I’ve delayed writing anything about coronavirus anxieties for a couple of reasons. Firstly, I’m not a medical expert and there are enough conflicting opinions and theories out there without me adding my own unqualified ones. Secondly, the coronavirus is already taking up a lot of our headspace. We talk about it constantly, consider it as we make (or cancel) our plans, and we think about it endlessly. I wasn’t keen to add to this mental load.
So what’s new here about coronavirus?
But something I frequently say to myself, and to my clients, is: “If we are going to have voices in our heads, we might as well answer them.” This is why I’m writing now. Because avoidance of our anxieties arising around coronavirus isn’t making them go away.
I’ve been considering what exactly I want to contribute to the conversation about coronavirus. What do I want to say to you about it? There is already continually updating information provided by our governments regarding the symptoms we need to look out for, as well as the steps to take should we spot these symptoms in ourselves or our families. There is even a good deal of advice out there about how to manage our mental health in this current climate too. So what’s left to say?
I want to say three things –
- We have permission to feel our feelings
- We have permission to make our decisions
- We have permission to live well despite coronavirus
Permission to feel our feelings
I have heard numerous people call themselves “silly” for feeling anxious about coronavirus. We can feel very sensitive to the fears of those around us, and be hesitant to overload our own stress systems by acknowledge we are fearful too. Maybe we are conscious that we are lucky enough to not be in the “at risk” groups, so consider our fear unnecessary, or even selfish. Drama. Unhelpful. Overreacting. Silly.
We don’t have control over our feelings. We really don’t. Berating them for existence is futile. What we can do is respond to them. Kindly. Appropriately. With moderation. We can acknowledge our feelings of anxiety, anger, helplessness – whatever they are. And then pass through them. Either the feelings will calm upon acknowledgment, or attending to them a little might give us insight into our own needs.
I like to visualise my feelings as a young child, who has just fallen and hurt her knee. As attending adult I know the knee is only mildly scraped, and if the child could just calm down she could go off and continue her play with no problems. What happens if I dismiss her distress too quickly? In my visual, she wails all the louder, seeking some validation of the pain she’s in. As soon as I offer some sympathy, “Wow, that looks like it really hurt”, and maybe even some affirmation of her own ability to hold that pain, “And you were so brave when you fell”, she calms.
Can we attend to our feelings this way? “Ok, Rachel, you’ve been looking at the news for a while now, and seem to be a bit jittery and stressed out… I’m sorry you are finding this hard, you have a kind heart who really cares.” We can de-shame ourselves from our feelings, and this empowers us too. Reflecting on my own (now validated) anxiety might very well free up my mind to think more on that last affirmation to myself, “I have a heart that really cares”, and explore ways I can take that empathy pain and find ways to help my neighbours or friends who are self-isolating or need cheering up.
We give ourselves permission to feel, and we move through the feeling.
Permission to make decisions
It’s becoming clearer every day what decisions we are required by our governments to take regarding self-isolation, work, keeping environments healthy, etc. In many ways this actually reduces anxiety; we don’t need to all invent our own wheels of ‘right responses’, instead we can feel we are doing our best by following guidelines. Depending on where you live, however, guidelines may be more or less fuzzy. Or decisions might be more personal – what to do about party plans, memorial get togethers, attendance at support groups, or even invitations issued to friends to your home.
It’s hard to make these decisions, especially when either way you might be doomed to disapproving feedback from friends and neighbours. Above and beyond following government guidelines there are likely to be personal decisions to be made along the way, and if I could gift any of us anyway right now, it’s a sense of self-trust that we make decisions for our own good, and the broader good of those around us. Many of us may already be feeling anxiety about decision-making that is happening on a national or international scale. But in my opinion, nothing causes anxiety quite like not being at peace with the decisions we make ourselves.
We give ourselves permission to make decisions, both small-scale and large-scale, and we cultivate a sense of control and personal peace in our own lives.
Permission to live well despite coronavirus
I’m more aware now than ever of my privilege. I already felt this privilege before coronavirus – I am White, with access to a high level of education, and I am living in a country that affords me access to public services and healthcare. And these even are not the extent of my privileged status.
In light of coronavirus, I realise even more the advantages I have –
- I already work via webcam technology from my own home so I can continue to support clients who may be ill or self isolating, or in the case that I may be
- I live in a home that feels safe and comfortable (and my status as introvert means self isolation doesn’t actually fill me with complete dread!)
- I grew up in a country that trained me to always have a good stock of food in the cupboards (you know, in case of government overthrow) so I’m not worried about running out of things
- I have enough financial security to feel safe
- My daughter is old enough to cooperate (!) with me in the case of school closures and needing to institute learning from home (while I continue working)
I’m conscious re-reading this list that I feel the need to apologise for them. I even feel a compulsive need to hit delete. I’m not going to because I’m a therapist and we are relentlessly drawn to those things that seem most difficult (!) Seriously though, why is it difficult for me to own my privilege? Why is it hard for me to acknowledge how incredibly fortunate I am?
I grew up conscious of being ‘fortunate’. As a Third Culture Kid growing up White in a Black community, I was to many a figure of privilege. And they weren’t wrong. I was painfully aware that however close my friendships, if famine came I wouldn’t worry about starving. If I got dangerously ill, I would be air-lifted out. And to this day I feel shame about this. Shame that I was so lucky.
We can easily feel shame about having things easier than many of those around us. We compare our trials to theirs and while we feel our good fortune, the weight of it bears down heavy on our joy. We find it hard to live well.
Acknowledging our privilege is so important – It limits our propensity to take sole credit for all the good things in our lives, which in its turn tends to lead us to blame others for their lack of good fortune. It allows us to see where we need to use our privilege to advocate for those without. In this age of coronavirus, this might mean keeping an eye out for neighbours and elderly or those of our community with immune-compromising health conditions. It might mean joining local groups trying to organise support. It might simply mean avoiding the temptation to stockpile in the supermarkets. Or to judge those stocking up so that they have access to whatever self-isolation requirements they might need to meet in the future.
And there is immense value in all of this. There is also immense value in you. You are allowed to live well at this coronavirus anxious time even if others are suffering. No, we don’t get to ignore their suffering. No, we don’t get to blame them for their suffering. No, we don’t get to moralise about how they should have avoided their suffering. And yes, we get to do what we can to help, support, inform and protect others from suffering.
We also get to laugh. To enjoy ourselves. Living in the reality of our lives means yes, accepting the hard, and it also means accepting the good. Living well resists sabotaging this good out of a misplaced sense of shame or guilt about the lives of others.
Have you ever met someone who clearly just enjoys their life? Who meets each meal with enthusiasm, each encounter as an opportunity and each experience as valuable? These people do not repel those who suffer. Nor do they steal from the happiness of others. Those who live well multiple their own experience of good fortune and it spills out over those around them. An infection of sorts. But not the kind that is best isolated.
We need permission to live well. To be able to experience joy alongside fear and anxiety and pain and loss. We need permission to be the complicated creatures we are, to feel all the things – and to allow joy to multiply itself recklessly, even as we learn to live cautiously, wherever it finds the space to do so.
Well said, Dr. Rachel. On so many fronts.
Sometimes I rankle under the many (insistent) admonitions to acknowledge our ‘privilege,’ because other legitimate factors are at play, including hard work and striving toward a goal. But when I think about it more calmly, I do acknowledge privilege on multiple fronts. And to be reminded can be a call to an attitude of gratitude. Yes, much to be thankful for.
And, more to the main subject at hand, I have to admit to being somewhat scared: I turn 80 next year; am diabetic; have breathing issues; and on and on. Classic vulnerability. So I really appreciated your insights about dealing with our feelings. Very timely . . .
Thanks so much for reading, Dan. I hear you on the fear front… it’s a hard time for you especially right now. It’s okay to take our feelings seriously, isn’t it? A sign we take ourselves seriously… that we matter. That we are worth protecting and caring for. And you are. Thank you for being so open about the complexities of dialoguing about privilege too… it’s hard too.