Since the pandemic started, an interesting thing has happened: my clients keep asking me how I'm doing. In my decade as a therapist, this question has popped up occasionally, but now it's almost universal—a recurring topic across dozens of virtual therapy sessions.
Normally, I wouldn't encourage the conversation to stay on me for long, but the coronavirus situation isn't normal. Something unprecedented is happening.
We are collectively experiencing the same source of trauma and stress: COVID-19.
This common trauma means all our nervous systems are activating in response. We face the physical threat of a global pandemic and the emotional threat of extreme societal change we have no control over. Our fight-flight system is on. We're in a heightened state, and we're more on guard than normal.
So, when my clients are asking in unison, "How are you doing?" I think it's because they want to hear their therapist is not reacting from the fight-flight system. They need to feel reassured that I can respond appropriately to their needs and trust that I have their best interests at heart.
This idea is applicable to any practice of supporting others’ well-being. We, as practitioners, can only offer the best care if we stay grounded and calm in the midst of this pandemic.
If we make decisions about how we're conducting our practice as a reaction to our own emotions, it will affect how we work with our clients. Our focus will be on our own fear rather than our clients' experience. Fear is dominating, and it demands our attention.
How do we stay calm and present?
This shared experience presents a challenge for all of us, but the good news is there are a few foundational self-care practices that can help calm our nervous systems. We just need to give ourselves a little self-compassion, gratitude, and a healthy routine.
Start with self-compassion.
We all need connection and care within ourselves. If we're stuck beating ourselves up over the choices we're making, we'll probably be spinning, wanting to change those choices but not knowing how.
If we instead shift our internal language to kindness and compassion, we allow ourselves a moment to be in the present and notice what we're actually experiencing. This state of mindfulness gives us the information we need to take care of ourselves in the best possible way.
What might this sound like?
- Without self-compassion: "Oh, I am so stupid for making that mistake."
This statement will ensure we won't try to understand how or why we messed up because it only reminds us we're "stupid."
- With self-compassion: "Oh my goodness, it really sucks I made that mistake. What's going on with me that I didn't catch that? Oh, right… I'm stressed. It's okay. I'll figure it out. I just need to take a break."
By being compassionate with ourselves, we give our minds a chance to evaluate the mistake and find a healthy path forward.
Self-compassion helps our system remain calm and in the present, which allows us to respond—not react—to situations around us. We give ourselves space to do the research we need to do or talk to the people we trust, or simply enjoy a deep breath before we take our next step in the day.
Pausing to deliberately focus on gratitude is not a denial or avoidance of our difficulties. It's balancing the negativity in our minds. We often find it easier to dwell on the negative, leaving little room for positive thoughts to co-exist. In reality, though, it's the weight we give to each emotion that determines which is stronger.
So, go ahead and give it a try. What are three things you're grateful for today? Are you glad to see the sun shining? Did you eat a meal you really enjoyed? Are you proud to help your family by shopping for them?
When we're already recognizing the day's challenges, thinking of even simple things we can be grateful for allows us to move back and forth more easily between emotions, rather than feeling stuck in one. This helps our nervous system avoid extremes, bringing it back to a sense of calm and groundedness.
Create a healthy routine.
Developing a routine that fits your life is crucial for feeling grounded and safe. Routines help us connect to the external part of our lives and find a focus of control amid a strong sense of helplessness (you know, like when we're facing a global pandemic).
By creating a foundation of stability in our daily lives, routines help us shift how we're holding other circumstances around us. Either we hold ourselves in fear, or we hold the knowledge that although we will experience moments of fear, we can also experience calm. Can we control the length of this crisis? No. But, can we make choices that reflect our desire for health and safety for ourselves and our communities? Yes.
Think of a routine as self-care—a response to your needs. Are you getting enough downtime? Do you need to make sure you're eating throughout the day? Drinking water? Going for walks? Or even having a daily morning coffee or smoothie?
Like gratitude, routine helps us to be present and calm, not focused on the future unknown. We can acknowledge the unknown without getting stuck in the fear and worry.
One final thought
These are beginner, but foundational, ways we can get through this shared trauma and continue providing the best possible care for the people relying on us. If we stay committed to tending our own needs, we'll be better prepared to help others.
I wish us all the courage to be vulnerable enough to breathe and notice our bodies, and I hope we find the strength to embrace the belief that we are deserving of self-compassion.
When my clients ask, "How are you doing?" I can genuinely answer, "I am present and calm. I still have stressful, intense, and tired moments and days, and I'm responding to these circumstances from a place of gratitude."