Truth: I Don’t Know How to Reduce Your Pandemic Anxiety

I currently have no psychological vaccine for this one.

Posted Mar 28, 2020

Courtesy of Cathy Malchiodi, PhD
From "Pandemic Diary" by Cathy Malchiodi PhD
Source: Courtesy of Cathy Malchiodi, PhD

I have been seeing individuals with traumatic stress for over three decades. In the majority of cases, I have been fortunate to have witnessed their reparative process and eventual recovery.

But do I have any sort of reliable wisdom right now about how to navigate the psychologically distressful waters of the current pandemic? No, I do not and should not because we are in the middle of a unique set of dynamics we have never experienced in other mass traumatic events. If we have learned anything from past mass traumatic events, any recommendations we make right now are subject to very fluid revision as the deeper narratives emerge.

Most of my colleagues are naturally focused on the disruption in social connection compounded by the mandate for social distancing. It is reasonable to advise clients to find ways to remain connected to others if only for reasons of safety as well as the existing and pervasive “pandemic” of loneliness in our culture. Also, there is no question that limiting exposure to news and keeping a daily routine are key during mass traumatic events. Other colleagues are reinforcing the need to practice grounding, breathwork of various sorts, and other proven ways to reduce anxiety. Many of these standard strategies we learned over the course of studying and addressing the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, Hurricane Katrina, and mass shootings including Newtown, Connecticut, among others. We do know a lot and we have learned a lot about what relieves distress.

But this one is different and our first step in learning how to master it is to admit our lack of knowledge about just what is happening not only in our clients, but within ourselves as mental health professionals. In the innumerable statements on how to negotiate the uncertainty and distress of the COVID-19 global pandemic appearing across social media platforms, I am sensing confusion, disorientation, high levels of anxiety and even dissociative responses in my colleagues’ attempts to be of service. Their messages either manifest as compartmentalized tasks or trance-like explanations of current trauma-focused practices. I know this because I have had to hold back almost every day from reciting these concepts myself when I have the urge to try to address the emotional tsunami at hand.

Dalia Lithwick on Slate nails the fluidity of what we all are experiencing in this moment, noting that we have entered a new phase in the emotional strain of this pandemic. I know I have—I have friends struggling to stay alive in hospital ICUs. I have lost a family member in the horrors of the pandemic in Italy, a relative who died alone because of the mandatory isolation and was taken immediately to the crematorium for disposition and burial. These are gut punches repeated in ways and within a context I have never experienced before in my life. A regular Zoom date with friends or even dancing to my favorite playlist is barely managing what my brain and body are experiencing. And unlike so many other individuals, I have secure companionship, a safe place to walk in nature at my own home, and the financial resources to handle many of the stresses that come with this evolving disaster. Mine is not the real world, not by a long shot.

All this being said, I still do believe that expressive arts hold the potential to mediate at least some of what we are experiencing. I am revisiting all that I know in that regard and especially what I thought I knew within the context of these defining moments. For me, and I hope for all practitioners who work with trauma, the first step here is to take a step back on the advice and “what to do.” One principle that I know is true is this—we all must allow ourselves to be a witness to our own emotional landscape with equanimity, as distressing as that might be. In taking each moment to do this, we will learn how to get through this. It will allow the necessary wisdom to emerge that will eventually show us the path to healing ourselves and what it will take to facilitate healing in those around us.