Helping people cope with difficult life circumstances is the predominant part of my work as a therapist in Seattle.
I help clients manage challenges like grief, personal loss, life transitions, stress, anxiety, depression and trauma.
Listening to countless stories of hurt and hardship over the years, one concept that has assisted me in my work is that suffering is an inevitable part of the human condition.
Our control does not lie in what happens to us, but how we react to life’s challenges.
Yet, as the coronavirus outbreak unfolded in the United States in early March (and as I moved to counseling my clients via video conferencing and phone calls), much attention of the nation was focused on staying physically healthy.
Meanwhile, I watched as the mental and emotional health of my clients and myself deteriorated.
Quite suddenly, we were asked to drastically change our lives and restrict ourselves to homes, apartments or cramped living spaces.
Our local governments implored us to isolate from our social supports or in some instances our families.
We became acutely aware of the physical distance between others and us every time we stepped outside.
Health officials warned us to maintain vigilance about our physical health and signs or symptoms of illness.
Many of us were told we could not work in offices. Some of us were told we could not work at all.
We were warned about an invisible threat we couldn’t see, didn’t have a defense against and didn’t even understand fully.
Suffering is an inevitable part of life. But this suffering has been unlike any we’ve experienced as a nation or as a world during the lifetime of nearly all of us.
Three months after the coronavirus initially hit Seattle, I am still confined to working from home.
As I sit at my desk, I glance at my apartment wall and a giant bright sticky note faces me. On it, I’ve scribbled a list dubbed “Themes of Coronavirus.”
To some, it might seem morbid to have a neon-colored reminder of all the patterns of fear and confusion this pandemic has brought. But to me, it’s a comforting acknowledgement.
This is unlike any suffering we’ve faced before, but there is still a pattern in it of shared human suffering – a global trauma.
Most of the concepts I’ve written down on my lime green declaration deal with two major themes: lack of control and how to cope.
The first – lack of control – I note as the question, “What’s in your control vs. out of your control?”
This question came to me as I began processing with clients about the frustrations, hurt and grief they were feeling being confined to small apartments or isolated from others.
The emotional pain is real. But it is also not in our control.
We cannot control our loss of normalcy; we cannot control the restrictions placed on us. We don’t even really have control in how these circumstances make us feel.
But we can control what we do with these emotions. We can give ourselves permission to acknowledge and express this hurt without self-judgment.
This leads to the second theme of coping.
Mental health professionals love to spread the gospel about “good coping skills,” such as meditation, exercise, seeking social support or getting adequate sleep.
But in a time of such upheaval, I’ve been wary of preaching the good word to clients.
Even if individuals established good coping skills in the past, we’ve been thrust into an environment that now robs us of our strategies like getting coffee with a friend, going to a park or attending a support meeting.
So, these days, I try to express coping in terms of self-compassion.
Are you being kind to yourself in this moment? Are you self-soothing if you had a particularly rough day with a cup of tea, a warm blanket or perhaps a fluffy pet? Are you giving yourself permission to be tired? To nap? To distract with movies or games?
I recently had a conversation with a client who was grappling with guilt over playing the kids Nintendo game “Animal Crossing” after a rough day.
I believe my response was something akin to “Not every day is about being productive. Sometimes, soothing or distracting from difficult feelings is the most productive thing you can do.”
As the self-compassion researcher Kristin Neff states, “When we struggle, we give ourselves compassion not to feel better but because we feel bad.”
In the coming months and years, we will continue to face hardship, suffering and a radical shift in life as we know it. This is the nature of trauma: It changes us.
Just as suffering is part of the human condition, so is change. And just as I believe in the capacity of humans to be compassionate and nurturing in a difficult time, I also believe in our capacity to be resilient.
Editor’s note: This is the first article in a series this week for Mental Health Awareness Month.