The past year has been filled with lots of ups and downs and certainly quite a few twists and turns. Most people can reflect back to more than one conversation about how we would be transitioning to a virtual work environment “for just a couple of weeks, to help flatten the curve.” Well, here we are, many of us still working from our basements, guestrooms, living rooms and kitchens…wondering when it will be safe enough to return to our offices. “Time” is a dichotomy that baffles many; It passes so quickly and yet at times, stands still. It’s been the fastest slowest year I can remember, and I highly doubt I’m alone in that experience. Aside from learning more than you ever wanted to know about disease transmission, I hope you learned these 10 things over the past 365 days:
#1 The constant push for self-improvement can actually be unhealthy
I have seen so many social media posts from people talking about all the new skills they acquired or how many books, home projects and tasks they completed over the past 12 months. If you are one of those people–good for you—but just know for future reference, that was not required. Do you know what was required? Survival. Staying afloat was literally the only required bullet point on your COVID colored post-it note to do list. So, if you are reading this, CONGRATULATIONS! You nailed it and I hope you can be proud of yourself.
Long before COVID-19 led to more time at home, there was a self-improvement epidemic spreading across our country much like, well, a disease. Everywhere you turned there was an advertisement, article, or podcast on “how you too, can become your best self!” And although I am sad to point this out, even a global world-wide health crisis hasn’t changed that. The biggest problem with always trying to be faster, stronger, smarter, happier, thinner, prettier (basically all the “ers”) is it implies you are not enough RIGHT NOW. You are enough. In fact, no matter what your year looked like, you did it perfectly because you are still here. When people ask me what I accomplished while working from home I literally tell them that I survived….and I unintentionally trained my hair to go much longer in between washings. #dreamlife
#2 Overexposure to Information is a real thing
We live in a very connected world. We have constant access to information and news and if you ever had any doubts regarding the negative consequences of that fact, I hope this year has cleared it up for you. Nonstop reports of scary traumatic things can lead to increased anxiety and fear. There is a reason we are the most medicated humans in history and it’s not just because overall we have better access to care (“overall” being the operative, and VERY loosely used word there because don’t get me started on our lack of healthy equity in this country).
When you watch or read something dangerous and you tense up ever so slightly (because the content is anxiety evoking), your brain thinks whatever you were watching or reading about actually happened to you. In fact, there is even a special place in the mid portion of your brain that stores all the dangerous sensory information related to the event so it can keep you safe in the future. I am not suggesting you disable your social media accounts or sell your television, but there is a balance. Consider setting a timer when you are browsing the web and limit your overall intake of news when possible. Additionally, when you are reading or watching something even mildly concerning, attempt to remain physically relaxed (take deep breaths, unclench your muscles, etc.). Doing so will help your brain differentiate between real and perceived dangers.
#3 Being self-conscious about your appearance is overrated
This past year people have gone longer than ever between dye jobs, haircuts, waxing appointments, mani/pedis, etc. And yes, I realize these are first world luxuries, but I hope you learned from them regardless! Gray “highlights” may even feel fashionable now and hopefully incredibly freeing.
Our society is typically pretty hung up on looking a certain way and historically it has been pretty damaging for many. I have seen my fair share of clients struggling with anxiety and depression over feeling as though they aren’t good enough because they can’t live up to the Instagram ideal. Crazy diet fads, 15-step skincare routines, $200 dollar makeup palettes, name brand clothing and more, just to chase an unrealistic standard most will never achieve and seldom brings much joy. Maintaining a healthy lifestyle has never been more important but maybe we can leave the unhealthy obsession with appearance in the pre-COVID past…? A therapist can dream, right?!
#4 Grief is not linear
I feel confident in saying almost everyone has experienced some variation of grief and loss this past year. Loss can be categorized as primary or secondary. Primary referring to a death or a significant life change and secondary referring to the consequences related to the primary loss. For example, if a person’s best friend died of COVID-19, the death is the primary loss, and the loss of companionship is secondary.
Grief is a consequence of both primary and secondary losses. Often people only associate grief with death but its’ scope is much wider. While the COVID-19 death toll cannot be ignored or minimized, the reality is even if you have been so lucky as to have not lost a loved one this past year, you have still likely experienced a fair amount of loss. The world is grieving many things; the loss of physical contact with family and friends, the inability to freely go wherever you please without thinking twice about it, emotional and physical safety, just to name a few.
Most people are aware of the saying “grief isn’t linear” but I do wonder if COVID-19 has shed light on what it truly means. Remember last spring/summer when we all realized we were going to be living this way for a while? Remember the disbelief you felt? Remember the bargaining you did regarding how many places you could safely go in a day or how many people you could let in your trusted inner circle? Remember the anger you felt when you realized you couldn’t hug your parent or grandparent on their birthday? Remember the sadness you felt when you could only invite 25 people to your dad’s funeral? All those things were connected to grief. You were grieving. You are still grieving. I suspect you can look back at the past 12 months and remember revisiting most of these feelings more than once…not for a set amount of time…not in any particular order and with very little predictability aside from being predictably unpredictable. This is grief. It’s messy and disorganized but a necessary part of any loss.
#5 Anxiety, depression and trauma are freaking real
It’s pretty obvious at this point, yes? I could write a separate blog for each of these points but this one in particular is difficult to encapsulate in a couple paragraphs, so I’ll keep it simple with a story.
In March 2020 John learned about COVID-19. He wasn’t really sure what to make of it at first, but he packed up his things at work and moved his “office” onto his kitchen table at home. He read online the virus was deadly and he could contract it from touching items at the grocery store and from opening packages he received in the mail. He wore gloves when doing these activities for a couple months. He learned on the news the disease was airborne and highly contagious. He developed a routine to keep himself and his family safe. He wore a mask anytime he left home and he used hand sanitizer and washed his hands so frequently that they quickly became chapped.
John wasn’t able to celebrate birthdays or holidays with friends or family. He visited his dying grandmother from the nursing home window alongside his 5 year old daughter, Rosie. Rosie blew kisses through the glass and excitedly asked when she would be able to hug Great Gran again, not understanding this would be the last time she ever saw her. John tried his best to contain his emotions, but everything was starting to feel so emotionally heavy.
John now knows he isn’t likely to get COVID from touching surfaces but when he goes to the bank, he still disinfects the pen and sanitizes his hands after the teller sends the tube back to him. He knows the bank has extra precautions in place, but he feels safer doing this.
He saw on the news vaccines might be available to him in 2021. He wasn’t completely sure what to believe. It was exciting yet terrifying to think about returning to his office one day. What if it isn’t actually safe? What if he gets sick and accidentally gets someone he cares about sick? What if that person dies? He doesn’t think he can handle any additional loss after losing his grandmother so recently.
Fast forward to March 2021. John knows after he receives the vaccine and once the country has reached herd immunity, it will be safe to return to life as “normal” but he’s scared. He can’t stop thinking about all the “what if’s” and he wonders if he will ever feel completely safe again.
Anxiety, depression and trauma are real. While John is fictional, his experience is one that is true for many of us. It’s easy to relate to his feelings. In fact, one of the reasons why being a therapist is so complex right now is because we hear about the same experiences from our clients, friends, family and honestly, from our own inner dialogues. It is vital we all recognize what we are experiencing is not only real, but also expected under the circumstances and 100% valid.
Stayed tuned for Part 2, coming to you on March 22, 2021.