Article by Susanne Stribling, Psy.D., a Licensed Psychologist
It is hard to avoid the signs of uncertainty these days. We drive by empty schools. Quiet restaurants. Baseball, softball and soccer complexes are closed on a sunny, spring Saturday. Churches are empty on Sunday morning and likely will all be closed and silent on Easter Sunday. Families are asked to postpone funerals. Weddings are not celebrated. The celebrations of the world are quiet. At the same time, the images of uncertainty and danger are loud. The news is broadcast from nearly every station with updates on the growing number of people getting sick. Death tolls are reported regularly. We hear reports of the stock market crashing and business’ closing. Images of hospitals being over-run with those who need care due to COVID-19 are posted regularly. We hear reports of healthcare workers who are scared. People are scared. People are scared of getting sick, losing their businesses, losing their jobs, losing their homes, losing their physical religious home, and losing the stability we all find in our daily work, academic routine and play. The routines that make us all feel “normal.” The routines that give us comfort.
In addition, we have all been tasked with the civic duty to “social distance.” This is a new word for me, and is now a common household phrase that even my 7-year old knows the rules about. So, not only are we uncertain about what is happening in the world, we are all asked to now isolate from the relationships and people that bring us the most comfort.
One of the hallmark treatments for depression is “behavioral activation.” When one is depressed, often part of the treatment is to go to work, go to school, or attend a social event. Social isolation worsens depression and meaningful social engagement is a protective measure against depression. Now enter “social distancing” and intersect that with uncertainty about our world and we have a recipe for a majority of the population to feel anxious, depressed or both.
However, I really believe that this is not hopeless. In any event where we feel out of control it can be most helpful for us to find a way to manage our “controllables.” I encourage everyone to look for the parts that you can control. We all tend to find safety and peace when we feel like we can control something. For example, we can control how we spend our time at home each day. Keeping a schedule of work, rest and play is important. Continuing to engage in self-care and personal hygiene. Cooking meals and feeding ourselves regularly. Read the book you have not had time to read. Allow yourself to have some fun. Remembering a time where you felt calm and at peace can also be helpful. These positive images can lower stress levels and can remind us that we can internally feel a sense of calm, even if the world around us is not. We can control how much we are exposed (to some extent depending on jobs) to COVID-19. We can follow the CDC rules and regulations and do our part. We can control how much time we want to spend listening to the news. We choose what we focus on when we listen to the news. Are we focusing on the ways humanity can rise to the occasion and help? We can choose what information we want to share with friends and family when we call them. We can choose to make the first call.
I believe that it is human connection that actually protects us from depression, and behavioral activation works because it provides us with opportunities to connect with others, accomplish a task, and help others. I believe that we can still do these things each day even when we are social distancing. You can connect with those in your home. Make eye contact. Have a conversation free from distraction. Do a task together. Laugh. If you are living alone, connect through a phone call. Call a friend. Reconnect with an old friend. Send a letter. Sit outside and wave to passersby. Share feelings and experiences with another person. This is a powerful tool.
Accomplishing a task makes us feel good. For students at home this can be turning in a paper. For others, this may be a load of laundry. This may be completing your tax return. Completing a walk. Making your bed. Make plans each day to complete a task and give yourself credit for it.
Helping others can help us gain perspective. When we are living in our own panic or anxiety we are often too close to it to see the alternatives. It is like holding a book too close to your face; we are unable to read the words when we get too close. When we help someone else, it can often give us some perspective. Help can come in many forms. Leaving baked goods in your neighbor’s mailbox is helping. When you call your elderly neighbor that lives alone to check on her, that is helping. Donate to a local hospital. Donate to the local food bank. Write a letter to thank first responders. There are many tasks big and small that help others.
And lastly, the idea that resonates with me the most, is the idea of turning in. With social distancing, we have all been asked to physically turn into our homes. Trips are cancelled, and day-to-day routines are cancelled. The world is still in a way that it has not been in decades. I believe that this may all be an opportunity for us to turn into ourselves to discover what really matters to us the most. I have actually found myself relieved in many ways. I am relieved that my schedule is more relaxed. My kids can sleep in. We read a little extra at bedtime. I am not rushing anyone out the door in the morning or in the bed at night. We are not rushed. I can enjoy a cup of coffee with my husband in the morning. I am able to understand more of what I really like and do not like, and I am able to honor the likes and dislikes of my family in a new way. Details that were once in the background are sharp. I believe it can be healing for all of us to turn in, and fine tune the details of our lives that are blurred by the daily routine that propels us forward each day. When the world returns to the busy hum of work and school and play, we can all hope that maybe we will enter the world with more clarity than before. This could be a gift. I know it may turn out to be one for me.