Caveat Statement: Although you’re reading this after the holidays, I’m writing this before they even begin! Election results are in, we’re experiencing a rise in COVID-19 numbers, and are planning Thanksgiving and Hanukkah 2020-style. LA County implemented another Safer-At-Home Order— less stringent than what we experienced in March, and a vaccine is reportedly on the horizon. Though life will surely shift in the next few weeks, I hope some of this information is still applicable come January 2021. If nothing else, these themes will likely still be relevant. Happy New Year!
You’re not alone, others are struggling, too.
Many of us feel isolated and alone. Although COVID-19 provides an opportunity for a collective experience, sometimes it can feel anything but collective due to COVID-19 fatigue (burnout resulting from constantly being hyper-careful, -scared, and -confined). However, one experience we all share is a collective grief—we’re all losing, or have lost, something. Some have lost concrete things (i.e., loved ones, jobs, homes, local stores), some have confronted damaged systems (i.e., education, healthcare, economy), and some have faced the impacts of both. At the very core is an upsetting reality: All that we knew to be isn’t so. What we clung to most tightly—control, justice, predictability, protecting our loved ones—has been shaken. How do we make sense of the world around us now? Take time to feel it, name it, and seek help from a mental health professional.
Grief, it’s a process.
“Name and claim your grief.” Adapting can be difficult, and it’s important to maintain perspective: You are resilient; you’ve made it to 2021! As Kübler-Ross notes in her Stages of Grief model, we go through the stages of Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, and Acceptance. Unfortunately this isn’t a linear process nor do the stages happen in a step-wise fashion. Working through grief and loss matters can be challenging and painful, and is absolutely necessary to engage in resilience and adapt to life thereafter. The work must be done in order for radical acceptance (accepting life on life’s terms, not resisting what you cannot change) to be achieved, at which point suffering is no longer. Accepting reality is difficult when it’s painful, yet when we avoid or resist those emotions, our suffering and pain become heightened.
Examples of Kübler-Ross’ Stages of Grief model leading up to the new year might look like: I can’t believe we’re ending the year basically the same way it began (denial); I haven’t seen friends and family in 9 months (anger); I’d do anything to repeat 2019 if 2021 would be COVID-free (bargaining); I’m lonely and sad, and haven’t showered in a week (depression); Well, 2020 was anything but ideal, but I’m glad it’s over and proud we made it through (acceptance).
Normalizing the grieving process is important—it gives us an opportunity to turn inward, recalibrate, and accept the need to adapt to a changing world. We need to grieve to move on.
Although it can sometimes be difficult, I urge us all to look for small nuggets of something hopeful or exciting in our lives. Being mindful and open to spontaneity can help us improve the moment. For example, while we can acknowledge the California sunshine we are fortunate to get in the winter, we can simultaneously hold the frustration we carry about the virus’s impact on our daily lives, holiday traditions and New Year resolutions. Both can and do exist simultaneously. Engaging in all-or-nothing thinking (i.e., “negative thoughts” only) can be detrimental to our mental health and can leave us feeling quite depressed and alone. Nothing lasts forever, pandemic included.
Taking care of you.
So now that we’ve remembered we’re not alone, and we’ve acknowledged our uncomfortable and sometimes scary emotions, what do we do?! Here are a few tips.
Stay PLEASED (Dialectical Behavioral Therapy [DBT] skill)
Treat PhysicaL illness (i.e., go to the doctor)
Eat balanced meals
Avoid mood-altering substances
Do this all Daily
Practice Radical Acceptance (DBT skill)
Solving a problem is the first choice. Changing your perception is the second choice. If neither are viable options, practice radical acceptance. Begin by focusing on your breath and noticing your thoughts (i.e., “This isn’t fair!”). Once you notice your thoughts, let them pass and replace with an accepting statement (i.e., “It is what it is” or “This doesn’t define me”). Remember, acceptance is not necessarily a straight shot to feeling better. Radical acceptance requires repetition and time to become a master! Once we are able to do so, acceptance frees our psychological and emotional resources to move forward and heal. *Please note this is not done to avoid feelings, but rather to achieve a better mental state to manage and vocalize our emotions.*
STOPP (DBT skill)
If you’re feeling in the heat of the moment with intense emotions, STOPP!
Stop! Pause for a moment
Take a breath. (Count to five slowly as you inhale, and five slowly as you exhale).
Observe your thoughts. (Where is your attention? What are you reacting to? What do you feel in your body?)
Perspective. (Zoom out, what is the bigger picture? How important is this? How important will this be in a month?)
Proceed. (What is the best thing to do right now, for me, others, the situation? Do what will be effective and
Pay attention to positive activities.
Building a satisfying life improves our sense of resilience. For example, it may be easier to cope with a loss or negative events when our life is balanced with positive ones. If we open up ourselves to such experiences, we are able to see spontaneous, positive moments and connect with them. Small and positive activities include: eating balanced, unrushed meals; watching movies; journaling; exercising; listening to music; discovering new hobbies.
In a time of physical distancing and cold weather, social connections can be difficult to achieve. But I urge you to rethink what this might look like. Stay connected via phone calls, texts, emails, video chats, social media, etc. Social
connections will help us both get through, as well as process the collective experience of the pandemic.
The best thing we can do right now is check in on each other and help others feel validated. Validation is acknowledging that we heard another’s perspective without judgment or fixing it—whole-heartedly focusing on the other person, actively listening, and being present in the moment with them. Lastly, remember, just because the pandemic ends, doesn’t mean the hardship and trauma end. Many will be navigating the post-quarantine impacts, especially as we create a “new normal.”
*National Suicide Prevention Helpline: 1-800-273-8255
*Substance Abuse & Mental Health Services Administration’s (SAMHSA) Disaster Distress Helpline: 1-800-985-5990 (people with deafness or hearing loss can use their preferred relay services to call this number as well)
*National Alliance on Mental Illness: 1-800-950-6264
*For a therapist or psychologist in your community, contact Kim Banaji: 626-445-0810, firstname.lastname@example.org.
Dr. Samantha Miller can be reached at www.drsamanthamiller.com.
Disclaimer: The contents of this article are for informational and educational purposes only, and not intended to be a substitute for professional psychological, psychiatric or
medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.
DR. SAMATHA MILLER is a clinical Psychologist and a contributing writer to JLife Magazine.