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You Can’t Control the Coronavirus  

But you can control how you respond to it.

 Juraj Varga/Pixabay
Source: Juraj Varga/Pixabay

This post was written by Leslie Schweitzer Miller, M.D.

COVID-19 has played havoc with the mental and emotional stability of many of us. Some people feel helpless and out of control, while others may respond with anxiety, fear, or anger. You’re not alone if you’ve been struggling with those feelings; this invisible threat, which is depriving us of life as we knew it, is taking a toll.

A Response to Feeling Out of Control Colored by the Past

With normal existence so disrupted, it’s impossible to deny how much is outside of our control. That reality makes some people want to want to run away, while others may be frozen with helplessness, denial, or use humor to cope. Everyone responds to this situation in their own characteristic way. Psychoanalysts recognize that memories, both conscious and/or forgotten, can color and magnify our current distress, making it difficult to separate present-day reactions from ways we handled crises in the past.

Lucille is the attentive and loving mother of three school-age children. After several weeks of quarantining with them and her husband, she had a dream.

Invaders were trying to break into the house and planned to kidnap her children. No matter how many locks she installed on the windows and doors, she couldn’t keep the evildoers out. It was terrifying and brought her to tears in the retelling.

Lucille realized the dream was about the virus. But it also reminded her of how helpless she felt as a child when her parents divorced. Life had changed abruptly with her father’s departure. As an only child, she had become the one her mother depended on—a role that overwhelmed her.

The coronavirus quarantine revived those feelings and led to memories of her longing to walk out on her mother. She had wanted to get away from the constant sadness and complaining. Now it was her children who were unhappy and grumpy, wishing for their old lives and friends, and depending on her to make up for all they missed.

Though she loves them very much, Lucille was relieved to acknowledge how hard it is to be responsible for keeping them entertained and trying to cheer them up. She had to admit there were many days she wished she could walk out the door and let the children become someone else’s problem. She felt better when she accepted her feelings.

Controlling Others as a Response to Feeling Out of Control

As mentioned above, there are a variety of ways to respond to feeling helpless and out of control. Instead of becoming anxious, some become rebellious. Others may be angry and irritable when they’ve lost control of their lives and their ability to make plans. To counter this loss of control, they try to control those around them instead. Psychoanalysts call this phenomenon displacement.

Mr. Q, an involved dad who writes at home, always spent a lot of time with his 10-year-old son. When his wife’s office closed, and they began their quarantine, he did the grocery shopping and took over the housekeeper’s jobs, which allowed his wife to focus on working remotely. After three months, Ms. Q., who was used to being in a busy office environment, announced she couldn’t take the isolation anymore and wanted to spend August at a family resort.

He objected, saying it would be impossible to socially distance no matter what safety measures were in place. She responded he had no right to make that decision, and she was making a reservation. In this standoff, their overwhelming need to control the other was intensified by feeling their lives were out of control.

Mr. Q regretted getting into this power struggle. After talking it over during his session, he realized it would have been more productive to acknowledge his wife’s frustrations and explain his own fears; nothing he could do would keep his son safe and fully protected. His own father had never put him first or protected him from hurt, and he was proud of being a better father.

All these factors strained the couple’s relationship and ability to make decisions together. After cooling down, they were able to talk about the issues and the reality of the risks. Ultimately, they agreed to continue with the quarantine, even before the family resort announced it was canceling all visits.

Helpful Strategies

  • Remind yourself that you are not the helpless child you once were. Most decisions are still in your control.
  • Identify the typical ways you tend to respond to feeling helpless or fearful.
  • Acknowledge and accept your feelings, whatever they are.
  • Know that there are no wrong feelings.
  • Empower yourself by staying informed on current scientific information.
  • Focus on the aspects of your life you can control.
  • Get out when you can—take walks, ride a bike, wave at other human beings.
  • When in doubt, talk to your family, a therapist, or some levelheaded friends, and don’t be alarmed if you wish you could run away (or wish your children would do so).
  • Try keeping a journal, even if to just write a few sentences about your frustrations.
  • Leave some time to sit quietly, meditate, or just sing your favorite song.
  • Find soothing ways to pamper yourself when you can.
  • Listen to music or find time to read something enjoyable.
  • Dismiss that punitive voice in your head. These are not normal times, so be lenient with yourself for giving the kids extra screen time or watching too many movies.

No one likes feeling that every plan and decision has to take the virus into account, but it’s foolhardy to disavow that reality. The entire world is in the grips of coronavirus. We can’t ignore it or control it, or our family members, the politicians, or anyone else. However, we can control how we respond to the threat by protecting ourselves as best we can, accepting our feelings and fears, and recognizing when the past superimposes itself on the present.

About the author: Leslie Schweitzer Miller, M.D., is a psychiatrist and psychoanalyst in private practice in New York City since 1985. She is a graduate of the Mount Sinai School of Medicine, where she completed a residency in Pediatrics. In addition, she completed a residency in psychiatry at Beth Israel Hospital in New York.

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