Surviving the COVID-19 Crisis – by Dr. Bridget Melson, PsyD

Most of us are experiencing something we have never endured before in our lifetime. 

We are being told what to do by government officials. 

We are quarantined. 

As parents we are becoming homeschool teachers. 

Our spouses are either out of work or working from home. 

Our kids are going stir crazy. 

People are hoarding food and household items.

Restaurants and stores are closing by the dozens each day.

People we know are beginning to get sick and may eventually die. 

I am getting daily calls and messages asking me if it is normal to feel anger, frustration, relief, sadness and even a sense of acceptance or thrill during this COVID-19 pandemic. 

I give you a resounding YES! We all will cope and respond to stress in different ways, and we will all be affected in some way.

American-Swiss psychiatrist and researcher, Elisabeth Kubler-Ross noticed her patients all went through a similar stress process when dealing with crisis, loss or death, and she coined it, “The Five Stages of Grief”. These included:

While those are important and still somewhat relevant, the psychological world has evolved when it comes to understanding the psychology of grief. We have now found that there are SEVEN more relevant stages of grief and this is what I am consistently seeing from clients, colleagues, neighbors and even in my own household, during this COVID-19 crisis. These stages include:

  • Shock and Denial
  • Guilt and Heartache
  • Anger, Hurt and Bargaining
  • Reflection and Loneliness
  • A Feeling of Relief and Upward Momentum
  • A Sense of Wanting to Work Through Feelings
  • And Most Importantly a Sense of HOPE

Grief is not one dimensional, nor is it a sequence of events that is fixed and predictable. You can skip around from guilt, to denial, to sadness to acceptance—and all in one day! This is normal and this will differ and fluctuate especially in times of crisis, traumas, or the unknown.

That is exactly what we are witnessing in this country and even worldwide with COVID-19—a crisis in which the depth and width of it is unknown. The uncertainty you may be feeling is your mind’s response to an unprecedented event that many of you cannot fathom or explain to the inner parts of your unconsciousness. 

If you get nothing else out of this article, please understand that you are normal. 

Your mind is frantically trying to reassess, regroup and reorient itself to what is going on in the real world. With all the ways we are being affected—job loss, financial unknowns, pending illness, food shortages, borders closing, political policy changes and so much more, it is inevitable that your mind will struggle, at some point, to make sense of it all. That is when the stages of grief will begin to hit you. Some of you will feel it gradually and you will rationalize your way through it. Some of you will need the support of friends on social media or via the phone and some of you will feel like a freight train hit you and you may need to reach out for professional help. Each of these methods involves your brain trying to cope and make sense of it all and again, it is NORMAL.

Whether you are a conspiracy theorist, a prepper, a naysayer or a compliant American, the waves of grief due to the unknowns and even the knowns, will hit you. 

Let it. You can deny it, or rationalize it away, but the reality dictates that we are in unprecedented times and we are having to take extreme measures to eradicate this virus with the least amount of damage possible. We are already seeing the pending economical and biological turmoil this will cause, but we may not fully realize the mental health crisis this will cause. By sharing this information on how to cope as well as normalizing our emotions, you can potentially save more lives than if you do nothing.

Remember that your mental health and the environment in which you live can determine up to 60% of how your body will respond if indeed the virus invades your household. And I use the word invade because many of you have used that word with me to describe this life disruption. Many people are at risk of entering what I have termed, a “stress cycle” which can lead to mental insufficiencies which can then spiral into physical issues that leave you more susceptible to attacks by viruses. This in turn can cause an individual to feel stress even more and the cycle continues. 

We need to pay attention to what our Autonomic Nervous System (ANS) and our Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS) are trying to tell us, especially during a crisis. When our bodies detect a threat, be it physical or mental, it immediately goes into fight of flight mode. Many of you have probably heard of this term before but don’t fully understand what is really going on in your body and why it is unhealthy to stay in this mode for an extended period of time.

Here is a Reader’s Digest version of what is going on and why it can turn dangerous if you aren’t proactive about your mental health.

When a crisis is perceived:

  • The heart responds by beating faster
  • Blood pressure rises
  • The adrenal glands go into overdrive—cortisol and adrenalin is released constantly
  • The respiratory system is heightened and therefore possibly compromised
  • The digestive system changes which affects our glucose levels
  • The immune system is now compromised if this state of fight or flight is maintained 

If we do not recognize these signals and take steps to calm our system down, we can easily see how this turns into a stress cycle that only makes us more susceptible. 

But there is hope and there are ways we can use self-care methods to stop our body from entering and staying in this stress cycle state. These tips will strengthen your brain’s ability to cope, while also boost your immune system:

BE ACTIVE-stretch or exercise every day. Walk, do 25+ jumping jack’s or sit ups, yoga, play with a pet for 10 minutes outside, play Twister, dance with your kids. Remain physically active daily for even 10-15 minutes.

BREATHE–Practice deep breathing regularly. Just this alone will change your brain’s chemistry for the good, while calming your entire ANS and SNS down. Breathe in for 4 seconds, out for 4 seconds and lower your shoulders each time. Put this in your phone as a reminder to do 2-4 times a day.

USE YOUR IMAGINATION–Close your eyes and picture yourself in a place that makes you feel calm. Walk along those beaches, hike that mountain, swim in that ocean, in your mind. It works.

SOUND ON–Ask Alexa to or turn on YouTube and play ocean or nature sounds in the background at home or at work. This is a great thing to do if you have children in the home as well. Trust me, they know things are different and we want their mental state to be as calm and protected as possible. 

GO OUTSIDE—The sun is healing. Not only can the warmth of it feel comforting but the Vitamin D it produces has been proven to boost our immune system. Even if it is cooler or cloudy, you can reap the benefits of being outside. 10-30 minutes daily is all you need.

GRATITUDE and ENCOURAGEMENT—start a gratitude journal. Write down the positives of what you see going on—neighbors helping one another, family reaching out, time spent with family etc…Text or email a friend with words of encouragement as well. It will make both of you feel better.

REACH OUT—This is one rare time I will tell you to access social media and reach out for support. Post encouraging quotes, scripture verses or even funny COVID-19 memes. Laughter is indeed the best medicine.

KEEP THE FAITH—We live in a great country, with leaders who want the best for us. We elected them, we have supported them, and we need to trust our instincts and know they have our best interests at heart. Also, we are a country founded on a “Creator by which we are endowed”. Our faith needs to be strong and we need to rest in the fact that we are loved by a Mighty God.

Grief will hit you. Concerns will cross your mind. People will panic. The media will over hype… everything. 

Take a deep breath when this happens. Give yourself a break, and once again, know that you are NORMAL. We are in this together, we are strong Americans, we have capable leaders, we have a loving God and we will only be stronger and wiser because of this all.

God bless and keep fighting the good fight…this time with a lot of deep breaths.

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