Navigating Emotional Complexity During a Pandemic

Posted on April 08, 2021   |   
Author: Sharon Young

Sharon Young Spring 2021.jpg

I have always loved a good adventure. Part of it is the challenge. Part of it is the spirit of discovery. Part of it is the adrenaline rush. And part of it is, or at least was, a sense of reckless abandon. Ahhh, the intoxicating invincibility of youth! And what a rude awakening it was when the world reminded the not-so-invincible me that I was a mere mortal after all.     

For me, it was specific experiences, such as getting lost in the woods with the last light fading or fighting an ocean undertow with all my might or fighting bouts of hyperthermia in Nepal and malaria in West Africa. Did I mention a LAM diagnosis? Well, you get the idea. I clung stubbornly to the myth of invincibility until I experienced one too many reality smackdowns. I could deny it no more. Life is unpredictable. Mother nature is as fierce as she is gentle. I am not entitled to a life without adversity. I must be alert, aware, cautious, and safe.

At this point, the eternal struggle begins. How do we acknowledge the magnitude of potential threats without being paralyzed with fear? How do we navigate the perils of the world yet engage with the world whole-heartedly? How do we find the balance?  

Now more than ever, this is a relevant quandary. How do we live with ease in a world that is hijacked by the invisible and ever-present coronavirus? Even with vaccines now available, will we ever truly be safe again? And yes, that's hard enough for all of us, but even more of a challenge when you also have a serious lung disease.   

The truth is that fear is neither the villain nor the savior of our emotions. Fear, like every other emotion, has its place. When fear arises, our primitive survival response is alerting us to threats so that we can respond protectively. However, our alert system is not always perfectly attuned. Fear exists on a continuum, and at times our systems overreact, like a house alarm system that goes off when it is thundering or when a big truck drives by. And if we stay in fear too long, it breaks us down emotionally and physically. At the same time, we don't want to be under-reactive or careless. It isn't easy to find the sweet spot of balance.  

In my ongoing quest to find that elusive middle ground, I have enlisted a handful of strategies that have been helpful.  I am hopeful that you might find these useful as well.

1. Believing whole-heartedly in science and trusting the expertise of our public health professionals.

Number one for me is remembering that I believe whole-heartedly in science and therefore trust the expertise of our public health professionals. I have confidence in their guidelines, and I can claim control over my choices to follow them regardless of what others choose to do. It is empowering to know that I can navigate the world safely as opposed to feeling like a prisoner in my own home.  

It has been helpful to write out a COVID Credo that specifies science-based guidelines that I am choosing to follow. I have even rehearsed sharing it, so that I am on solid ground if feeling challenged. At this point, that has included becoming informed about vaccines, standing steadfastly in my decision, and continuing to follow the recommendations of researchers, my own doctor, and The LAM Foundation.

(Lately, I am also holding awareness that hope is on the horizon with several proven vaccines being distributed.)

2. Reminding myself that this will pass. 

I imagine a proud future version of myself who is on the other side of the pandemic and who is healthy and liberated and thriving. This future self is proud that I made good choices. If my future self could write a note of encouragement to my present self, I think about what encouraging words she would share.

3. Building in intentional connection-time in ways that feel safe to me. 

I am using technology more than ever to connect with friends and family and have some regular social times protected in my calendar. Support from my fellow Lammies (you fabulous ladies know who you are) has been invaluable. 

4. Committing to doing activities that are life-affirming and/or restorative. 

For me, this means time in nature. It means enjoying music, playing with my dog, and looking up stories on the Good News Network. This is time for tapping into faith or spirituality and into creativity, playfulness, and humor. It is also the time for positive anticipation of what will soon be possible.

5. Making efforts not to feed the fear. 

For each of us there is a fine balance between being informed and being inundated with news.  I have put myself on a media diet, which I adjust depending on my internal emotional temperature check. 

I also pay attention to what I am focusing on from moment to moment. Fear can be powerfully contagious and social media can be a black hole of negativity, so it is important for me to resist these temptations. 

6. Finding ways to move my body.

I also am aware that I hold stress in my body.  Finding ways to move my body and to physically release tension have been a central part of my wellness.

7. Embracing mindfulness.

Mindfulness is almost an over-utilized concept right now, but it is helpful for me to challenge myself to stay in the moment. I take sensory walks, for example, during which I attune to each sense one at a time.

I try to tame my monkey mind that often runs backwards to regrets or forwards into worries when left unchecked. I try to find things to appreciate about the now and things to be hopeful about in the near future. Sometimes the monkey mind wins, but when I succeed with redirection, I always feel better. 

I am sure that all of us have long ago accepted that we are far from invincible. And perhaps we have also discovered that true strength comes from acknowledging our fears and being able to tolerate them and to make meaning of them. Perhaps true strength is being able to respond to our fears in healthy and empowered ways that not only allow us to survive, but also to thrive. It is an uneven and challenging journey, but one we are all on together—one step at a time. 

 

About Sharon Young: Sharon is a clinical psychologist and small business co-owner of a community wellness center.  She can often be found in the beautiful Blue Ridge Mountains with her husband Peter and trusty canine companion, Scout.



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