In addition to the painful realities and very real threats that the coronavirus pandemic poses to the health, safety and livelihoods of many around the globe, this crisis has also affected another essential dimension of human experience: mental health.
Currently, many people are stuck inside, sorting through novel emotions and grappling with a new normal. For some, the emotional toll of the global health crisis is an unprecedented inner experience. Yet, for others, isolation is paradoxically helping them cope better with their mental health struggles.
For as long as COVID-19 has significantly disrupted our lives, I have tried to come to terms with the wide array of emotions within me, pulling my mind and heart in a million different directions.
In a sincere attempt to connect when disconnection prevails, I have also tried to understand others’ mental and emotional experiences, which are often downplayed and should not be forgotten.
Throughout this learning experience, a grief expert, an entertainment reporter and a retired astronaut have proved crucial in my understanding of what is going on inside us — and how to accept and find meaning in it.
Coping with Grief
Humanity is currently grieving the loss of thousands of lives to a vicious disease. David Kessler, renowned expert on grief and loss, pointed out in an interview with the Harvard Business Review that there is a “collective grief in the air,” one so palpable and heavy that it weighs on many shoulders.
However, Kessler refers not only to death, which is an incomprehensible loss, complex and bitter enough in and of itself. He says that most people are also mourning “the loss of normalcy; the fear of economic toll; the loss of connection.” Most are grieving in anticipation of future losses or mourning the loss of opportunities, control and certainty.
And through it all, on a daily basis, one can cycle rapidly and confusedly through denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance — the five stages of grief.
“The stages aren’t linear and may not happen in this order,” Kessler explained. “It’s not a map but it provides some scaffolding for this unknown world.”
Trying to pinpoint our exact emotions at any given moment can be a challenge of its own, but it can allow us to come to terms with the fact that no feeling is final. It can allow us to balance our thoughts, as Kessler advises, in order to avoid giving a catastrophe much more power over us.
Other advice that Kessler offers in the interview includes trying to be more mindful and present, letting go of what is out of our control and practicing as much compassion as possible.
And if the grief you currently feel does not always seem proportional to the gravity of your situation, maybe it doesn’t have to be. Little of how we feel and think is reasonable right now, and this is part of being human. Ultimately, we are all mourning and dealing with big and small losses in our own particular ways.
It seems as though some people are actually coping well with isolation and uncertainty — even to their surprise. Laura Bradley, entertainment reporter at The Daily Beast, wrote an article about those with anxiety and depression who have felt better during the crisis.
For some, anxious anticipation has dwindled, according to psychologist and anxiety specialist Elizabeth Cohen. That big, bad, inevitable thing that might happen? It is already here. And some people have found that relieving.
Cohen also believes that being prone to dissociate and withdraw from immediate situations has helped some in these circumstances that require them to stay inside.
Psychiatrist Elizabeth Visceglia offered another theory: “Seeing [one’s] inner state mirrored by the outside world … [has] helped shut down self-critical thought patterns and offered some relief.”
“Still, it can be jarring to experience newfound calm at such a devastating time,” Bradley said. But any sense of shame ought to be transformed into gratefulness, according to what three mental health professionals told her.
“The key, it seems, will be carrying this sense of connection and gratitude into the future,” Bradley reflected.
Feeling Everything in Between
I am keenly aware that my situation could be unimaginably worse, and I admittedly feel immense relief that it is not. I am grateful to be safe and to feel the closeness of my family and loved ones, even if from a distance.
Sometimes, this gratitude makes me feel like I am on top of the world, like I will finally be able to get my life together and I will emerge from isolation a balanced, renewed person. Those Tweets and Instagram posts talking about all the time we have to reinvent ourselves? They feel right.
Some days, my introversion makes me giddy with the prospect of days full of embroidering, baking and reading; my anxious mind relishes the respite and taste of home that my host family offers.
Most days, however, I cannot get out of my bed, the sheets sticky and my emotions drowning. I feel inadequate and unproductive, a negativity that only worsens my tumultuous interiority.
Most days, I mourn a sense of belonging, unsure of when I will return to my country. I grieve for family, friends and compatriots who have gotten sick and for the people, whose warm smiles I have long known, who have passed. I mourn the paralyzing loss of what little motivation I had, drained by the sheer magnitude of it all and the relative triviality of schoolwork.
And when I feel undeserving of the blessings to which my emotions blind me or when guilt takes over my gratitude and relief, I find meaning by connecting with what is going on beyond my own privileged microcosm.
In his interview, Kessler said that “emotions need motion,” so we must acknowledge what we are going through. That also means avoiding the guilt that might come alongside sadness, or even alongside gratitude and relief.
Now, more than ever, we must understand that we are all allowed to feel anything, everything and nothing at the same time. Now, more than ever, chances are that many thousands — if not millions — of others are feeling similarly. There is no right or wrong way to cope — but we must get through it together.
More on Coping
Scott Kelly, a retired NASA astronaut who spent almost a year alone at the International Space Station, shared his experience and advice for dealing with isolation with New York Times readers.
No matter how we are feeling, like Kelly, we might be able to find some meaning in routine, in a gentle pace, in arts, crafts and music. In connecting with nature, in connecting with ourselves and our thoughts, in connecting with others.
So, open a window, journal or call a friend. You don’t have to do all three things, but you can start somewhere along these lines. This is how you can find meaning in the now, because personal and collective healing will surely come in its own time.
Never, perhaps, has this (modified) cliché been as relevant: “This, too, shall pass. Like a kidney stone, but it shall pass.” Actually, this might feel more like a boulder — but it shall pass all the same. And by the time it does, it will hopefully have made us more compassionate toward ourselves and toward others. It will hopefully have made us more human, if anything.
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- Call (574) 631-7336 during regular hours or after hours for crisis support.
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- You may call the office line at: (574) 631-7833.
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- Grief support: If you have experienced the loss of a loved one and want to talk about it in a confidential setting, reach out to Tami Schmitz at Schmitz.email@example.com or (574) 631-3016.
[If you are having thoughts of suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 (TALK), available 24 hours, seven days of the week.]
(Photo by Barbara Johnston/University of Notre Dame)