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Stress, Trauma and COVID: It’s OK to Not Be OK

Try out some new coping strategies before winter sets in.

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These odd times we are all living through are causing emotional upheaval in ways none of us could have ever conceived and we continually struggle to grasp. We’re trying to navigate what none of us could have planned for while trying to make impossible decisions with either very little or far too much information. Do we go on that vacation? Should I send my child back to childcare or school? Do I go to the pool? Can I attend that birthday party? How do we properly mourn our loved ones with the inability to have a real funeral? If we cannot gather, will we wither? 

Google any of this right now and you will find yourself diving into a rabbit hole of experts, opinions and cautionary tales and leave more confused than when you hit “search.” It is scary right now. Regardless of how you look back and measure this time—someday—for almost every single person it will have meant loss. Loss of freedom, loss of a sense of security, uncertainty, powerlessness, fear, and for far too many—intense and unimaginable grief. 

All of these things taken separately are enough to stress anyone out. When you throw them all together, it’s potentially a traumatic experience with long-term ramifications. This is a collective trauma our entire world is going through right now; much like 9/11, the ripple effects are felt far and wide. Those closest to ground zero were affected differently than those who watched the events unfold in real time on the news thousands of miles away, but each of those experiences was traumatic. 

Trauma is unique to each person. The degree to which the impact is felt, its severity and its duration often involve many other factors unrelated to the traumatic event itself, such as: Is the person in an emotionally healthy place? What prior traumatic experiences has that person experienced? Has that person coped in a healthy way from prior trauma? Do they have a solid support system? A healthy coping mechanism? Those questions become vital when assessing what intervention will be needed when a new traumatic experience presents itself. Our past ways of dealing will often dictate the course of our future coping. Those who have solid protective measures in place, such as a strong support system, financial security, and healthy coping mechanisms, will weather the storm of stress and trauma with more resiliency. 

In fact, someone’s resiliency can be easily measured by two powerful components—past traumatic experiences and protective factors. That combination can help to predict how someone will manage the environment we are all living in right now. To begin to process this daily turmoil swirling around us, we are going to need to be able to sit still for a moment and look within. 

While summer has brought forth sunshine, much needed outdoor activities and distracting experiences, summer will quickly give way to fall, and that means finding ourselves back indoors. Our days will grow shorter, and there will be more darkness to contend with, both literally and figuratively, as we are seeing the increases in COVID spike around us, the death toll rising, and hateful political rhetoric dominating mainstream and social media. It is only going to get worse. We must prepare ourselves emotionally, spiritually and physically for the fall and winter months, as they will be some of the toughest times this country has witnessed in recent memory. I beg of you, if you do not have a self-care plan in place for yourself and your family, develop one now.  

We must understand our emotions and the way that we typically respond to them in order to develop a plan of how to deal. Here are five tools that work for me that can be very useful if you are struggling emotionally.

  1. Suit up and show up. You must make the choice to get out of bed. It’s far too easy to pull the covers over our head and check out into our pain. Put one foot in front of the other and show up for each day. In these times where we are working and schooling from home, it can be so easy to try and hide away. Create a work or study space for you that is brightly lit and conjures calm, with colors such as blues, teals, or pastels; have some aromatherapy to heighten your sense of smell; and play music that will inspire or calm you. Try to cater to all your senses when creating this space.
    Spend a few moments of each morning in a quiet state where you are simply seeking or asking for guidance for the day ahead. This can bring up a lot of emotions. Let them come. They will not hurt you. You will find that what rises in you is what requires release on that day. If silence is not an option, use a meditation app with music or guided meditations. Try Calm.com or Insight Timer. Clear your mind for the day ahead. 
  2. Emote—cry, scream, and laugh. When feelings rise in you, do not run, stuff them away, ignore them or distract yourself from them. Just let them out. Allow yourself to feel every feeling inside of you. Doing so helps you to fully process each one. Feelings aren’t facts. They will pass. Conversely, if you are one who emotes a lot, monitor how much space you are giving those feelings. If you are in your room listening to sad music on repeat and sobbing all day, you may need to pull yourself away and engage another method. Just like anything, we can overindulge and drift into extreme behavior. Find your balance. 
  3. Connect with others. There are so many ways to do this online now that you don’t need to be in someone’s physical presence to gain the benefits of belonging and connectivity that a good cup of coffee and a talk gives you when you are out with a friend. Engage support groups online or telehealth therapy. Instead of texting or snap-chatting, make time to actually see the people you care about. Schedule Zoom calls or FaceTime coffee dates. Being seen and heard is vital to our overall well-being. 
  4. Exercise. Whether you are a runner, a cycler—or even if you aren’t super active at all, getting your body to move helps in supporting emotional well-being. Movement is nature’s medicine, and it’s free and effective—and movement in nature is even better. Exercise engages vital endorphins in your brain that naturally help you feel better. If you do not like to exercise, try adding a brief walk into your day. Walk your dog. Find a friend at work to walk with at lunchtime, or ask your spouse, partner or children to walk with you in the evening. Get up from your desk a few times a day and do something: a quick round of squats, some down dogs or some sun salutations. Stretching and moving your body helps with circulation, energy and mood. 
  5. Monitor your intake. We truly are what we eat. Be mindful of what you are putting into your body. If you are overeating or denying yourself food, be aware of that. Food can be just as damaging as a drink or a drug for many of us. Though if you are drinking a bottle of wine at five o’clock now instead of a glass, you may need to check that.
    While being at home can mean overindulgences, it can also be a huge positive in terms of food preparation. How many times have you thought, “If only I had the time to prepare my weekly meals or try new recipes”? Well now you do, and as fall approaches, you may have even more time.
    Also monitor your intake of media. This one is going to be crucial as we slam into one of the most polarizing elections of our time. Limit your and your family’s interactions with social media and news on TV. If you are one to always have the news on in the background of your home, consider the impact that could be having. The constant barrage of scary news and hateful political ads can affect us without us even realizing it by creating hostile energy in the home and irritability. Limit it as best you can. Also remember that little ears hear everything, and while they may not say anything, they are being affected by what they hear. 

Most of all, be gentle with yourself. Know that stress and trauma are ever present in our lives right now. Give yourself permission to not be OK. No one is OK right now. We are all doing the best we can under unforeseen circumstances and constant uncertainty. 

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