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A Therapist’s Emotional Response to a Global Pandemic by Joanna Barrett

Updated: May 26, 2020

The emotional response of a global pandemic is wide-spread and felt near and far, by billions of people on our planet. As a therapist, I have been watching my own emotional response, as well as the many clients whom I support. I identify myself with the important roles of daughter, sister, auntie, friend, and partner. Through these roles, I’ve witnessed my loved ones' emotional responses and the emotional toll this pandemic is taking on their daily lives. It’s not lost on me that their lives impact mine, and visa-versa. We are all interconnected, intricately woven through the woven web of our humanity.

But as we physically isolate and socially distance from each other, we come face-to-face with this pandemic head-on. In the face of widespread illness, death, and change, many people I know are feeling scared, fearful, anxious, worried, angry, outraged, denial, heartbroken, depressed, hopeless, helpless, and grief. All of those feelings are moving inside me too, and in moments on most days, I put on a positive front to maintain an optimistic view of opportunity, transformation, and silver linings. Not everyone sees this time as opportunistic with silver linings. For some, this is the darkest period in their lives. While someone needs to hold this positive, energetic force, it’s not sustainable for me to live in this way 100% of the time; that’s for sure, but someone needs to hold this point-of-view during mass chaos and destruction. Perhaps I am one person in a small group who is able to hold this energy. I’m aware that through observing, naming, and describing my feelings that I’m not ignoring the lessons my emotions bring to me.

One commonality is that we are all in this together, even though our experiences of this pandemic may vary. We can all go through a generally similar moment-in-time, but our memories will be personally imprinted into our minds differently. No one is not affected in some way or another. For all of us, we are experiencing a trauma that is not a single-moment in time; it’s a prolonged trauma that will change the landscape of our lives. As the pandemic comes closer and closer to home, I see people who “knows someone who knows someone” down to “I know someone.” And quite possibly, next it may be me. Until that time, while I’m still in good health, I want to write this down.

Though sometimes challenging, emotions are part of our lives and they serve a purpose. For instance, anxiety allows us to sense danger and help keep us safe. Trouble concentrating, muscle tension, and lethargy are typical, too, and they give us the signal to slow down during this time. Depression or sadness encourages us to find what feels good for our soul. Awareness of our emotions gives us direction, and is the first step to acceptance and also change.

Connection is needed; humans are social beings that need community for support, compassion, empathy, and laughter. We are becoming “Confinement Connoisseurs”, where technology keeps us largely connected to our outside world. This can be very helpful, yet can boomerang backwards into a sad and lonely abyss.

When I am wearing a mask and gloves, looking at empty store shelves, and having ruminating thoughts of lack and fear, I’m very much aware of my own anxieties and have nearly experienced panic attacks on several store outings. I am aware of my own sadness and grief in the moments of overwhelm when I let the magnitude of this pandemic sink into my heart. When I’m fully connected to myself, my purpose, and my life, I feel a full abundance of gratitude and love.

I am slowing down and connecting to myself and others through a daily yoga, breathing, prayer and meditation practice; intuitive writing; decreasing social media and limiting news in the evening; adding to my weekly gratitude jar; creating art; moving my body through dancing and fun music; daily inspirational readings and podcasts; participating in informational webinars; healthy cooking with my boyfriend; long walks in nature with our dog. It’s so important to keep my heart open.

I’m also working a nearly full schedule while providing tele-mental health to clients daily. I need to be careful with my own boundaries and energy output so that I am not burned out at the end of the day or week. I have recognized that providing therapy via phone and video is a different way of supporting clients during this intense period of time. And through my clients, I have heard many stories and learned many lessons.

I understand as an educated white woman, my experience is one that may not resonate with lower socio-economic communities, but I am not oblivious to the fact that I have enough money for food, I have the supplies I need, and a physically and emotionally safe home to reside in. However, for many, this isn’t the case. For those living and/or working paycheck-to-paycheck (as I do), and those building credit card debt (as I am), I see you. These are challenging times, I get it. I also respect our differences, and honor our similarities during this time. You are not alone.

It’s not lost on me that parents are home with children while trying to be helpful at homeschooling, teach life lessons, work a 9-5, manage limited finances, other stressors, and provide a safe place for their families to rest their heads at night. Couples who are quarantined together may be working hard to stay together in the midst of disagreements and arguments, and those who live by themselves may be lonely and sad. Many people have the daily worry of becoming sick and possibly facing death. It’s in the news every day, on every channel, everywhere. This pandemic is not one that most people are experiencing with ease. It’s distressful on multiple levels.

A reminder to all of us, try not to underestimate another person's hardship. As we know, we are each different, with unique and various assets, strengths, support and vulnerabilities. I also believe that all of our hearts are all in the right place, so we also need to be gentle with each other. Now is the time to be more gentle with our fear, as well as with others.

This time of our lives is traumatic for many of us, and we will have some lingering effects on us all. My hope is that we can heal from the trauma and isolation, remember some of this time fondly, and come out of this time with more kindness for each other and gratitude in our lives. The only thing I’m certain of these days is that things will change. We are in a constant state of flux, and we all need to adjust our sails, surf the wave, and we will land on our feet on solid ground once again. Like a lotus rising through the murky waters, we will grow, expand, and open towards the light. Though the light may be dim, the spark is there and it will grow as we walk our path towards the illumination of our new future. We need to live our inner life fully, offer our gifts to the world, and show up in a way that we are proud of while engaging with others with kindness and loving eyes. I believe the ripple effect of compassion and love can and will change our world.

An Offering….

Mindfulness Support Tools

Practical Tools for Anxiety and Panic

  • “5-4-3-2-1”

    • 5 things you can see

    • 4 things you can touch

    • 3 things you can hear

    • 2 things you can smell

    • 1 thing you can taste

  • “Peace Begins With Me” Mudra and Pranayama

    • Inhale slowly and touch your thumb to each fingertip as you repeat the mantra: “Peace Begins With Me”

    • Exhale slowly and touch your thumb to each fingertip as you repeat the mantra: “Peace Begins With Me”

  • Place your feet on the ground — best effect is to walk on the Earth (grass, dirt, sand); brisk walk outside

  • Turn to your yoga practice: Any standing or seated forward fold, child’s pose, or fetal position is calming for the nervous system

  • Shower or wash hands; be mindful of temperature, water pressure, sensations

  • Reach out to someone who can support you

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