Coping in an Ongoing Crisis
Suggestions on how to support yourself and others during hardship.
Posted Jan 23, 2021
This guest piece is written by Mary Chase Mize.
Since the early months of the year, the background of 2020 was a relentless hum of COVID-19 anxiety. For some folks, the hum is more of a low murmur; a constant reminder every time they put on a mask to enter a grocery store, or every time they open their computer to attend a virtual religious service. For some, maybe it’s more of a painful groan; a new mother going to prenatal appointments without her partner and mourning the fact that her own parents won’t be able to meet their grandchild for weeks after birth. Or maybe, for some, it’s more of a howling scream that drowns out all other sounds in the world; for the family mourning the loss of their grandmother, who died alone due to complications from COVID-19, with funeral plans on hold until it’s safe to gather.
Whether as a murmuring hum, a groan, or a howl, (or maybe a mixture of all of them), the COVID-19 pandemic is taking a toll on our well-being and mental health.
In his book The Developing Mind, Dr. Daniel Siegel describes the window of tolerance — “in which various intensities of emotional arousal can be processed without disrupting the functioning of the system” (pg. 341). Each of us has a threshold in which we can cope well with stressful and provocative experiences and emotions. When we are within our window of tolerance, it means our bodies and minds are able to have a regulated emotional response during times of stress. Not everyone has the same size window of tolerance.
Outside of the window of tolerance, we may find ourselves experiencing either hyperarousal or hypoarousal when a flood of emotions exceeds one’s ability to regulate them. Dr. Marie Dezelic provides an excellent illustration of this process here. Hyperarousal may look like a “fight or flight” response with increased anxiety, anger, rage, impulsiveness, agitation, over/undereating, or emotional outbursts. For example, a parent is adjusting to working from home, trying to manage his mother’s care in an assisted living facility, and yells at his child for not logging into his virtual class on time.
Hypoarousal may look like a “shutting down” response to the emotional flooding, with disconnection, numbness, low functioning, or dissociation. For example, a child is missing his grandmother and feeling scared, since he has overheard there were confirmed cases of COVID-19 in her building. He is disengaged and stares blankly at his computer until his dad yells at him to log into class.
Coping with life in a pandemic has flooded us with more stressors and near-constant and heightened anxiety — which may force us outside of our windows of tolerance. Primary ways of staying safe, such as physical distancing interventions and staying at home, have been especially hard on our mental health. In fact, loneliness and social isolation are harmful to both mental and physical health among older adults.
And the pandemic is not the only source of traumatic stress during this time: racial injustice, the spread of misinformation, staggering unemployment rates, health disparities, and heightened risk drug use and death by suicide are some of the compounding aspects of living in crisis.
How do we enter a new year while coping with the ongoing isolation, pain, and fear during this pandemic? How can we stay within our windows of tolerance?
I want to offer a few suggestions, including a few based on Dr. Dezelic’s recommendations for staying in the window of tolerance — but first, it is important to acknowledge critical systemic change, such as compliance with wearing masks, physical distancing, and vaccine distribution, as well as increased access to mental health services and support, that must take place to alleviate pain and suffering during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Mindfulness activities, such as grounding exercises, diaphragmatic breathing, and interventions to increase awareness of the present moment may help condition us to stay within our windows of tolerance. Even small movements, such as intentionally sitting in a chair with your feet flat on the ground, or holding a textured object and paying attention to the sensory experience, can help us become aware of our bodies and stay in the present moment, especially when we feel our minds wandering toward escalation of fear and anxiety.
As a counselor, one of my favorite activities to do with clients is box breathing — a pattern of slowly inhaling a breath, holding the breath, exhaling the breath, and holding the breath, then inhaling again. Researchers have found many benefits to mindfulness practices, such as reduced stress and rumination.
Finally, I’d like to share some recommendations of ways to support others, especially folks who may be vulnerable to social isolation and loneliness. One of the best parts of the work I do is serving as assistant director of the HOPE lab at Georgia State University. Our research is geared toward equipping others with skills to help individuals during the moments when help is most needed.
One of our primary projects is focused on reducing suicidality among older adults who receive home-based services through equipping aging network volunteers and staff with life-saving suicide intervention skills. Through this work, our team developed guidelines endorsed by the National Resource Center on Nutrition & Aging to help volunteers who work with older adults to enhance socialization during the pandemic.
Some of these guidelines, such as utilizing empathy and fostering a sense of belonging, can be applied to any interaction — not only with volunteers who work with older adults — to help someone feel more connected and less alone during times of despair and distress. In addition to increasing our own coping skills to better stay within our windows of tolerance, a phone call can go a long way in helping alleviate distress as we continue to cope with life during COVID-19.
About the Author: Mary Chase Mize, M.S., APC, NCC, is a Ph.D. candidate studying Counselor Education and Practice at Georgia State University, as well as a master’s degree in Gerontology. Mary Chase is the Assistant Director of the HOPE Lab at GSU, where she has served as co-investigator and now co-primary investigator for two ACL-funded research grant projects. She is an Applied Suicide Intervention Skills (ASIST) master trainer, and her research is focused on suicide intervention and prevention with older adults, as well as preparing counselors to work with older adults. Mary Chase is also a part-time clinician with Jewish Family & Career Services of Atlanta, where she specializes in working with individuals who have experienced loss or an ongoing personal struggle with suicide.