Focusing Inward Amidst Pandemic
What scary and uncertain times we are living through with this pandemic here in Toronto and across the globe. As many of us increasingly stay home, it can be easy to keep our eyes plastered to the news, in a news-watching marathon, to determine how we "should" be responding, how the various branches of government will respond, anxious for some form of guidance, clarity, reassurance, decisive action, and supports. It is a time that shakes the fabric of our sense of security and safety. Sudden changes in our routines and physical cut-offs from our communities don't help.
For me, oddly enough, this time serves as an opportunity for me to resume my blog series after a six month maternity leave break; (I now have childcare for my little one since my spouse is home). I created this series to dialogue with the folks who make up the majority of my clinical practice - "compulsive helpers" - those of us who have historically felt compelled to help others, to "save the world" and "do-good" - often at the expense of their own needs and feelings. My blog is also highly influenced by the therapeutic modalities I use that focus on our internal worlds, and on our feelings.
Today, I am thinking about frontline healthcare workers, and I am also thinking about those of us who may be home during this time of uncertainty. I'd like to address both of these groups.
Healthcare workers: I am so grateful for your service. I am so grateful knowing that you are out there, ready, should my family, friends, or even myself need your services in the coming months. And, as I know from my own personal history as well as my therapeutic practice with nurses, social workers, and other healthcare workers, you can be a self-sacrificing bunch. Even as we depend upon you, I implore you to consider your own needs. Are you in any way particularly vulnerable to the virus, or is anyone in your family extra-vulnerable? Would working now serve to help society but put yourself at too much risk?
It is true - we do need heros right now, people devoted to society and to caring for the sick and our most vulnerable. At the same time - if you are in a position to be a hero - do it because you can do it safely - because you are not at increased risk, because you don't have family at increased risk, because this is personally meaningful to you, because you are choosing this. Please don't feel that you have to shoulder this weight - the weight of the world (literally!) - on your own. If, for whatever reason, you decide to sit this one out and protect yourself - or to shift the way that you provide care to minimize your own risk - honour yourself and your reasons for this.
And for those of us who have the privilege (and duty) to sit at home wondering anxiously how our lives will change and for how long and how we will stay well despite this "social distancing" and financial insecurity: I invite you to focus inward. For just a few moments, at some point in your day. There is so very much going on externally. Perhaps you are juggling working from home, plus taking care of the kids, all the while trying to make sense of what is going on. Still - our internal worlds need attention! What is going on inside me right now, physically? Can I locate it inside? Can I put words to it? (A pit in my stomach!) What does it need me to know? (That I don't like all of this uncertainty! That I want more control!)
There is so much unknown right now, so much changing every hour. Focusing inside in this way, with curiosity into our internal states, even if we dip in just for a moment, allows us to be in the present, in our bodies. As Ann Weiser Cornell writes in her book The Power of Focusing - "The body is always in the present time, always here." (p.9). I know that my mind likes to jump straight into the future; perhaps you can relate; perhaps you are trying to figure out income, childcare, how all of this uncertainty will play out and how you will cope. This planning and problem-solving is essential, but we need balance. We need are ways to check back in. Back into the body, back into our feelings, right now.
I came across a lovely and timely comic today on Facebook. Its creator Mardou takes us into her internal world, into her body, as she navigates her experience with the coronavirus pandemic.
Mardou notes the sensations she feels in her body. She describes the precise sensations ("tense, hard") locates them in her body ("in my belly"), which helps take the "edge" off. She is then able to receive what they have to "say" - "I feel scared, helpless." She can now respond and offers herself some self-compassion ("I am here for you") and body-based relaxation exercises (progressive muscle relaxation, yoga) to further soothe herself.
Mardou is able to go inside and discover her internal experience without getting overwhelmed by it. She is likely aided by her art as a comic; describing and symbolizing our internal experience can allow us to notice our feelings without being consumed by them. In doing so, she is able to hear and respond to the scared parts of herself and their corresponding needs (to feel safe, connected). This requires an attitude of curiosity, an ability to slow down, and again, an ability to have enough distance from what is going on inside to describe it ("working distance"). It also requires an ability to value and honour her internal world as meriting attention and offering some kind of useful information.
This can be really challenging to do, especially when we are scared or anxious - which I imagine much of the globe is feeling right now. It is much easier to be swept away by our fears - and let them take us over - or on the other side - completely ignore that we are feeling afraid and just act as if everything is ok. For compulsive helper types, this avoidance might look like tending to the needs of others, and ignoring our own.
Let's challenge ourselves to do this work, during this crisis phase in our history, to check in with ourselves, with our bodies, with an attitude of curiosity. Even for just a moment. Seeing if we can get some distance from the need to change or fix what we are experiencing, and instead "Say Hello" to what is happening inside. Because our insides are giving us good information. We are scared because this thing is scary! And we do need to know that we are not alone, that our communities and governments and most compassionate parts of ourselves will take care of us and/or be with us (even if only via Skype).
If you do decide to try this "turning inward," I would offer that you don't necessarily start at your most vulnerable moment in the day. Do it when you tend to feel a bit less vulnerable. So, for example, maybe try this when you are drinking your morning coffee, rather than when watching the news late at night. That way, it will be less likely that you get overwhelmed by your experience. You can certainly build up to turning inward when you feel more vulnerable, but let's be gentle to start!
So, in our societal efforts to preserve our physical and financial safety, let's also exercise basic muscles of mental health, which includes a practice of observing and labeling what we are experiencing inside.
And as you do this, remember: you are not alone. Though our circumstances as individuals and as communities differ vastly, I'd bet that every human alive is scared - whether conscious of it or not. This can be a comfort to us and can embolden us to look inside, to turn toward our hard feelings with understanding and without judgement; yes, I have hard feelings - and I am not alone in them. For better or for worse, we are all in this together.