In a recent poll, 70% of Americans agreed with the statement: “It’s time we accept that Covid is here to stay and we just need to get on with our lives.” New York Times writer Charles Blow cites this in last Sunday’s column, and goes on to say, “The number of lives taken by Covid in this country alone – north of 900,000 – is almost unfathomable. But, somehow the public has absorbed and reckoned with it in some way. We have taken on a Darwinian sensibility about it all, accepting it as sudden thinning of a herd, a form of natural selection. It is both sad and stunning.”
I’m not sure I agree with Blow’s take on the poll results. To me, they speak of denial rather than acceptance, in the same way that anyone grieving a loss has experienced those well-meaning folks who say, “it’s been three months (or six, or twelve), isn’t it time to move on?” Americans as a society don’t deal with death very well, it makes us uncomfortable, and as a result we don’t allow ourselves to grieve. Instead, we tell ourselves and each other, “move on.”
But just as most people are profoundly affected by the death of a loved one, and find it difficult to move on, it seems to me that we as a society have been profoundly affected by the events of the last two years – either caused by the pandemic or resulting from its politicization – and as a result, we are really struggling to reconcile what our eyes and ears tell us is true with what our minds want to believe, and with what our hearts are able to absorb.
Our minds want to believe that life is fair, that we live in a just society, and that if we “do the right thing,” we will be rewarded with a happy and successful life. Isn’t that what we were told, by parents, teachers, or other well-meaning adults (who also wanted to believe)? How do we reconcile these beliefs with what we have experienced?
The unfairness of who the virus’s victims have been: young people, parents of young children, healthcare providers, adults in their prime, beloved grandparents; the injustice of access to costly treatment options being a function of wealth, status, and race; the surges of contagion and hospitalization being driven by those who don’t do the right thing, who refuse to mask up or get vaccinated; and finally, the shock of realizing that even though you did everything right – masking, sanitizing, quarantining, getting vaccinated, social distancing, depriving yourself of life’s pleasures – still, you came down with the virus anyway. How do we make sense of it all?
The answer for many people seems to be, “move on.” In other words, just ignore what we’ve seen, stuff our emotions, numb out with more TV, social media, shopping, drinking or drug use, and pretend that we’re fine, totally fine. Is that what “normalcy” looks like? To me, that looks like delusional thinking and denial.
Denial, as I often tell my patients, is a normal defense mechanism, and as such, has a protective function, which is to cushion us from the full impact of a grief or trauma too big to bear. Most children and many adults will instinctively move into “magical thinking” following a loss or a traumatic event, where one part of the mind does know what has happened, but another part acts as if everything is perfectly okay. I think this may be what is occurring for many people.
Last spring people were talking about “languishing,” from an article by the organizational psychologist Adam Grant, that described what I and many others were feeling then – “a sense of stagnation and emptiness. It feels as if you’re muddling through your days, looking at your life through a foggy windshield.” Indeed, Grant seemed to capture the zeitgeist of the moment, however, that was a very different moment than the one we’re in today.
There was a guest essay in Sunday’s NYT, by executive coach Brad Stulberg, who references Grant’s article, and has this to say: “But now, nearly a year later, as with just about everything related to Covid, we’re sick of languishing too. We want to feel motivated, and to get unstuck. The question, of course, is: How?”
Yes. I have been wanting to feel motivated and to get unstuck, for months now. At first I thought maybe I was still “languishing,” but actually I don’t think that’s what’s happening, for me, or for most of us. I believe we are grieving, whether we know it or not. Whether or not in denial, we are numb, but not from “numbing out,” rather from the shock of recognizing that the losses we’ve experienced aren’t just a bad dream that we can awaken from.
We are also angry, perhaps very angry, yet without a clearly identifiable person or cause to direct our anger toward, just like what happens when a loved one dies. We may engage in bargaining, promising to be a better person or devote ourselves to a noble cause if we can just be done with this stupid virus, and feel happy again. And many of us have fallen into depression over the past year, as so often happens after a loss.
These stages of grief, familiar to most of us, were first described by Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, in her classic book, On Death and Dying. As I’ve discussed with many of my patients, the stages do not occur in a linear way, like chapters in a book, but rather as amorphous feeling states that we go in and out of over time, usually a long time, longer than we expect or want. We can experience all of them – denial, anger, bargaining, depression – at the same time, even as we have moments, days, or weeks of feeling relatively calm and “normal.” That’s what grief looks like. Doesn’t that seem a lot like what we’re experiencing today?
There’s another stage of grief that Kubler-Ross identified, which because she listed it last, we tend to assume is the final stage: acceptance. Actually, acceptance comes and goes just like the other stages, though it does tend to grow over time as the reality of our loss(es) sinks in. Some people have the mistaken belief that acceptance means “I’m A-okay with what happened, and I’m good to go now,” in other words, moving on. However, that’s not what Kubler-Ross meant, as she was really writing about the experience of the person who is dying, coming to a place of peace and acceptance of their fate. Circle of life, and all.
Acceptance, for the loved ones who remain living, is actually a starting point, rather than an end to grief. As David Kessler, a student of Kubler-Ross and author of Finding Meaning: The Sixth Stage of Grief, writes, “meaning is not in the death itself, or in how they died, but rather it’s what is in us afterward.” The process of grieving can be transformational. It has the potential to transform us into a wiser and more compassionate human being, or it can leave us bitter and uncaring. Which path will you choose? Kessler reminds us, “we can’t heal what we don’t feel.”
I believe that it is going to take years for most of us, both individually and collectively, to truly make sense of what we’ve lost during this pandemic, and come to an understanding of how that loss has transformed our lives and our world. We will be making progress when we can acknowledge the enormity of our losses, and start talking about how we’ve been affected.
A letter to the editor of the San Francisco Chronicle caught my eye yesterday morning, as I was reading the paper over breakfast. Unlike most letters to the editor, it reads like a poem, and I quote it in its entirety here, having received permission from the author, because she sums up my thoughts and feelings more eloquently than I can:
An Open Letter to my fellow Americans
“Let’s move on,” everyone says
But, there is no where else to go
This illusion of movement to a future promised land,
just beyond the horizon of inconveniences
“Let’s get on with our lives,” you say
Have you been asleep all this time?
Haven’t we all been living our lives through the mess, the sorrows, the death and disease? What is this life you’re so anxious to get on with?
Will it look so much different than the now-moment you’re in,
that you proclaim so loudly in my ear and make such a fuss,
so I can understand what you’ve given up?
Truth is, your life will go on looking much the same
Many of you haven’t given up all that much
The illusion of normalcy, whatever that is
The luxury of not hearing about one million dead Americans
The permission to stop caring
It’s not easy, with one’s hearts and eyes open to a painful truth
But it’s not all bad
Because we are here
And that means we’re alive
Breathing, beating, dancing alive
Every morning a song
Every evening a prayer
This is our lives
The unbearable weight of being here.
(Alicia Parker, MFT)Learn More
The calendar tells us it’s a new year, so my mind tells me I should set goals and make plans, decide what I want to accomplish this year, and yet – how to do so, when the world seems more unstable, uncertain, and unpredictable than ever? Welcome to 2022, or “twenty twenty, the sequel!”
Actually, I gave up making New Year’s resolutions several years ago, and switched to setting intentions. I find that intentions are much easier to set, and commit to, as well as much more useful in daily life, than goals or resolutions. This is especially true in these uncertain times. (Of course, I still do set goals and make plans, I just don’t hold onto them quite as tightly.)
What’s the difference between intentions and goals or resolutions? And how do intentions differ from expectations? According to the dictionary, an intention is “a thing intended; an aim or plan. Conceptions formed by directing the mind towards an object.” (Oxford Dictionary, online)
A goal implies a finish line or goal posts, which you have to reach to win. Depending on the goal you set, that finish line may be far away, not even visible to you, so it can feel abstract or unreachable. When you set an intention, it’s all about what you’re doing, saying, and thinking right now, today. Examples: a goal is “to lose 20 lbs,” while an intention is “to make healthy choices and decisions around what I eat.” A goal might be “to make more money, or pay off debt”; an intention would be: “to be as responsible as I can with my finances.” Do you see the difference?
Goals point you in a direction, but it’s your intentions that let you know whether you’re staying on the right course, because they help you monitor your progress and receive feedback from yourself, others, and the environment. As they say, “it’s about the journey, not the destination.”
Intentions represent an alignment with an inner moral compass, as in “His intentions were honorable.” When we focus on our intentions, we are checking in with ourselves about what’s important to us. By contrast, when we focus on expectations, we often set ourselves up for disappointment. Setting an expectation is a way of trying to control the outcome, or another person or people, whereas setting an intention focuses on the only things we can rightfully hope to control: our own attitude, words, and behaviors. We let go of the outcome.
Intentions also reflect our core values, whether or not we are aware of them. These may include being kind, friendly, honest, open, responsible, reliable, agreeable or cooperative. They can also include the opposite qualities!
Intention is one of the three components of mindfulness, in Shauna Shapiro’s model (the others are Attention and Attitude) and as described in this definition from Jon Kabat-Zinn: “Mindfulness is the awareness that arises from paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally.” Can you identify the intention here? It’s to be purposeful in how you pay attention. And in how you bring the wandering mind back to the present, over and over.
Most conflict in our relationships with others stems from miscommunication about intentions. One person says something, and the other reacts as if they heard something totally different. The intention of the sender was different than the impact the communication had on the receiver. When you’re the receiver, taking a step back to consider what the sender’s intention was, perhaps giving them the benefit of the doubt, can help reduce reactivity and lead to a more harmonious relationship.
When you’re the sender of the message, and you observe that the impact was different than what you intended, what to do? Simple – reflect back on your intention, and make your response consistent. For example, if your intention was to be kind, and you see that the other person seems hurt, ask yourself, what can I do or say now, that would be kind? Perhaps offer a hug, or an apology? Or if your intention was to be assertive, and the other person reacted as if you were aggressive, then ask yourself, how can I clarify that I’m not angry, while still standing my ground?
I’ve queried some of my clients and mindfulness students about their intentions for the coming year. Not surprisingly, I heard “make exercise a priority.” That’s a perennial favorite. Patience and kindness were mentioned by several people, along with more unique and specific intentions, like “spend time with my new grandbaby, in a way I wasn’t able to with my kids” and “reduce paper towel use.”
So what intentions have I set for this year? I prefer to let them develop organically, in response to what’s happening in my life, so they may change, day to day, but they also tend to stay the same. For example, the intention to be more patient is one I’ve had for years. Making it an intention rather than a goal reminds me that it’s a daily practice, and that I may never actually achieve being a patient person!
The world we live in today seems to call for, even demand, the ability to be open to change and to rapidly changing information, as well as to be flexible and adaptable to rapidly changing circumstances. Flexibility in turn requires a willingness to let go of the outcome, and accept that what’s happening may not be what I want or expected, or even what I need, but whatever it is, I can deal with it.
Keeping mindful of all of these intentions calls for a mnemonic, an acronym to help me remember. After playing around with the basic words and their order for a bit, I came up with: Openness, Flexibility, Letting go of the outcome, Acceptance and Patience – or, O FLAP! When I shared this mnemonic with my husband, his reaction helped me come up with another, to use on alternate days: Openness and Flexibility paired with Understanding, Compassion, and Kindness. That one’s easier to remember!Learn More
Well, we’ve made it to the end of 2021 – what a weird and wearying year it’s been. A year of “wait and see,” of plans made, changed, cancelled, then made and changed or cancelled all over again. It’s been challenging to live with so much uncertainty, hasn’t it?
As a trauma counselor, I’m familiar with the emotional numbing that can happen when the nervous system is bombarded with threats to one’s well-being; lately I’m seeing this not only in many clients, especially the educators and healthcare professionals, who have dealt with the worst of it, but a bit in everyone, myself included, as we are all bombarded with threats to our whole society’s well-being, which I shall not enumerate here – no doubt you are well aware.
This is also the time of year that people who are prone to seasonal depression, like me and some of my clients, may struggle even without a pandemic. It’s been hard to sort out what part may be SAD (seasonal affective disorder), triggered by the loss of sunlight, versus normal sadness about all of the pandemic-related losses we’ve witnessed or experienced.
And yet there was much to be grateful for this past year, in my life and I hope in yours. First, I was among the first to be vaccinated, and now I’m boosted too, and so far have avoided getting the virus. The same is true for most of the people I know. With the vaccines and boosters have also come new treatments for those who do get COVID, so that even as we are dealing with a new, more contagious variant right now, the chances of getting seriously ill or dying from it have been dramatically reduced.
Second, the world has opened up again. It’s hard to even put into words how nourishing it was to be able to return to live music performances this summer and fall, in venues where I felt safe because proof of vaccination and masking were required. I’ve heard similar feelings from many others. Support for the performing arts has never been stronger. And while some events got cancelled recently, and some holiday plans changed due to the virus or the crazy weather, still the stores and restaurants remain open, and judging from the full parking lots at the shopping mall across from my office, business is good!
After last year’s lockdowns, shutdowns, and other deprivations, our gratitude for what we have grew.
We learned to appreciate what’s most important, and for most of us, being able to get together in-person with at least small groups of family or friends is top of the list. If we can just do that, we’re okay. We didn’t miss the commute to work, or long days in the office, and we learned that an awful lot of jobs can be done just as well remotely. Even, apparently, psychotherapy. While I still prefer seeing clients in person, I learned that for some clients, a Zoom or phone session is actually preferable.
And I never thought I’d say this, but when our neighborhood pool re-opened in May, for the first time in over a year, I couldn’t wait to get up at dawn to plunge into a cold body of water! I’ve learned how important my morning lap swimming is to my overall well-being. To paraphrase an old saying, perhaps a pandemic is the crucible in which all life’s lessons can be learned. What new insights or life lessons have you gained in the past year? And how would you like to apply them, going forward?
“Come, look up with kindness yet,
For even solace can be sourced from sorrow.
We remember, not just for the sake of yesterday,
But to take on tomorrow.”
(from New Day’s Lyric, by Amanda Gorman, published in the SF Chronicle, 12/31/21)Learn More
Before there were vaccines for COVID-19, all we had were face masks, sanitizer, and social distancing to keep ourselves safe. Even though it was a scary time, there was a feeling of unity or solidarity that some likened to how it was during WWII, because we were all making sacrifices for the sake of everyone’s survival. (And even though many people died from COVID, did you notice that hardly anyone got the flu last year, or even the common cold?)
Then the vaccines arrived, and as the first group got their shots while the rest waited their turn (and as some shameless folks cut the line) we began to see an interesting phenomenon: people who discarded their masks like they were the crutches of the newly saved at a revival meeting – “I’ve been vaccinated, now I’m saved from this virus, hallelujah!” – and suddenly it all got a lot more complicated. We’re still trying to figure it out.
Not only are there ever-changing rules about when and where face coverings are still required, but we also have to sort out a whole new social etiquette of mask wearing. What do we do when I’m fully vaccinated but you’re only partially? What if half the family has been vaccinated but the other half is still not eligible? Is it okay to ask if someone is vaccinated? And if we’re all sitting outdoors to eat does vaccination status even matter?
With these new rules of etiquette came a new version of mask shaming. Last year it was the people not wearing masks who were publicly shamed. Today, it’s flipped: people who have shed their masks after vaccination are challenging their friends or relatives who continue to wear them, saying “really, why?” when they don’t mean it as a question but rather a put-down.
It’s unfortunate that mask-wearing, like everything about COVID-19, has become politicized. Choosing to wear a face mask, or not, has become a new form of virtue signaling, telling the world what political party you belong to, what news feeds you subscribe to, what cultural or ethnic group you identify with, whether you’re a rule-follower or an independent thinker.
What people seem to forget is that this pandemic is a public health emergency, and that mask wearing, like vaccinations, has one purpose only: to protect us, and especially the vulnerable among us, from serious illness, hospitalization, or death. The COVID-19 virus doesn’t care whether you’re a Democrat or a Republican, what your skin color is or how much money you have. The virus doesn’t care what you believe, whether you’re a kind person or a sociopath. It just wants to keep itself alive by infecting as many of us as possible, while replicating and mutating as fast as it can. (And as we’ve seen, vaccination does not confer immunity, so you can still become infected, as well as transmit the virus to others.)
There are many among us who are vulnerable, or live with someone who is. Children and the elderly, of course, also pregnant women, but what about the many young or middle-aged adults who have a chronic illness or a compromised immune system? They are advised to continue wearing masks after vaccination, and yet, because they have an invisible illness, you can’t tell by looking that they’re in a high-risk group.
It is to help protect these people that I continue to mask up in public, but also to protect myself, even though I’m fully vaccinated. To me, wearing a face mask is a simple, inexpensive way to fight this coronavirus and support the overall health of the community.Learn More
We are living in turbulent times. If you are paying attention at all, it’s hard not to feel anxious about the state of the world we live in and the fate of humanity. While violence, war, and natural disasters have occurred throughout human history, we seem to be experiencing them today with a new level of intensity – from the effects of climate change to the rise in terrorist activity – while our leaders and politicians seem more concerned with their own approval ratings than providing actual leadership.
We also live in a “500-channel universe,” a world of seemingly infinite possibilities for distraction. Distraction is a common coping strategy against anxious thoughts or worries, but when we are bombarded by TV and radio programming that aims to offend and shock, advertising that urges us to spend money we don’t have in a never-ending quest for happiness, and the constant stream of bad news, our nervous system gets stressed, and may become overloaded.
The pace of daily life has sped up, to a speed that may actually exceed the brain’s ability to process and respond to our experience in an effective way. When I was growing up, we were promised that technology would make our lives easier, and give us more leisure time (remember “The Jetsons”?) Instead, we have less free time, with our cell phones, laptops, and tablets keeping us connected to the office and to everyone we know 24/7, even while we’re supposed to be sleeping or on vacation. This lack of down time adds to our stress and anxiety.
Anxiety and worry are normal human emotions, emanating from the part of our brain that houses our survival instincts. (Read what Rick Hanson, PhD says about the brain’s “negativity bias.”) Anxiety can be passed down in families, both as a genetic predisposition and as learned behavior. Everyone experiences anxiety at times, though some people are more sensitive to it, while others are anxious all the time. Anxiety is one of the most common reasons that people take medication (or use alcohol, drugs, or food to “numb out”). So what are some healthy ways to relieve anxiety, and calm the anxious mind?
One way is to “unplug”: see if you can turn off your devices when you’re eating and sleeping, and leave them at home while you enjoy a walk in nature. Stop watching the news on TV before bedtime, and read a book instead. Can you go for a whole day without checking email or texting? Finding ways to reduce the amount of stimulation to your brain may lower your anxiety level.
Another way is to challenge your assumptions and thoughts about whatever is making you anxious. If you’re prone to playing the “worst case scenario” game in your head, you may be scaring yourself, and making things worse than they actually are. The gold standard of anxiety treatment is Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT), which teaches you to change how you feel by changing your thoughts and behaviors. Check out this new CBT workbook: The Road to Calm
Because we experience anxiety in the physical body, as well as in our minds, Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT), a newer variation of CBT, incorporates meditation and yoga practices. As a CBT practitioner for over 25 years, and an MBCT practitioner for the last seven, I’ve found that mindfulness and meditation practice improve the efficacy of CBT, and are also stand-alone practices that can be very helpful to manage anxiety and relieve its effects.
At its most basic level, mindfulness invites us to wake up to the present moment, and notice that we’re breathing – “I’m awake and alive, right now.” While this might not strike you as a reason to rejoice, if you stop to think about it, that we breathe automatically is truly amazing. Mindfulness is about stepping out of autopilot mode, and using the breath and body to ground us in the present. However, if you’re experiencing anxiety, this can get dicey.
A typical mindfulness meditation practice is to focus on the breath. Many people find that this promotes relaxation and calmness, but if you are prone to anxiety, focusing on your breath can actually make you more anxious. You might notice that your breathing is kind of shallow, or a bit rapid, so you try to take a deep breath or slow your breathing down, but then the harder you try the more it seems to speed up, until it feels like you can’t breathe at all! Has that ever happened to you?
And did you then conclude “meditation is not for me?” The problem here is that bringing conscious awareness to automatic processes in the mind and body, while beneficial for most people, can backfire for anxious people, who are already hyper-focused on things that other people don’t even notice, like their breathing, heart rate, and worrisome thoughts. But if you give up on mindfulness and meditation so soon, you don’t give your mind and body a chance to reap the benefits, which are signficant. Herein lies the paradox of mindfulness.
Whether it’s your breath, or your life, if you start with wanting things to be different than they are, you create more stress and anxiety for yourself. Mindfulness invites you to just observe what is, without judgment or worry, and without needing things to be different. If you can do that, then change may come, often effortlessly. You might try this brief breath meditation:
Still not sure about meditation? Perhaps some mindful movement, like Yoga, Tai Chi, or Qi Gong, can help. One of my favorite forms of mindful movement is walking meditation, where we focus our attention on the sensations involved in walking, slowly and intentionally, just being present with our experience without needing to go anywhere. Walking this way, we find there’s actually a lot to notice, so we’re not just focused on the breath, and this, plus the gentle, rhythmic movements of our body, can help to calm the anxious mind. If you’d like to try walking meditation, here are some instructions: