A few days ago, after nearly jumping out of my skin while watching a television show in which a character reached out to touch a stranger’s hand, I wondered if I could remember exactly the last time I touched someone apart from those with whom I live. Looking back in my planner, I saw I’d gone to lunch with a friend on Friday, March 6. Five days before the WHO declared COVID-19 a pandemic, I’d hugged my friend as we parted ways, without hesitation or second thought.
Since the pandemic exploded around the world, upending life with a rapidity that’s caused pre-COVID life to feel like the distant past, much has been written about the importance of taking time to grieve the various losses associated with the pandemic. The death toll from the virus and the unemployment rate are staggering and still growing. The breadth of the pandemic’s impact on daily life is vast. We’re simultaneously coping with threats related to our own health and safety, as well as that of our loved ones, along with fears about basic economic security, which for many includes inadequate access to food and shelter. The uncertainty about how larger social structures, such as the public health system and hospitals, will hold up under the pressures exerted by the virus adds another layer to the pervasive anxiety about our current situation.
Beyond coping with these fears and losses, we’re also left to grieve the sudden and nearly total absence of normalcy in our lives, as the familiar routines and rhythms that make up the fabric of our daily lives have also undergone massive disruptions. Much of my work as a psychotherapist has been to help individuals rebuild their lives after personal upheavals. The strategies I’ve recommended in the past to help people cope with challenges — maintaining predictable routines with work or school, having frequent personal contact with friends and loved ones, and establishing connections to groups that provide a sense of larger community belonging — have not only vanished now but have themselves become additional losses for each of us to grieve.
As though all these immediate challenges aren’t enough, we’re experiencing another significant loss, both personally and collectively: the loss of our expected future. During periods when life feels predictable, we usually imagine the future as looking similar to the present. We see the future as something we can anticipate and manage, something over which we have influence. Without a second thought, we make coffee dates and movie plans and part ways with a friend after an evening together with the words, “See you soon.”
It’s only when something goes terribly wrong, when tomorrow turns out to look very, very different from today, that we’re forced to recognize that our idea of “the future” has been created entirely in our minds. When the worst happens, our sense of safety and security, having been invested in this wholly imagined future, is shattered. Anyone who’s lost a loved one in tragic and unforeseen circumstances is familiar with this experience. In my work helping people heal after experiencing a catastrophic loss, part of the recovery process involves learning how to grieve for the loss of the future they’d imagined for themselves — and afterwards, learning how to live with the knowledge that the future is always unknown, often unpredictable, and to a large degree outside our control.
This is precisely what each of us now has to do, as we move into the next phase of the pandemic, into the aftermath of losing our visions for what the future held for us, as individuals, communities, a country, the world. Because we’re coping with multiple losses with limited access to our usual emotional supports, stress and anxiety are high. We don’t know yet exactly how bad the pandemic will get. And perhaps even more importantly, we don’t know when it will end. It’s this lack of knowing which, from a psychological perspective, makes our current stress and anxiety even more difficult to bear.
There’s very little that we as individuals can do about the crisis. Our bodies are hardwired for action in response to a crisis, and staying home, socially distanced, can feel too much like doing nothing. This can further exacerbate feelings of anxiety and stress.
In the coming weeks, as the pandemic continues to evolve, I hope to share information about the psychological impact of the pandemic and to offer some strategies for finding relief and comfort during this crisis.
To close, I’d like to share one of my preferred tools for situations that feel out of control, when we’re most likely to feel powerless. It’s a meditation practice that Buddhists call metta. It’s also commonly called loving-kindness or compassion meditation. The version I’ve included below has been adapted from the book The Mindful Path to Self-Compassion by Christopher Germer. It’s simple and you can do it in five minutes. Once you’ve learned the phrases, you can say them throughout the day, as you go about normal routines, whenever you notice yourself feeling stressed or worried.
When you’re beginning this practice, it can be helpful to find a quiet place to sit, where you can focus on yourself for a few minutes. Begin by taking a few slow, deep breaths. If it feels helpful, you can do this practice with your eyes closed.
Now, repeat the following phrases slowly, while you continue to breathe:
May I be safe.
May I be happy.
May I be healthy.
May I live with ease.
Continue to repeat these phrases for several minutes. If you’d like, you can then turn your focus to another person, someone you’re particularly concerned about. And then repeat the phrases while you focus on them:
May you be safe.
May you be happy.
May you be healthy.
May you live with ease.
One way to end this practice which I think feels especially helpful right now is to expand your awareness to a broader group. I like to envision the entire world, but you can also focus your practice on a community that’s important to you while you say:
May we all be safe.
May we all be happy.
May we all be healthy.
May we all live with ease.
Until next time, may you be safe, may you be happy, may you be healthy, may we all live with ease.
Angela Amias is a psychotherapist in private practice in Iowa City. Her work integrates mindfulness and the creative arts as tools to help individuals live with purpose and meaning. Angela is also a mixed media artist and co-creator of the Faces of the Divine Feminine Oracle. You can learn more about her at angelaamias.com.
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