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Maintaining your equilibrium during COVID-19

by Harriet P. Zilber, L.C.S.W.

2020 brought with it a worldwide pandemic that has impacted the working of our world. My expertise is helping people find solutions to cope with pain of all kinds. The system of support from the government requires tenacity and a clear mind to try to navigate. The task of securing food has become complex and shaped by one’s vulnerability to disease. Maintaining health requires different approaches, and access to care is not the same.  Having the concrete help and support of friends and family is not possible in most cases as the mandate is for social distancing. We are connecting through virtual networks, if we are lucky.

Uncertainty is paramount. The advice for self-care and protection varies from state to state, and often contradicts the advice of medical professions. Planning is almost impossible. There is agitation and anger, frustration and fear, confusion and concern as well as  a general weariness with days which are remarkably similar. There is also hope that time may bring unexpected good things. But these days seem to come and go as they alternate with the stressful ones.

Quilt of many colors and geometric shapes
Quilt created by Pat Gluckman
 All of us are experiencing the loss of life as we knew it. The number of families who are grieving, with less community support, is incomprehensible.  To survive we must turn to new strategies and greater reliance on self-care, in order to be there for friends, family, and other important people in our lives. We need to know how to care for ourselves.

1. Allow yourself to feel what feelings arise with awareness, acceptance and non-judgement.

It is important to accept that a situation like this brings a wide range of emotional states and feelings.  Anxiety, fear, sadness, anger, impatience, etc. can arise suddenly and unexpectedly and/or can be close to the surface. Feelings can present in strange ways...fatigue or sensitivity or lack of patience. It is best to allow these feelings as a natural reaction to a very stressful time. If feelings are acknowledged as normal, we can accept them by reminding ourselves that this is a hard time and we need to take care of ourselves. Feelings are not facts. They don't always have to make sense or be acted on. If we push feelings away, they tend to persist and make us even more uncomfortable. If we tell ourselves what we feel is wrong, then we feel shame.  Nothing one feels is wrong. Feelings are temporary.

Anxiety and fear are to be expected. Our brains are designed to respond to the unknown with caution. Now there is so much unknown and  what was once normal in our lives is prohibited, limited or feels dangerous. Separation from loved ones is hard. When we tell ourselves that those normal feelings should be ignored or are wrong, they usually keep popping up even escalating. Dr. Dan Seigel says…

"That which we resist, persists"

"Name it to tame it" 

Grief presents other challenges. The loss of a loved brings a whole list of concrete tasks, and  a myriad of feelings as well as thoughts, beliefs and behaviors that may be different from any other experiences. People may want to speak to their spiritual traditions and leaders, or a grief counselor or therapist. There is no one way to grieve.


2. Practice lots of self-compassion.

Remember that you are not alone in feeling this way as the people all over the world are in similar situations. When a feeling of anxiety comes.... a negative thought or a fear....remind yourself that these are normal feeling reactions. They need to be acknowledged as difficult, but normal. It can help if you offer some thoughts/words of kindness to yourself…..

"This is hard, I need to be kind and understanding of myself and others."

This is also a time to stop, find a quiet time and use your breath or another technique to put yourself in a more relaxed state. Ask yourself  "what do I need right now?". Sit with that question and just gently allow thoughts to come to mind.

3. Practice mindfulness.

“Mindfulness is awareness that arises through paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally,” says Jon Kabat-Zinn. “And then I sometimes add, in the service of self-understanding and wisdom.”

Try to maintain a sense of being centered in the present moment, as that is the only time one can take action.The past is a memory and dwelling in the difficult parts of the past can result in anger, shame, guilt or depression. The future is a fantasy, and not predictable during this pandemic. Most anxiety is related to thoughts of the future that can feel real and be terrifying. The question to ask when lost in thoughts of the past or future is...What can I do about that right now?  What action can I take in this present moment that would help? The only time one can take action is the present.

Meditation for cultivating mindfulness...

Jon Kabot-Zinn who founded the "Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction" Program at University of Massachusetts about years ago has a powerful daily meditation, talk, and question and answer session every weekday at 2 p.m. EST. I recommend tuning in either live or by video on YouTube and see if it may be useful to you.

4. Take care of your body.

The stress that we are all experiencing right now has considerable impact on the body, so it is important to take care in meeting our body's needs for health. Getting a good night's sleep, if that is possible, will make a difference. Don't be alarmed if you are having more or vivid dreams during this time as this seems to be happening to lots of folks. This vivid dreaming is often experienced more by people on the front lines of patient care who witness the suffering of others and work so hard to alleviate it…

Eating well is important. Many people seem to have cravings for sweets or carbohydrates.   In moderation they are ok and comforting. Do not forget protein, fruits and vegetables and whatever else makes you feel alert and strong. Kudos to those people who are sending food to hospital workers, police and firemen to help sustain their energy.

Exercise has a positive impact on health, immune function and the production of chemicals in the brain that increase feelings of well-being. Walking is great, as long as you are able to maintain the proper social distancing. Walking at a brisk pace can be a go-to or frustration. Movement of any kind can regulate emotional fluctuation and clear consciousness for new insights.

Here are some body related mindfulness exercises that you may want to try:

Taking care of your body also means that you observe the recommendations set out by the Center for Disease Control, The World Health Organization, or the Governor of your state.  Don't go out if you are not feeling well. Use a face mask at all times you will be in contact with other people. Proper handwashing remains the most important act as well as remembering not to touch our faces.

Unfortunately, taking care of one’s body is more of a challenge for first responders and hospital personnel who need to have an unending supply of Personal Protective Equipment. (PPE) that are recommended by the CDC. Kudos to all the people and corporations who have donated money and goods to try to remedy this. 

5. Take care of your mind.

Make good choices about the information you want to take in. Right now we are getting so much news and email all designed to inform and help. Be aware when it is just too much. You will not be able to know it all, or take advantage of every opportunity or offering that comes your way. Tune into your own sense of being overwhelmed.  Be compassionate towards yourself and cut off unnecessary discomfort that may be associated with News, Social Media, Television, YouTube, etc.  Most individuals' mindsets are better served by content that is less triggering of anxious feelings.

Be ok if you are savoring alone time. Alternatively, be ok if your day is brightened by lots of contact with friends and family via FaceTime, Zoom or the telephone. Everyone has different needs and can handle different kinds of stimulation right now. Do reach out to trusted family/friends when you have a need to talk. Ask for help if you are uncomfortable, depressed, more anxious or confused than usual.  Journalling or writing is very useful to vent feelings, to record thoughts, and to solve problems.

The challenges of maintaining mental alertness and stability are far greater for those people working in hospitals or services where they are interacting with patients and families on a regular basis and witnessing the impact of COVID-19.  The CDC and others provide good written information about stress management and  trying to avoid burn-out.  In addition, individual institution, professional organizations, unions etc. offer support programs, hot-lines and individual work with trauma specialists and counselors. It is imperative that families of first responders acknowledge the fear and change they are experiencing and also remember that they have a right to their own unique feelings and reactions.

Be proactive. Reach out when you have a question or are unsure of a reaction experienced. We are not born with or educated on the skills of knowing how to help ourselves in a worldwide epidemic. Being strong is knowing when to ask for support.

6. Be radically realistic.

This is a time in life to be flexible and to give up notions of perfectionism. It is not possible to have a normal work day when you are also maintaining a household and have children at home that require attention or assistance. Parents are expected to assist teachers and monitor children’s remote education during work hours… If one is lucky enough to be part of a couple, then it is useful to create a schedule where one parent will alternate with the other. Single caretakers can reduce their stress by establishing a predictable schedule of daily activities and expectations, which helps children feel safer and helps parents/caretakers to be calmer.

It is certainly not possible to work to normal capacity. If you are working at home and children are present, then discuss this with your employer. You may have to lighten expectations. It is ok for your home to be more cluttered, meals more repetitive or having laundry pile up. It is ok to complain and ok to not like your children. Although you cannot share childcare with friends and colleagues, they can be wonderful resources of empathy and ideas. Keep reminding yourselves that this is temporary. To many parents’ dismay, more screen time may be inevitable. Luckily, there are many quality offerings for children that are easy to find in parent newsletters such as Mommy Poppins or Lucie’s List. 

7. Take control of what you can.

There are so many restrictions on our lives right now, that we can feel overly controlled and resentful. That is normal. Identify and remind yourself of  the choices you can make within the restrictions. Being able to do something to help another is satisfying and enriching, particularly when you are overwhelmed by the amount of pain and suffering so many are experiencing. It can be contributing money to a cause, food to a local food bank, donating blood, doing errands for a neighbor, or volunteering in some other way.

Create a "Tool Box" of go to ideas to help when you are feeling out of control or just overwhelmed. It may be a list of activities that can shift focus or reduce that sense of heaviness. It may be reviewing recommendations made by a trusted person or agency in your life.  It may be asking directly for help. A simple breathing exercise is often just the thing to ground and settle oneself. Explore practices, exercises or suggestions for stress management. There are sources of free or low cost counseling or support for first responders that can be found  through the Red Cross, the CDC, or exploring the internet.

8. Maintain social distancing NOT social isolation.

There are some individuals that are profoundly lonely. Those who have experienced losses are left to grieve without the comfort of others being available to hold their hand or fill the empty space.  We all have to explore ways to keep connections for ourselves and for others. Phone calls, FaceTime, Zoom family gatherings, or online support groups are the glue that keeps some people in place.  Acts of profound kindness to those who are isolated may be a call, a card with comforting words, dropping off a meal or groceries or just conversation outside a window. The outpouring of recognition, appreciation and support for those on the front lines goes a long way.

9. Practice gratitude.

Be aware and thankful for what you have in your life that supports you and your family during this time. Acknowledge those who are maintaining essential services and thank them.

To develop the habit of gratitude, there is a wonderful exercise developed by Martin Seligman in University of Pennsylvania's Positive Psychology Program.

  • Every night, just before you go to bed, take time to review your day.
  • Think of 3 things that went well for you during the day, that you were grateful for.
  • They could be things that you did that made a difference for you or someone else.
  • Write them down and Reflect upon each.

Writing down is vital as it helps you to focus on the events in a structured way.

Reflecting on what you did can  add to your sense of perceived control and well-being.

Martin Seligman wrote “For sound evolutionary reasons, most of us are not nearly as good at dwelling on good events as we are at analyzing bad events. Those of our ancestors who spent a lot of time basking in the sunshine of good events, when they should have been preparing for disaster, did not survive the Ice Age. So to overcome our brains’ natural catastrophic bent, we need to work on and practice this skill of thinking about what went well.”

10. Nature is healing.

Many books, including The Nature Fix by Florence Williams, explain the healing elements of being outdoors.  If you are fortunate enough to have a garden or space for planters you will benefit. Working in a garden gives access to chemicals in the soil that also create feelings of well-being. The sun gives us vitamins and feelings of well being. Many people are seeking time away from home in natural areas, some of which are so crowded that social distancing needs to be practiced. Find a place, even a window, where you feel the air, notices the sky and trees, or listen to the sounds of the birds.

It is also relaxing to use Creative Imagery when stressed or having difficulty falling asleep. Bring to mind an experience you had in nature perhaps on a vacation or a hike. Then with closed eyes, imagine that you are in that place. In your mind’s eye, look around you and notice what you can see in all directions… Then think about the sounds you hear, what smells might be there, what you may be able to touch or taste. Take time to take yourself away to nature even if in your mind.

11. Celebrate silver linings.

This is a time when options for activity are reduced. Attending to what is happening to ourselves, can lead to greater self-awareness and discovery. I see people finding that they are capable of more than they imagined. We are made aware of the hard, hard work of those on the front lines especially the individuals that have the non-medical jobs. There is more active appreciation for their essential contributions. We are aware of the amazing human spirit and strength that help folks and ourselves rise to the occasion.

Moments of contentment and discovery alternate with confusion, frustration, impatience, judgement and fear. Day to day living is an emotional roller coaster.  Mood fluctuation is the new normal.  It calls us to try to be more in touch with what is needed in the present moment.  It is all too easy to transfer anger for this time, with its uncertainty, confusion and loss, and project it onto ourselves and others. All feelings, as foreign or unfamiliar they may be are ok. Feelings are neither facts nor actions.

We need to embrace awareness with curiosity rather than judgement. It is a time to practice mindfulness as an antidote to angst. If we practice focusing on the present moment as the only one we can be sure of and the only one we can act in, the daily possibilities for action and self-care become more apparent.

I wish everyone health and peace.
May, 2020


Just a few resources:

A resource and activity guide about COVID-19 that I think is quite good:
I love all the things that are offered on YouTube.....  STAY HOME WITH ME
And some more mindfulness:

Harriet Zilber is a licensed clinical social worker in suburban Philadelphia with a keen interest in empowering others to find mastery and well-being. A practitioner of meditation and mindfulness, she finds these practices most helpful to this time.