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Going Viral

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Photo by Ashkan Forouzani on Unsplash

Have you adjusted yet? It would not be surprising if your answer were a resounding “No!”  You might even be feeling a kind of grief for your former life, the one in which you got to hug your friends, high five your exercise partner, enjoy a meal in your favorite restaurant, or even just comparison shop at the supermarket.

Whether you experience this time in history as stages of grief or something else entirely, there is no doubt that it has shaken up virtually every human life.

Maybe you have taken this time to be productive, hammering out long-neglected projects and chores, making the most of it, as if you were on sabbatical. You’ve likely reminded yourself of all the sage advice about living in the moment and gratitude, and when reading about Italy, the refrain “there but for the grace of god go I” may rattle around in your mind just a bit ominously. Nevertheless, the long shadow cast by the deadly pandemic known as Covid-19 will eventually darken your door.

If you are lucky enough to be in the vast majority of human beings who will not fall seriously ill or die from the disease, the extreme measures employed and necessary to fight it, to hold it in check, to stave off the 7-figure death tally, are stacking up to be a significant threat to our mental health.

Whether you experience this time in history as stages of grief or a form of adjustment disorder or something else entirely, there is no doubt that Covid-19 has shaken up virtually every human life on the planet.

Grief in the time of COVID-19

The 5 (or sometimes 7) stages of grief are shock, denial, anger, bargaining, depression, testing, and acceptance. Recognize any of those? If you have been through grief before you know that the stages seldom arrive in order, and many make return appearances even after you think you are finished with them. The comfort of recognizing the stages lies in giving yourself permission to feel all of these things as natural and expected reactions to loss.

You may have lost your job, your social life, and many simple freedoms you once took for granted. As with death, the reasons for these losses do not always make sense. It can be helpful to recognize when your actions or feelings reflect one or any of the stages, helping you realize you are going through a necessary and valuable human process. In this way, when you become angry at your partner for misplacing the hand sanitizer, you can both take a breath and smile and know that’s the signature of grief, not true spousal discord.

It’s helpful to recognize when your actions or feelings reflect one or any of the stages of grief.

Another reason for your emotional reaction to this crisis may be explained by a temporary condition known as “adjustment disorder“. Usually an adolescent issue, adults can experience its many symptoms as well. Adjustment disorder can surface after any major change in one’s life. Depression, acting out, withdrawal, lack of focus, insomnia, frequent crying, difficulty with simple tasks, and more characterize what is considered to be an overreaction to the event. Any of these sound familiar?

As with grief, understanding adjustment disorder can help someone realize that their behavior is not unreasonable and that playing solitaire for 7 hours straight is not a sign that you have lost your marbles. Most adjustment disorder cases resolve on their own, and if not, are very responsive to various therapies.

Realize you are going through a necessary and valuable human process.

With both grief and adjustment disorder you have time on your side. Eventually acceptance sticks. It doesn’t mean you’re over it, but the human spirit rallies and life must go on. Eventually you adjust to the big change, which doesn’t mean it was ever a good thing, but that human spirit again finds a way to cope. Pragmatically speaking, it is more efficient for an organism to not be stressed out, so we deal.

However, in these days of Covid-19 we can hardly sense that time is on our side. The trajectory of the US’ journey up the exponential graph is terrifyingly foreboding and there are so many conflicting statements from so many different agencies and governments advising what should be done to stay safe that the light at the end of this tunnel is elusive.

Tools for understanding both grief and adjustment can help soften the edge of behaviors you and your loved ones may be experiencing.

A few other ideas

  1. Go outside. Time in nature makes us feel small and big at the same time. A tiny part of a huge interconnected and interdependent whole. Plus we live in one of the most beautiful places on earth.
  2. Move. Use your body to walk, run, dance, make love, build a shed. Your immune system will love you for it.
  3. Breathe. Five seconds in, five seconds out, for five minutes, five times a day. That’s your new high five.
  4. Rest. Even if you can’t sleep, lie down and cover your eyes and be still for awhile. If you’re too antsy, see numbers 1, 2, and 3 above.
  5. Unplug. Especially from the TV news, but really from all screens. There’s a reason we restrict our children’s screen time.
  6. Be kind. It comes back double or triple and it takes less effort than being unkind. Part of it is recognizing that person in front of you raging at the grocery checker was you last week and might be your wife tomorrow.

We are all in this together.

Ann Constantino, submitted on behalf of the SoHum Health’s Outreach department.