We are individually and collectively navigating a bumpy transition from “life as usual” to “life in a worldwide pandemic.” We are adapting to disorienting change as well as managing our emotional responses to this crisis. As the pandemic moves toward us disarmingly slowly and then shockingly fast in its exponential growth pattern, we each make that transition in our own time, moving from initial denial and resistance through uncertainty and confusion to reluctant acceptance and protective action.
Ability to act
We can better withstand ongoing trauma when we have more resilience and resources. We are more resilient when we perceive ourselves as having agency: the ability to take action. Our resilience is also supported by receiving understanding and compassion for our experiences.
We support our agency when we own our skills and knowledge. A sense of agency says, “I may not know what to do yet, but I will figure it out.” Agency includes small stubborn steps, not just flashy victories. When we discern what we can and cannot change in the moment, we can make a powerful choice within ourselves to wait or remain silent or endure discomfort when in other circumstances we would leave or speak out or fight back. Agency includes patiently planning and working toward a future when we can actively move forward.
This pandemic is not something we can fix or control. We can strive to do everything right, and we might still get sick. People we love might get sick. Illness is not a punishment. We are each making decisions about risks and trade-offs as best we can. When we feel stuck, we can listen to all sides of an inner deadlock about what to do.
Staying home is heroic
If you are out providing essential services, it is easier to see your agency and heroic contributions. For many people, agency in this pandemic is quieter. Washing hands. Staying home. Learning how to teach and study and work online. Remember that those quiet actions are equally heroic. Your choices are directly saving lives.
Staying home has its challenges. It can trigger memories of past times at home, including being trapped with an abusive parent or partner. You can practice same and different to help distinguish the past from the present. Name a couple of things that are the same, and a couple of things that are different. Take note of your current strengths and capacities and choices.
If you are staying home with someone who is behaving abusively in the present, reach out for support to make a safety plan.
Sudden change also has its challenges. It takes more energy to do things in new ways. Keep as many of your routines as you can, and give yourself time to build new ones. Be kind to yourself around food and eating, especially if you are used to eating out or shopping often.
If you find yourself with unexpected free time, ask yourself what you enjoy. Make a list of creative and repair projects you want to tackle and skills you want to learn. Is there a musical instrument in your closet or a language you want to work on?
Have compassion for your body and nervous system that are busy creating new routines and processing anxiety, fear, and grief. You may be less focused, less efficient, more forgetful, or more clumsy than usual. Your first need might be for rest, a need that is often unmet in a fast-paced life.
Have compassion for the people around you who are going through similar processes in their own way. As much as you can, offer understanding and support to others, and to yourself as well.
Pause, check in
Take a moment to check in with yourself. How are you, really? Follow your breath in, and out. Notice how your body responds to the surface that supports you. Wiggle your fingers and toes. Ask your shoulders if they have room to drop. Follow another breath in, and out.
If you notice pain, offer a gentle hand to the place that is hurting. Let it know that you hear it. Sense how it is right now for the part in pain, from its point of view.
Acknowledge small losses
Take some time to acknowledge the small losses, the interruptions in routine and cancellations of eagerly anticipated events. These losses are no less real for being dwarfed by global events.
Sit with disappointment, and get a sense of exactly what you miss about your small losses. It might be fuzzy and unclear at first, and resolve into words or images as you spend time with it. Check if the words or images fit, or if there is more about that. Reflect back to yourself, that’s what you miss. Sense how it is to have that heard.
When you feel ready, invite a sense of what might replace or approximate what you miss. Online connections instead of meeting in person. Local walks instead of more distant hikes. Broadcast recordings instead of missed concerts. The replacements are probably not as good, but they are better than nothing, and you can actively choose to find them.
If one of your losses is bodywork appointments, you can take that hour as time for self-nurturing. It might feel good to lie down and invite your body to uncurl onto a supportive surface. Listen for what feels nurturing to you, and bring in as much of that as you can. You can add music, warmth, support under your knees, and a glass of water for when you get up. Give yourself a gentle transition into and out of your nurturing time.
Recognize your agency
All around the world, people are grieving small losses and finding alternatives. All around the world, people are grieving larger losses, perhaps shattered future plans or deaths of beloved friends and family.
All around the world, we are taking inventory of our skills and knowledge and generously sharing them with others. All around the world, we are choosing the stories we tell about this time. While acknowledging suffering and fear, we can turn toward generosity and gratitude and hope. Recognize your agency and your quiet heroism.
- In the Time of Pandemic by Kitty O’Meara. A short hopeful prose poem about how healing could emerge from this pandemic.
- How Sociologists Define Human Agency by Nicki Lisa Cole, Ph.D. explains agency in a social context.
- Exponential growth and epidemics (9 minute video) by Grant Sanderson helps visualize exponential growth and how to interrupt it by staying home.
- That Discomfort You’re Feeling Is Grief by Scott Berinato. An interview with David Kessler about naming and being with grief.
- Safety Planning. Some suggestions to consider when planning around your safety from CallToSafety.org.