When coping with COVID fails

Andrea has been on top of this virus situation better than almost everyone.  She is keeping her physical distance, engaging in hobbies, developing new ones, working remotely, staying in touch with friends – again remotely – exercising, and eating well.  Yet in session and at her job the cracks are beginning to show.  One of the issues that brought her to treatment was a tendency to react with great timidity, inner rage, and feelings of being picked on when dealing with coworkers and superiors.  This could be very destructive as she works as high level support for even higher level business people; a large part of her job is dealing with difficult, stressed, and at times unreasonably demanding bosses.  If she reacts in kind she could of course lose her position.  For the first time in a while she found herself quick to react with her old defensiveness, going into the state of seething anger that used to be more of a constant in her life.  As result of this tension, Andrea’s initial good adjustment to the stress of the COVID virus has begun to falter; she found herself forgetting to eat, snapping at bosses over email/text although fortunately stopping herself before hitting “send”.  Even when one superior was actually commiserating with her, in a collegial, way, she reflexively experienced it as accusation, almost snapped back in anger.

Brandon has been dealing with some elderly relatives for many years.  These are the people he grew up with, he knows them well, their neediness and how they “guilt me”.  He has usually not fallen into the trap of believing he can and must fix everything for them.  Yet as the COVID story has developed, he’s become alternately hopeless and enraged with them.  From the outside, we can see he’s dumping – blaming – his own very understandable COVID-related feelings of anxiety and helplessness on his family who are just doing what they always do; we can see he’s falling back into old ways of reacting – feeling pressured and guilty, and expressing these in irritation – rather than face the unwieldy existential worries we all now struggle with.  He couldn’t see it, couldn’t see how self-destructive and unnecessary his reactions had become, until in session he got the whole story out.  Some of these relatives are complaining to him about their breathing problems, pains, fears about the virus, yet they continue to meet each other and with friends in person.  Brandon knows better than any of us how unlikely it is that anything he says to his relatives will change their behavior; as to their worries over their symptoms, he’s not a physician so even if they were listening he can’t contribute much on that topic.  He knows all this, but seemed to have forgotten it, and he was raging with that same boiling anger we all have when someone – as he put it at the end of the session – “makes me feel useless and invisible; they’re looking at me, nodding as I talk, but if I suddenly disappeared or turned into a gorilla they wouldn’t blink”.  In the heat of the virus stresses he forgot it all and like Andrea got caught up in the old script from when he was much younger, much less aware, and much more helpless.

I’m hearing from some people that their online meet ups, virtual cocktail parties and such, are beginning to feel empty, flat.  They say the idea initially seemed good, but now the meetings are leaving some feeling vaguely frustrated and sad, sometimes lonelier than before; like Andrea, some people report becoming (or seeing others become) slightly paranoid, prickly, defensive.  One person commented that her friends seem more superficial than before, that her boyfriend for example seems to have “pulled in; he smiles and says the right things but his attention span is cut in half; when I pay close attention I see he hasn’t really heard what I’ve said, and that’s why after our last conversation I spent the rest of the night feeling extra isolated and scared – couldn’t figure out why, I thought I was getting paranoid, like every sound in the hallway was the virus approaching”.

I am not exempt from this.  In consultation with my financial advisor, I found myself interrupting a lot, grousing impatiently that things weren’t clear to me, in short behaving, feeling, and sounding as I did when I was about 12.  (I apologized but let me do it again here:  Sorry, pal – my inner child took over!)

What’s going on?  Two things, at least, and they feed each other, making the whole situation worse.  First, everyone is more scared, stressed, uncertain.  Under such stresses, most of us become less available to others, shorter in patience and ability to sympathize as well or for as long.  As we saw in Brandon and Andrea and, yes, me, we also tend to regress, to feel and behave as we did when much younger.  Meanwhile, it’s those same bad feelings that make us needier.  So you have a kind of perfect storm.  Everyone’s a bit (or a lot) more frazzled and prickly, everyone turns with a bit (or a lot) more need for emotional sustenance to others who are themselves less available to give that sustenance.

Second, many of us aren’t admitting that this is happening, inside and between us.  Brandon and Andrea, above, felt more exposed and shaky, but fell into blaming others for it.  I did the same thing.  Doing that of course drives others away which only increases our underlying sense of isolation and shakiness.  In some of the on line gatherings people may try extra hard to be cheerful and positive, even as they give lip service – often in a glib sort of way – to the difficulties of this virus situation, such as lack of control, social isolation, economic anxieties, losses, etc.  But this defense of denial, of forced gaiety, is brittle.  The efforts to avoid the bad stuff always deplete a person’s inner resources and thus their availability to actually hear from and share with others, even if on the surface they’re trying to do just that.

What’s missing is taking a moment to stop lying about what’s happening to us internally, to be real with ourselves and each other about all those unattractive, unflattering, uncomfortable, unwieldy feelings that come with this new normal.  When you take that time, you’ll notice that although COVID is new, the feelings being triggered are not.  Quite the contrary, they pepper most of our lives:  Loss, fear, lack of control, feeling unsupported or worse, anxiety over the unpredictable, loneliness, …  But we humans, particularly us boys, like to think we get over all that.  Let me put this more simply:  I see us feeling scared, sad, lost, shaky, and not wanting to admit it, thinking all those feelings will go away if we buckle down and focus on the next project.  Sometimes that works, but only in crisis.   Dissociation has its place – you don’t stop to explore your feelings during the battle.  But as any combat veteran will tell you, the feelings come back to bite you when you’re off the battlefield.   As survivors of childhood trauma know, all the accomplishment in the world doesn’t kill the deeper anxieties, nightmares, or depression.  The cure is to go through them.

Let me take a moment to emphasize that I’m not discussing external reality even of this very real threat to and change in all our lives; I’m talking about inner experience.  In daily reality, we have ways of handling the situation, we have brains and other inner resources to cope with external demands of it and even with the feelings of isolation, fear, lack of control, and of course loss – two wonderful people I know died of the virus last week within a 12 hour period; believe me, I felt slammed.  The problems come when we don’t acknowledge that sense of begin slammed, and especially when we don’t attend to other, deeper feelings and memories triggered by current events.  That triggering of older problems, older hangups and unprocessed experiences, is what causes the real problems if we try to ignore them, to reason them away, to skip over or push them down; that’s when we slip into old ways of feeling and acting, as we saw in the cases above (me included).

Again, because we’re all more shaky nowadays, the danger of ignored inner experience can accelerate in a vicious cycle as we move through a world which is more threatening and in which people may be less available to us.  So, like Andrea almost dumping on her superiors, like Brandon pulling away from his relatives and feeling helpless and irritated, like me dumping on my financial advisor, when we regress we tend to pass it on which adds more stress and triggers to the next person.   That is to say, the shit rolls down hill.

Andrea really is being pressured more unreasonably by her superiors, because they too are scared.  Suddenly she is getting less gratitude for her extra work, more demands that she do the impossible, more irritation when she cannot always comply.  Not noticing this simple reality because of her own blind spots, Andrea reacts by feeling self-doubt and loneliness and persecution, which she tries to avoid by blaming everyone else.

But in reality Andrea, her bosses, me, most of us can with some effort handle this crisis and whatever it brings to our particular doorstep – the stressed bosses and relatives, the changes and restrictions to our daily lives, the anxiety of getting sick, even the loss of people we know.  And there is lots of help out there to do it – websites, advice from many experts, guidelines for emotional stress and daily living, etc.  But we fail to engage our brains and coping skills when 1) we don’t let ourselves notice and acknowledge just how lost or scared we feel, and especially when 2) those feelings trigger deeper, older feelings we have tried to push away or thought we were beyond.

By the way, an important added stress here is that the restrictions on our lives are losing their novelty.  As one patient put it, “for the first week it was kind of an adventure, now it’s getting oppressive.  And scary.”  And for that first week or so this man was coping rather well; now he is beginning to show some of his old symptoms and he’s having some trouble concentrating.

So what’s to do?  First, as we all know, do all those things that our physicians and others are advising.  Take the time and effort to eat properly, get some exercise, stay in contact with others, find ways to contribute if you can, find hobbies and projects to fill your time, turn off the news after you’ve heard it, use the solitude in fact as a springboard to explore whatever you’ve not had time to before, follow a schedule, don’t spend the day unwashed and in pajamas, and so on.  But when these fail it’s time to take that moment to notice what’s happening to you inside – what fears and fantasies are lurking, what feelings, images, memories are bubbling up just outside of your awareness, and what physically is happening in your gut, chest, shoulders, breath, etc.  This is not easy for many of us.  We have deeply built into our personalities a strong tendency to avoid – to resist – awareness of difficult inner experiences.  First, as children we have to escape such overwhelming experiences because they really can flatten us.  Second, looking at our evolution you can see how resistance is adaptive.  Back when we were swinging through the trees and later living in caves, there wasn’t much room in life for self-reflection.  Stop and dwell on your inner state and you might get eaten.  We boys especially have been selected, and now socialized, to go out and solve things, not to explore unflattering, ungainly, and often very difficult to articulate inner experiences.

But that is precisely where the answer lies.  In all the cases I described above, the cure comes when we can take that step back and notice – feel, if only for a few moments – what we are going through.  If you’re having a real world problem, whether a high pressure job or the COVID-19 crisis, these can and must eased by real world solutions, the coping strategies posted all over the internet these days, most of which are very helpful.  But when those solutions don’t work then there is more going on.  Something is being triggered in you that is closer to the core of your personality, the way you’ve always been, even if you were able to avoid it until the current and very big trigger of this virus.

At that point the cure is the opposite of everything I quoted as healthy coping.  We are told what we can and should do to stay grounded in external reality, in the people around us, in family and friends and work.  But now the cure becomes noticing and exploring your inner world.  This can be very difficult to do alone; most people need a guide or if they’re lucky a friend with an exceptionally open and attentive ear.  Such ears can be hard to find in the best of times and may seem especially rare now when everyone around us has had their own lives shaken.

Jenny found herself sobbing in a recent session over the terror of “everything we love taken away.  Everything!”  As soon as she said that out loud, she could hear her overreaction to current events, that the virus is causing real loss in the world but it is not the end of everything.  Jenny’s more primitive horror is something being triggered by the virus.  The current crisis in the world is reminding Jenny – unconsciously, until we talked about it in session – of earlier much more horrific times in her life when she really was desperately helpless and violently deprived.  She grew up in a very frightening and unstable home in which eventually one of her parents was killed.  She was taken from her other parent at age 4, told by her grandparents that – I kid you not! – she shouldn’t whine, shouldn’t grieve, should get over it quickly, in fact shouldn’t even cry.   Jenny was living in a real horror where “everything” really was taken from her and at a time in her life when she had no emotional, intellectual, physical resources to fend for herself or to comfort herself.  At that age if you’re told not to cry you go along; you make yourself nuts holding it all in – what else can a four-year-old do?  You can’t stand up to the adults who give you not only your food and shelter but your sense of what’s real; a four-year-old can’t say “no, I’m in a great deal of emotional pain, caused by real losses; I must grieve”.  She can’t even think such a thought, and certainly cannot tolerate such despair without some emotional support.  No, you turn yourself inside out trying to comply.  Think of the kid in “Good Will Hunting”.  Physically abused casually and intensely by his father, the young man years later can only feel his disgust and rage.  The rest of his childhood experiences and reactions to them he shuts down.  It’s all that other ignored pain that constricts his life.  While he denies feeling much besides anger and disgust, we of course can see that is depressed, discouraged, hopeless, and quite timid under his bluster, living a very constricted life despite his many talents and opportunities.  It is only when he is able to remember and feel the horror of those days, which he does in the climactic scene in the movie, that he can come out of his depression and disgust, can begin to avail himself of all that life has to offer him – genius level intelligence that will take him far in whatever field he chooses, a pretty and sympathetic Harvard pre-medical student who loves him.

Like the fictional Will Hunting, Jenny recovered when she remembered the old and real horror that was behind her current despair about the COVID-19 virus taking away “everything we love”.  Once she became aware that “Oh that’s what’s been hurting”, she could much more easily handle the virus situation.  Her adult self kicked back in with an attitude of “I got this”.   This is the pattern in a lot of sessions I’ve had lately.  If a person can chase down whatever is making them feel helpless, shaky, scared, the virus situation resumes being a real world adjustment problem with real world solutions, even if the “solution” is sometimes facing “I don’t know yet” or “that person is gone and that hurts”.

Again this process is not an easy one, although it tends to sound that way in print or as depicted in movies like “Good Will Hunting”, because everything in our DNA seems to make us resist it.  As another patient put it to me “it’s not the virus that hurts; it’s much worse.  It’s like some terrible horror movie.  It’s so bad that you can’t feel it for long, you cry and cry and then it goes away really fast, can’t even remember it”.  That resistance to staying with an uncomfortable feeling is why it’s often very hard to do alone.  There are some who perhaps can, certainly there are artists with access to these inner experiences who then produce wonderful expressions of it – paintings, songs, symphonies, poetry, acting moments.  And of course there are some lucky people for whom a virtual cocktail party is enough to feel grounded again.  But for the rest of us…

So take that moment.  Breathe, sit, pace, but however you do it quiet yourself enough to ask that simple but oh so slippery question “what just happened to me?”  You may feel a welling up of physical discomfort – your stomach dropping, your throat or chest tightening, etc.  That’s your limbic system, your instincts honed over the millennia telling you to dissociate, to flee those feelings and get back to “work”.   It’s also your childhood brain (again limbic) protecting you because a child can’t cope with such intense feeling.  But that was then.  Whatever’s coming up won’t crush you now, even though it may seem like it will.  And you’ll feel better if you go through it.  So instead of any distracting or agitation, breathe into that discomfort.  Counterintuitive but it works.  (Any of you who ski may resonate with this analogy:  When you first learn to ski a steep trail, you have to struggle to lean down the mountain as you make your turns.  Every strand of DNA in your bones says “pull up! Pull up and away from the fall!”  But if you do that, the skis go out from under you, you’re out of control, and soon you fall.  If you lean down the mountain as you turn, contrary to all your instincts you go slower.)

If you can, find people you talk to about such things, because again it’s hard to do this breathing into the pain by one’s self.  Nurture any friendships that provide a place for this.  And if you can get out and do it in person in these scary times that is usually more powerful.  You might incorporate some of the procedures 12 Step groups use to forestall the many slippery ways we have of avoiding productive self-exploration and self-expression.  For example, no-one answers for 30 seconds after someone shares so that everyone especially the speaker can digest what’s been said.  Such quick answering can have the effect similar to what I said above about shit rolling downhill:  The responder may be reflexively pushing out – unconsciously – his/her own uncomfortable but necessary feelings.  The responder thereby shuts down exactly the processing, the healing we gathered to encourage, in the speaker and the responder and anyone else in the room.  This is sometimes stated as a rule about “crosstalk”:  No commenting on what the speaker said, no advising, restating, or other intrusions into the speaker’s struggle to identify, articulate, and process whatever is disrupting their functioning and inner world.

When COVID-19 first came into our lives, as with any crisis, there was of course a time for dissociation, for pushing away one’s feelings to take care of business.   Decisions had to be made, new routines established.  But after you’ve washed your hands, put away the supplies, disinfected surfaces, and everything else you can do to control the situation, if you don’t come back to that basic question of “what’s happening to me”, you risk becoming a victim of your personality quirks, your hangups.  Catching the inner demons triggered by COVID, putting them into words, sharing them with someone else, these have left everyone I described above calmer and saner.

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One Response to When coping with COVID fails

  1. Thad Versage says:

    Thanks for the marvelous posting! I will be sure to bookmark your blog.

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