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  • Kathy Wu, PhD

Dealing with COVID-19 Stress: Listen, Soothe, Grow

Updated: May 13



In a very short amount of time, our lives have been turned “outside-in” by the COVID-19 global health crisis. We are each being confronted by unfathomable changes in big and small ways. Some of these changes will seamlessly revert back to “normality”, while the effects of others will linger for a lifetime. For instance, lost income might return when the economy does, but a loved one lost to the disease will not. Daily routines will get re-assembled, but a felt sense of stability and security might not be as easy regained.


During these moments, we need to do more than just come in-doors, we need to come into our own hearts and listen, soothe, and grow. When we attempt this, we’ll likely be better able to withstand the many uncomfortable changes we’re experiencing. We might even be able to entertain the possibility of things not returning to what they were, but evolving into better versions of what they were.

LISTEN

In the midst of uncertainty and chaos, we might behave in curious ways (e.g., stockpile toiletries or ignoring urgings to social distance). One reason this happens is because we are being hijacked by irrational thoughts, which reduces our capacity to listen actively to our emotions. Our emotions signal to us efficient ways to adapt and thrive in uncertainty.


When we stop, breathe, and listen to our feelings of fear, anger, frustration, boredom, confusion, or helplessness, we can better calibrate our thoughts and behaviors. For instance, some of us might find ourselves yelling at our loved ones for seemingly minor offenses (you fill in the blank), which then snowballs into more serious fights. Being able to stop and acknowledge how we are feeling in the moment can help de-escalate the situation. Stress begets stress when we let it. Instead of going straight to yelling or complaining, we could say, “I’m feeling really overwhelmed right now, so I would really appreciate some help.” You listening to your own emotions can, in effect, help others better support you.


Listening to your emotions will also allow you to better contextualize the situation. You might be able to say to yourself, “In the grand scheme of living through a pandemic, putting dishes away isn’t so important right now.” Instead of interpreting challenging situations in self-blaming or others-blaming ways, honoring your emotions will give you a greater sense of control, which will increase your hopefulness for the future. Hope is something we could all use more of right now, don’t you think?

SOOTHE

When a child falls and skins their knee, our instinct is to help the child up, patch them up, and care for them. Yet, as adults, we tend to be much more harsh with ourselves when we get hurt or are in pain. We ignore, ridicule, or damage our health and wellness in unforgiving ways. During this pandemic, we need to increase our self-care behaviors. This means that we need to respond to our needs in more nurturing ways. These acts can include starting and ending the day with positive self-affirmations (e.g., “I am doing the best I can;” “I’ve got a knack for listening to my emotions;” “I’m an awesome friend.”), rewarding ourselves with an afternoon nap, or just sitting quietly for a while. The trick to getting the most out of self-soothing practices is to find out what works best for you. For some people it might mean tending to houseplants or taking a walk outdoors (while still social distancing), and for others, it might mean orchestrating a remote hangout with friends, bringing a meal to an elderly neighbor, or binging an entire season of Tiger King. It is okay to pay attention to your needs, and to self-soothe accordingly.

There is also a lot of pressure to be productive because, after all, William Shakespeare reportedly wrote King Lear while in quarantine during a plague. We needn’t, though, put that type of pressure on ourselves (unless you are a writer of Shakespeare’s caliber – in that case, thank you in advance for your contributions to culture). With this said, it is likely that any literary genius living amongst us today would still benefit from positive self regard, getting up from their desk to stretch frequently, and the occasional indulgence of fried foods and/or chocolates. Tune out or turn down the inner voice that’s berating you and calling you lazy.


Remember, if your situation allows you to quarantine right now, you are doing your part to save lives and reduce mass suffering; isn’t that not heroic enough? Even though moderation is universally and timelessly helpful, it won’t mean the end of the world if you loved and appreciated yourself a bit more than usual during these trying times.

GROW

More than ever, the adage that “the only thing that is constant is change” is truer than ever. Another way to look at this is that in order to manage the negative effects of change, we must adjust to it as best we can. On a profound level, this is a tall and difficult order for many of us right now. We cannot ignore that the pandemic has wrought devastation to healthcare systems, turmoil to the economy, highlighted socioeconomic inequalities in black and brown communities, and embolden xenophobia and bigotry against Asian Americans, to name only a few. However, the seeds of growth exist within each of us to change ourselves and our society for the better.


Instead of believing that we need to preserve or recreate our former ideals of safety and self in the world, we could assert the same efforts to increasing tolerance, compassion, innovation and creativity. How can we let go of what we once thought was “normal”? How can we tweak our perspectives to better account for our new realities? How can we picture ourselves in ways we hadn’t imagined? Growth can happen at all levels: From realizing that no one actually cares if you have a stain on your shirt, to seeing that you deserve to be treated better by your partner, and to deciding to finally giving therapy a try.


Take this time of quietude to reflect on ways you can be braver, a more empathic communicator, more generous, a more transformational leader, more peaceful, a better ally to those living at the margins, and more genuine to who you are. Above all else, the sooner you stop avoiding change, the better you can position yourself towards growth.


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