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Coping With a Constantly Changing COVID Finish Line

How to maintain psychological health in a time of prolonged uncertainty.

Key points

  • Not knowing how the pandemic will end can lead to one feeling a loss of control.
  • One's mind, body, and emotions send messages about what is needed in order to cope with the unknown.
  • Taking active steps to listen to one's internal messages can increase resilience in the face of the unknown.
Andrea Piacquadio/Pexels
Source: Andrea Piacquadio/Pexels

With schools and workplaces clamoring to respond to Omicron’s high transmissibility rate, it’s feeling a lot like Groundhog’s Day. We know this drill. We’ve been here before. Even still, the unknowns of it all make for a challenging reality.

When COVID hit, we started running a race toward safety. We got to work and adapted, but we had no idea that we were running a marathon (as opposed to a sprint) until we were several miles into the race itself. By that time, we were facing the effects of not knowing that we needed to pace ourselves. We were tired, had burned through our emotional resources, and had a niggling feeling that stepping aside and taking a break might be a good idea. We realized that the finish line was constantly moving and that we had little control over how the pandemic would play out (aside from our ability to become vaccinated, to wear masks, distance, etc.) We had jobs to do and children to raise, people to serve and selves to keep going, so we Just. Kept. Going.

As the finish line moves, yet again, it’s important that we step off the marathon route for a moment or two to do an assessment and make some plans regarding how we might stay healthy while feeling frazzled. Just as pain in a shin alerts the runner about impending injury, our moods and reactive behaviors are message indicators that call out a need for pause and intervention.

If you are finding yourself feeling irritable, angry, reactive, sad, manic, and/or anxious, or if you are noticing changes in the way you feel about, or care for, yourself or others, it’s likely that the following actions would be of help.

1. Set aside 10 minutes to an hour to do a mind, body, feeling scan in as much solitude as you can find. If you feel that there is no way you can take this time, it’s likely an indicator that you need it more than most. Take this seriously. Use the bathtub or shower (even fully clothed, wrapped in a blanket) if that’s the only place you can be absolutely alone. Inform everyone about your plan. Set an alarm so that you keep the commitment to yourself.

2. Do the mind, body, feeling scan. With whatever paper you can find, make columns, across the long edge of the paper, titled, “My mind is trying to tell me…” “My body is trying to tell me…” “My heart/emotions are trying to tell me…” Without editing, spend time writing down whatever comes to mind, working with one column at a time.

Regarding your mind, if you are finding yourself constantly distracted or unable to really settle in on an idea, your mind may be telling you that it has too much to process or too little time to focus. In relation to your body, if you’re feeling lethargic or find yourself agitated and fidgety, it may be that your body is trying to tell you it needs some fresh air and movement. Emotionally, if strong feelings are close to the surface or you find yourself running from them often, perhaps this is a message that you need time and/or space to actually welcome and work through your big feelings.

3. Rank order the most important messages to listen to. When everything is changing around us and we have little control, ignoring our mind, body, or heart can actually make things worse. Spend a few minutes looking over the messages that your own self is trying to communicate to you. Consider which would be the most important and/or impactful messages to tend to.

Would tending to your body by giving it more water or movement also have an impact on your ability to work through your emotions? Would finding a way to offer yourself a half-hour a day of mental stimulation and focus make you feel better emotionally and physically? Would sticking to a 10-minute brisk walk at lunchtime return your entire self to a state of regulation and/or calm? After thinking these things through, determine which place is the best to start. Your mind, body, or heart/emotions.

4. Identify three to five steps you can take to begin working on the top need and commit to taking those actions. Resist the urge to “resolve” to change your entire life or routine. Instead, think of three to five small and easily implemented options for addressing the need you’ve identified as most important.

If a lunchtime walk would have the greatest impact, a step might be to make your lunch the night before so that you can actually take the 10 minutes you need to walk. If it’s your emotions that are most in need of attention, identify 3-5 self-care/self-compassion actions that you can take with little effort. Putting a 3-minute meditation on your phone that you can access once a day, putting a sticky note on your faucet that reminds you to take deep, cleansing breaths while you wash your hands, scheduling a 5 min check-in call or text time to touch base with a friend who cares about you, or making a therapy appointment would all fit here.

5. Set an alarm to return to this process in a week and encourage others to join you in their own assessment process. It seems clear that we’ll be working with a constantly changing map and finish line as the pandemic lives on. Pushing through the unknown and ignoring the message indicators of our bodies and beings can lead to burnout and injury. The more frequently you practice this assessment, the better you’ll become at it and the more likely you will be to finish the marathon well.

More from Doreen Dodgen-Magee, Psy.D.
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