When Life Gives You a Pandemic

In the span of a few months, a microscopic organism has changed all our lives. Either directly or indirectly, everyone on earth has been somehow affected by the virus. As scientists, doctors, and world leaders attempt to mitigate the crisis, what are the rest of us to do in the meantime?

There is no guidebook for what to do in a time like this. But many of us, including myself, have struggled with feelings of anxiety, depression, loneliness, powerlessness, meaninglessness, fear, anger, desperation, and overwhelm in the past. Because of this, we have some great tools at our disposal. I don’t have it all figured out. No one does. But I have found these things to help me significantly during this quarantine period. They are a combination of things I’ve learned in counseling, things I’ve figured out from my own experience, and this fantastic video by Matthew Hussey. I hope it helps you too!

Don’t bury your negative emotions

Life is more than just positivity, sunshine and rainbows. I used to be in denial of this. I used to avoid pain at all costs. It took me years to embrace that fact that life is comprised of a full range of experiences – and they aren’t all happy. The first step I’d like to talk about is allowing yourself to feel those emotions. All of them.

This might mean letting yourself cry. It might mean going on a somber walk on your own. It might mean having an all-out breakdown in front of your family. If you’re not used to showing emotion, this will be hard. But I want to have an emotion-positive family. I want my kids to know that they can cry in front of me when they are hurt or processing something. So why do I run away and hide when I need a cry? If I truly want to build a safe environment for my kids to express their emotions, I have to be willing to start with myself. Let those tears out. Feel those feelings.

I used to think resilience was feeling happy all the time. Boy, was I wrong! Resilience isn’t happiness, resilience is the ability to adapt to life’s twists and turns. To learn to accept the good and the bad. I used to run from my feelings, but now I do my best to lean into them.

Feelings are meant to be felt. Only when we allow ourselves to feel can we process and move through the stages of grief. Yes, I said grief. That discomfort you’re feeling is grief. You may not have lost anyone dear to you, but that doesn’t mean you aren’t grieving. You may need to grieve the loss of your summer plans. You may need to grieve the loss of control. You may need to grieve the pain the world is feeling – the weight of the situation.

In his book Finding Meaning, David Kessler suggests that there are actually six stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance, and meaning. We can’t just skip the stages that hurt, and get straight to the acceptance and meaning. We have to go through all the steps. So opening up ourselves to the reality of emotions and grief is how to get to the next step and move on.

Surrender to what you cannot control

William Hussey points out that surrender isn’t the same as defeat. It’s simply acceptance. In this coronavirus situation, there are countless things that are beyond our control. It can be frightening for those of us who are used to feeling a sense of control over our lives. We may not be able to change the outcome of the situation, but we do have the ability to change our attitude toward it.

We have a choice: to have an attitude of acceptance or an attitude of kicking and screaming like a toddler who doesn’t get their way. The outcome is the same, but our attitude makes all the difference in the world. Rather than wear ourselves out with clenched fists, we can accept, adapt and learn to move on.

It’s truly empowering to let go of what we can’t control and focus our efforts on what we can. And it saves us all that wasted energy. It allows us to make the biggest difference. We can’t control how the world’s leaders respond, but we can control how our family responds. We can’t control whether or not we get sick, but we can wash our hands and avoid unnecessary trips out. We can’t give our neighbor their job back, but we can leave a gift card on their porch. We probably won’t be the ones to discover a treatment for the virus, but we can pray for those on the front lines. Focus on what is within your control. Let go of what is not. 

Don’t live for the day when this ends

Yeah, it’s hard, but the sooner we accept that this is a marathon and not a sprint, the better. Don’t live for the day when this ends. As much as you can, live in the moment. If you’re counting down the days and waiting for things to go back to the way they were, you are setting yourself up for disappointment. Quarantine dates keep getting moved around. No one really knows what the future looks like. There may very well be multiple waves of “curves to flatten.” I’m actually not a pessimist, but I’ve found it helpful to brace myself for the worst in this situation. The old mantra “Prepare for the worst, hope for the best” keeps me grounded, yet hopeful.

Rather than wishing for things to be “normal” again, now is the time to embrace a new normal. Rather than living for this to end, try your best to be present today. Wherever you are at, be there. Be present with your spouse, your roommates, your kids, yourself.

Check in with yourself. Ask yourself how you are feeling. Take up journaling. It doesn’t have to be a lot – just a few sentences at a time. If you feel yourself getting overwhelmed and starting to spiral, take a step back. Check in. You may not know what the future holds, but in this moment, are you okay? Do you have food for the day? Do you have clothing? Do you have a roof over your head? Are you healthy? Bring yourself back to the present and what is right in front of you.

Try to avoid the pattern of thinking that says: “I’ll be happy when ________.” I did this often in early adulthood. First it was, “I’ll be happy when I have a boyfriend.” Then, “I’ll be happy when I’m married.” Then, “I’ll be happy when we get pregnant.” Basically, I wasn’t living in the moment, I was always waiting for the next thing. The thing that I thought would “fix” everything. Newsflash – while all of those things were awesome, they didn’t fix everything. There was always another desire that came along.

So don’t go through this period telling yourself “I’ll be SO happy when this is all over and things are normal again.” Because not only is that setting yourself up for disappointment, it’s also failing to live in the here and now.

Remember that your pain is not wasted

If you’ve ever trained for a race or given birth naturally, maybe you’ve experienced the feeling of “productive pain.” It’s recognizing that not all pain is bad. That while it hurts, it isn’t wasted. It is moving you closer to your goal. 

In times like these, it’s helpful to “make friends with our pain” as Matthew Hussey describes it. Rather than thinking of all pain as a foreign invader in our lives, he says we’re better off to treat it as an old friend. To embrace it for what it is – part of what makes us human.

Some people are handing this crisis more easily because they already know how to suffer well. Those with chronic pain or severe disabilities have already had to adopt a kind of resilience that the rest of us haven’t yet tapped into.

We are all capable of so much more than we think we are. But for some of us, this is the first tough, marathon-length trial we’ve had to endure. We haven’t trained for this moment, so we need to give ourselves grace as we learn from it.

But we will adapt. Rather than fooling ourselves into thinking that we somehow “deserve” a life without pain or suffering, we could benefit from embracing it. Embracing it as training for the next tough thing. And the next one.

Personally, I’ve found that my postpartum experience has helped prepare me for quarantine. As hard and emotional as that time was, (the lack of sleep didn’t help) that time was not wasted. It was a season. I grew and I made it to the other side. Both of my kiddos are older now and they are more amazing than ever. I’m no longer depressed. I’ve learned how to deal with those negative emotions for the most part. I learned lessons during that season that are helping me now. 

Remember that your pain is valid. But your pain is not wasted.

Have compassion for yourself

Lastly, just remember to have compassion for yourself. I find it’s so much easier to give compassion to other people than to myself.

This does not have to be the greatest time of your life. You don’t have to be “productive” to be loved. You are enough. Even if you’re doing nothing at all. 

This doesn’t mean that we have to let ourselves spiral downward into helplessness, but it does mean we have to be gentle with ourselves. Lower our expectations. Make peace with the fact that this might not be our finest hour, but we will get through it. (Even if there’s a lot of TV and cookie dough involved!)

Each day, I try to do a couple little things for myself. Nothing huge. Things like making myself coffee before I do any other chores. Things like having a skincare routine that feels luxurious. Things like reading my Bible in the morning before I check the news. These small things add up to make a big difference.

So there you have it. Resilience in hard times isn’t about denying our feelings. It isn’t about simply avoiding difficulty. The secrets to becoming a resilient person are to accept, to adapt, and to chase after the good – the deeper meaning behind the trails we face. To trust that our pain is actually making us stronger and that good will prevail.

(If you’d like to learn more about resilience here is a great TED Talk about it.)

What about you? I’d love to know what practices and habits have helped you the most in this unusual time. We will adapt. We will get through this. Thanks for reading, friends!

Photography by Jonathan Cooper

One Comment

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  1. True with any hardship that changing your attitude is within your reach. I’ve been feeling ALOT of anger. I’m trying to look at each day as a special one & live each moment rather than look ahead.

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