What to do when everyone is about to lose it

“I don’t think you need to volunteer right now,” a friend said to me recently. 

 We were on a rainy distance walk and I was talking about my guilt around not doing enough to help. I was thinking aloud about offering my services to an emergency helpline. “You’re always the first person that runs towards helping other people. But you’re having a hard time too.” 

He was right. It had been nearly a week since I’d been outside, two close friends had recently contracted covid-19, one with compromised immunity. I kept trying to think of ways to do more, but I was finding myself frozen, barely able to manage the basics of living. I feel ashamed when I let people know I’m not coping well.  As a psychotherapist, it feels almost unprofessional to admit my own humanness. Yet every day feels like I have less energy and more worry.

There are no guidelines for how to manage the whole world shutting down at the same time.  Studies on war and natural disasters don’t speak to the emotional toll of fighting an invisible enemy, one that lives inside ourselves and everyone we love.  We’ve been asked to abandon closeness in favour of isolation and withdrawal. For many of us, the impacts have yet to arrive. Mostly we’re just waiting. If anxiety were a wave, its peak would be right before the event that we fear actually happens. This waiting is keeping us collectively at that peak, for an uncertain amount of time. Sustained anxiety is taxing, yet we’re expecting ourselves to carry on like everything is normal. It’s not.

Rolling breakdowns

“Rolling breakdowns” is my term for what happens in a large-scale loss of coping energy. When a city’s power grid is overwhelmed, rotating temporary blackouts allow the power supply to be shared until greater capacity is available. The blackouts are part of the strategy. 

Like rolling blackouts, rolling breakdowns is an acknowledgement that breakdowns are going to be part of the strategy for everyone to get through this. It’s a recognition that instead of approaches that try to avoid breakdowns – which we typically use – we acknowledge that we are all going to lose it for a while and we can work together to share resources. 

Imagine your emotional resilience is like a battery. A battery only lasts so long, even at 100% charge. It’s a resource with limits, one that gets drained by life circumstances. COVID-19 has just pulled 30% from everyone’s battery.  Just the crisis alone. Each additional consequence – a job loss, illness, home schooling, loneliness, loss of activities, of friends, of purpose – pulls another 10-25%, depending on the severity. That’s on top of the energy we needed before, just to live our day-to-day lives. The demand is bound to overwhelm the grid, there will be breakdowns.

Breakdown as stuckness

We often associate breakdown with a big emotional response, like overwhelming tears or anger. It can be that, and it can also be getting stuck in a loop, where we can’t stop doing something that’s both helpful and harmful to us. Maybe I can’t stop checking the news, or I can’t stop eating.  Maybe I can’t sleep or stop thinking about work. Maybe I can’t get up, or I can’t call a friend. I’m obsessed with cleaning, or fantasizing about getting sick, just to get this over with. Maybe, I’m trying to pretend this whole thing isn’t even happening.

THE COPING MECHANISM IS NOT THE PROBLEM

I’ve seen a lot of posts vilifying scrolling through social media, bingeing on food or news. The advice is to exercise instead, to eat well, get a good night’s sleep, etc etc. This prescription completely ignores the seismic life shift we’re all experiencing.  It is denial masking as medical advice.

One thing I’ve learned from years of working in the field of addiction is vilifying substances does not curtail use. People drink more under stress, but they also drink more when they’re full of fear, guilt and shame. In order to replace one coping mechanism, we need support to develop another. Until that happens, the best course of action is trying to reduce harm. Distraction feels good.  We need it, especially now, before we’ve figured out the various new ways we’re going to get through this. 

The goal is a balance of shorter and longer-term relief.  I scroll today, because keeping up with the news makes me feel better.  If I do this everyday for hours at a time, the constant exposure to scary, contradictory, and ever-changing news will increase my baseline anxiety. Overtime, it will become harder to cope. I need to read the news, and I also need to not read the news.  I need both. 

HOW TO REDUCE HARM AND HELP YOUR COMMUNITY COPE 

The good news is some of our energy will return on it’s own, as we become accustomed to self-isolation living.  Our brains won’t need to work as hard to process information. We’ll settle. In the meantime, here are some things we can do right now, for ourselves and each other:

1. Let go of normal expectations 

We can lower our expectations of ourselves and others by recognizing that for the next two months, none of us are fully charged. We’re like those old half-drained batteries in the back of the kitchen drawer. We need to lean into whatever coping works. This means we’re going to be less productive, less able, and more reactive. 

2. Think small about change

When we feel out of control, we tend to grasp for things that can make us feel in control. That might mean we’re going to over consume, because consumption – be it food, news, booze or Netflix – is comforting.  We’re also going to deliberately avoid a bunch of things that we just don’t have the energy for right now, and then feel bad about doing so. 

All of this is ok. This period is temporary and soon we will have more energy again. So for now, if you feel like the consumption and avoidance isn’t really hurting you, then go for it.  You’ll stop eventually. If you feel it’s getting to be too much, then look at one small change you can make.  Just one. Maybe it’s not reading the news first thing in the morning. Or buying 2 bags of peanut butter cups instead of 5. When the battery is drained, one small change can be a big victory.

3. Validate what is

“How you’re feeling makes sense, because this is a crazy time.” This is the message you want to practice giving to yourself, and everyone you support. It’s a formula to validate feelings that comes from literature on eating disorders and It goes like this:  “It makes sense you feel X (insert feeling) because Y (insert circumstance)”

In practice, it might look like saying: “It makes sense you feel angry at those people for standing too close, because we are getting that message hammered at us right now, and you are making so many sacrifices right now.” Or “It makes sense you feel like giving up and visiting your parents, because you’re feeling super isolated.”  

Validating a feeling isn’t the same as giving someone permission to do something. People just want to be heard and validated. When we feel heard emotionally, there’s more room in our minds for practical considerations. If supporting others feels hard right now, start this practice with yourself. Try saying something like “It makes sense that I don’t feel like validating anyone’s feelings, because I’m completely freaked out!” 

Whatever version makes sense to you.

4. Share one resource 

 I didn’t want to go on that rainy walk last week, but I had enough energy that day to remind myself that it would probably help. It did.  What also helped was my friend dragging me outside in the first place. I needed this. It’s very easy for me to stay inside for way too long. My friend doesn’t have this issue; it’s easier for him to support me in doing something I need.  

It doesn’t need to be any bigger than that.  Some parts of this are going to be easier for you. You can share those resources – say, your ability to goad people outside, or come up with activities for their kids, or talk about their feelings. You have strengths that other people can use, and vice-versa.

5. Ring Theory: “Comfort in, Dump out” 

It’s not easy to know how to support someone. Finding the right words is a lot of pressure. I encourage you to unburden yourself from this expectation. There are no words that will heal this for anyone. Words can’t achieve that. Being supportive, for the most part, is about listening.  

Real listening requires putting aside our own emotional responses so we can keep our focus on the person we are supporting, otherwise we risk dumping on the person we’re trying to comfort. 

Susan Silk and Barry Goldman wrote a great short piece about this in the LA times. They call it “Ring Theory.”

“Draw a circle,” they write. “This is the centre ring.” In that ring, put the name of the person having a hard time. The next ring out is the name of the person closest to that person. And so on, through wider and wider concentric circles. “Intimate friends in smaller rings, less intimate friends in larger ones.” You now have your “Kvetching Order.” 

And then: “Here are the rules. The person in the centre ring can say anything she wants to anyone, anywhere. She can kvetch and complain and whine and moan and curse the heavens and say, “Life is unfair” and “Why me?” That’s the one payoff for being in the centre ring. Everyone else can say those things too, but only to people in larger rings.”  

I love this model of support. What it looks like in practice is removing your own emotions from your response.  Much more effective to say “that’s hard” or even, “I don’t know what to say” than “I wouldn’t be able to handle that if it happened to me,” or “I don’t know how you are managing, I’d lose it.” Those things are perfectly ok to think and say, just make sure it’s to a person in a larger ring. 

In other words, “comfort in,” “dump out.”

THE WAY WE MANAGE THIS CRISIS WILL CHANGE

Aisha S. Ahmad, a war survivor, has an inspiring article in The Chronicle of Higher Education on reducing the pressure to be “productive.” A crisis, she explains, has stages. In the beginning, we’re not able to work and cope at the same capacity as before. We don’t even know the new rules yet. In her view, this is completely normal. Accept the dysfunction. The way we manage the crisis will change as we learn more and better skills to live in this new way. Our capacity will grow, our creativity will expand. We are nothing if not adaptive.

About the Author

Lisa Zimmerman is a Psychotherapist, supervisor, teacher and meditation and donut enthusiast in private practice in Ottawa.  She also works with an Indigenous organization delivering anti-bias trainings all over the country and specialists in trauma and addiction treatment. She is Jeff’s friend and has no website of her own, hence her presence here!

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