or frustrated, or angry.  These are universal human emotions that we all share. 

You are not alone in this.  This is a shared experience.  I am here for you.  Let me know how I can help you remember that you matter, and that you will make it through this.

I found this article helpful and wanted to share it with you as well:

https://hbr.org/2020/03/that-discomfort-youre-feeling-is-grief?fbclid=IwAR2MkshS6wilN0kliBuMHRUdW9Nu44HgtlOtl1QGymNAJm2IpcZEVluLUw0

As the number of confirmed cases of COVID 19 and death toll rises, our situation has gone from being an immediate crisis to a more chronic, long term stressor.  Our nervous system was wired to respond to an immediate threat by engaging the brainstem in a survival response designed to keep us safe in the moment, whether that be fight, flight or freeze.  When the threat is resolved, our body and brain are designed to re-set to a resting state.  In the face of an ongoing, chronic threat, especially one of uncertain duration and vague parameters, our nervous system gets flooded with stress chemicals like cortisol and adrenaline which can result in anxiety, depression, fatigue and overwhelm.  Old, and often negative coping strategies get activated, even ones we haven’t struggled with for awhile, like disordered eating, consuming too much alcohol or social media, sleeping too much (or too little), avoiding daily necessary tasks, or other patterns we thought we had conquered as we seek to check out from the barrage of negative information confronting us daily.

While it is easy to throw out basic self-care under extreme stress, this is actually when we need to be practicing positive self-care habits the most.  The four basic pillar of self-care are (1) Nutrition (2) Sleep Hygiene (3) Movement and (4) Stress Management. I encourage  you to develop a simple plan for each of these areas.

  1. Nutrition:  while certain food items have been in short supply in the grocery stores, the basics are mostly available.  Eat foods that give you energy and make your body feel strong.  There are no “good” or “bad” foods.  Food is not a moral issue.  Food is primarily fuel, and secondarily pleasure.  First ask yourself what will fuel your body in a way that gives you energy?  Try to notice the difference between physical hunger and emotional hunger.  Physical hunger tends to be accompanied by somatic sensations of a slowly growing sense of emptiness in the stomach and a need for energy.  Emotional hunger tends to be sudden and for a specific food (like chips or ice cream).  Emotional hunger won’t be filled by eating food, but only by connecting with someone who cares for us.

  1. Sleep Hygiene:  Children are not the only ones who benefit from a bedtime routines.  Adults need them as well! Going to bed and getting up at a similar time on a daily basis helps our body/brain develop a healthy sleep/wake cycle.  Avoid screens, caffeine, and alcohol prior to going to bed.  Designate the bedroom for sleeping only.  Develop a calming, soothing bedtime routine that may involve reading, hot tea, some light stretching, a warm bath, soft music, a scented candle, or anything that feels relaxing to your brain and body.

  1. Movement:  our bodies were designed to move.  This movement does not need to be strenuous to be effective.  Take a walk in your neighborhood.  Explore the online classes your gym may be offering as part of your membership.  If you’ve never tried yoga, take a look at the website of local yoga instructor Adriene: https://yogawithadriene.com/

  1. Stress Management:  learning to manage stress is hugely important to our emotional health and well being.  Limit your intake of news to a few reliable sources, once or twice a day.  Develop a mindfulness practice.  Acknowledge how difficult this current situation is instead of judging and criticizing yourself for not coping better.  Self-compassion is the best antidote to shame.  Kristen Neff has a wonderful website and Ted talk on this topic: https://self-compassion.org/

Many of you asked for resources regarding developing a mindfulness practice to help with the regulation of stress and anxiety.  St. Michael’s Hospital has free materials on their website that are very helpful:

https://www.stmichaelshospital.com/programs/mentalhealth/mast-materials.php

Lastly, many of you were interested in my family’s history regarding World War II.  My mother was in a concentration camp in Indonesia run by Japanese soldiers (Japan invaded Indonesia, which was a Dutch colony at the time, and put all of the Dutch residents in camps) and my father, who grew up in Holland, was in a German labor camp.  He was assigned to work on, and proudly sabotaged, Tiger Tanks that he knew would be used against the Allies.  He tried to make sure they would not effective in harming his fellow patriots.  My parents survived many hardships and privations during the war years, and I draw on their resilience and resourcefulness now as we face similar challenges during this pandemic.

You are not alone!  We are all in this together.  We can remain socially connected while practicing physical distancing.  Please let me know how you are doing and how I can support you during this challenging time?

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© 2019 Kathleen Choe, LPC-S        (512) 636-1632