Bearing Our Souls: A Crash Course in Soothing the Overwhelming Emotions of a Pandemic – PART 1 – Stories Matter
To listen to an audio reading of this post, click here or go to bit.ly/SoulsPart1Audio
May we face our
in the wilderness and the world,
the forces that drive us,
so that they do not always drive
— Pádraig Ó Tuama
On a Thursday evening about four weeks ago, I said goodnight to my last therapy client of the week, closed the door behind her, and turned off my waiting room lamps. The following Sunday afternoon I sat with my family at one of our favorite restaurants, raising a glass of bold red wine over a platter of wood-grilled steak in celebration of my son’s birthday.
By Monday, the dining room of that restaurant was ordered closed until further notice due to social distancing. I spent the following days startled and breathless, helping my therapy clients transition to video sessions and setting up Zoom meetings with my training and consultation groups.
None of us average humans saw this coming. Nothing prepared us for the abrupt shift from a society of plenty within a robust economy where we took our daily social interactions for granted, to the communal throb of fear, uncertainty, and aching social separation that reverberates within every household today.
The moment my eyes opened in the dark that Tuesday morning, awareness of the wrongness of the world announced itself in the pit of my stomach. My emotions began a then-unfamiliar (but now all-too-familiar) careening about.
My heart pounded; my mouth was dry. I pulled the covers over my head, grabbed my husband and squeezed him, refused to get up. Finally I forced myself out of bed and crept downstairs to drink my morning coffee with trembling hands. I stared numbly at my blank journal pages, scribbled until feeling returned. I wrote about all the people I care about who were now unreachable to me, and sobs poured out of my throat. After snot-crying for several minutes, I closed the journal, blew my nose.
A sudden surge of trauma-survival-learned strength electrified my limbs. Determination buoyed me through my day, energizing me to offer clear-eyed care to my clients and the other therapists I teach and support.
After the final video session that evening I closed my computer and my body went slack once again, just as another wave of sobs poured through me. This time my sobs were of relief and gratitude—relief that my work allowed me to connect with and support these people who were so important to me; gratitude that I had the mettle to do it. I almost fell asleep during dinner.
Pretty much every workday since has looked like that.
Emotions. Every last one of us is full of ‘em in the midst of this craziness.
I’ve read the well-intended and not-un-useful mental health articles about managing the anxiety that’s running rampant through our veins as we face unprecedented pandemic lockdowns and social distancing.
They all say the things that kinda sorta help—mindfulness, exercise, staying connected, controlling what you can, gratitude practice. A couple of them have even said some pretty solid things about the grief that emerges in the wake of the precious things we’ve lost in all this craziness. Some reassure that “being productive” during a pandemic is not a requirement.
But none of these articles address the bedrock, existential emotions that generate the anxiety and/or sluggishness. They offer advice for distracting from or allowing feelings, but not understanding, expressing, and soothing the feelings. And they only address the top layer of (very important) things we’re grieving.
In my personal and professional experience, if you don’t name and soothe what you’re really feeling, all the tools are simply band-aids. Don’t get me wrong, we all need band-aids when we’re bleeding. But we also need help to see the wounds clearly, so we can accurately tend to them and help them heal.
Sure, turning toward painful emotions is counterintuitive. I learned that when I lived through a sudden, devastating loss almost 30 years ago. Allowing myself to dive into the pain of my grief was terrifying. Yet I also learned that the only thing that truly helps with intense emotions that knock you to the ground when life smacks you with something as painful and startlingly unexpected as having your entire way of life yanked out from under you, is having help to understand, soothe, manage the flow of, and work with the emotions that flow through you, even as everything in you wants to resist those painful emotions.
That’s why the entire time I’ve been riding the bucking bronco of pandemic emotions, I’ve been composing a more complete and accurate article in my head.
Because of my own experience with wracking grief, the core of the work I do is helping people get to the root of and work with grief and other intense emotions. I’ve gathered solid information about how intense emotions work in your brain, body, and soul, to help you discern which tools will effectively calm your agitated mind, soothe your aching soul, and inform actions that feel right to you. And to help you understand why different tools will work for you, or not.
In the midst of all the uncertainty and fear that surrounds the coronavirus crisis we’re living through together, we have a f***ing opportunity to learn about and care for our deep, true, soulful selves.
If we can bear to befriend and tend our deepest vulnerability, we can discover our courage, our strength, and our connections with others that cannot be severed.
We’re gonna need all the strength and courage we can get as we make it through the pandemic itself, and its aftermath.
So I’m here with a series of articles that will comprise a complete crash course for understanding and soothing your overwhelming emotions. Please join me here in Part 1 of the series.
Bearing Our Souls, Part 1: Stories Matter
Demystifying people’s behavior helps to regulate it. — Stephen Porges
We live in a culture that spews praise for resilience and advice for fixing anything that hurts.
In only three weeks since shelter-in-place orders arrived, some of my clients whose bodies tell them they need to slow down, pull in, and rest, feel ashamed because they can’t seem to follow the media’s tips for using their at-home “down-time” to be productive.
Others feel like there’s something wrong with them because following tips for mindfulness practices and gratitude lists that are intended to “inoculate them from anxiety,” inevitably fall short and their fears break through into the open again.
Still others feel ashamed because they feel okay and want to sew masks and clean out their drawers, and they’re afraid they must be hard-hearted because they’re not suffering enough.
Even the folks who understand that the grief that’s part of all this is normal either don’t know how to manage the grief, or feel guilty that they’re grieving “smaller” things than lost jobs or ill relatives.
That’s the problem with a society that doesn’t deal with existential pain:
We’re implicitly fed the idea that there’s a right way and a wrong way to make it through a crisis. And we’re given tools for distracting from hard emotions (since they must be fixed), but not given tools for understanding what the emotions are and how to help ourselves express and manage them.
These stories our culture tells us about emotions are disempowering and shaming. We’re missing accurate stories about what’s happening to us when we face difficult situations and feelings that won’t go away, stories that empower us and help us to feel soothed.
What Makes an Accurate Story?
Stephen Porges is a scientist who describes what happens in your body and nervous system when you get scared. He describes how when something traumatic happens to you (like suddenly and unexpectedly being ordered to stay at home and distance yourself from all of your social connections in order to protect yourself and your loved ones from a deadly disease), your body and your emotional self (accurately) perceive danger.
When your nervous system perceives intense danger like this, it naturally generates extreme and chaotic-feeling fight/flight and shutting-down physical and emotional reactions as protections against the danger.
That is, your body and emotions respond to your perceived dangerous circumstances first on a survival level, beyond any thought or plan. Then, because your emotional, physical, and behavioral responses may be bizarre-looking and unfamiliar, you (as a meaning-making creature) create elaborate stories to make sense of what your body and emotions are doing.
The stories you create to explain your painful emotions, body states, and behaviors are usually unconscious and unspoken. You’re unaware of the fact that you’ve made up a story to explain what’s happening to you.
The important thing to realize about these stories is that they play a crucial role in whether you become afraid of your emotions (and thus make them worse), or whether you can reflect on your emotions, and so express them, make meaning of them, and allow them to heal you.
When your reactions are unfamiliar and distressing to you (like the ones most of us are experiencing in the midst of all this), and they occur in a society that judges and denigrates long-lasting and intense fear responses, the stories you create are often self-judging: “Something’s wrong with me. I need to make this stop.” “If I were resilient, I wouldn’t be so overwhelmed.”
The media—representing a culture that’s frightened by the intensity of the collective distress—aligns with these invalidating stories, and perpetuates the fear of your (very understandable) emotions.
Dr. Porges’ theory leads to a more empowering, normalizing story:
Multiple aspects of your current pandemic situation—such as shockingly sudden social distancing from your community, fear of an illness that’s wreaking havoc around the world, suddenly having to work from home or losing a job overnight, and more—can generate overwhelming distress; enormous emotions you can’t always control; and potentially extreme physical symptoms.
These feelings and sensations are simply signals of a perception of danger.
No matter who you are or how much support you have, when your body and emotions are pelted with external and internal cues such as these that shout danger, the intense physical and emotional reactions sweeping through all of us in one way or another, naturally arise to help you survive in the newly dangerous territory.
These emotional reactions are not only “appropriate,” but are intelligent and protective under the circumstances.
Rather than self-judging, you can be self-reassuring, telling yourself the truth that, “These reactions are actually my body taking care of itself in a situation fraught with danger. I can learn to work with these feelings so that they can guide me to safety and healing.”
The other truth that comes from Dr. Porges is that though aspects of emotional responses to threat are universal, other aspects are unique to each person. Your history with big emotions, your current social environment, your current physical environment, past traumas, current grief over other losses, and more, all feed into your emotional and physical responses to today’s perception of danger.
That means comparing your own emotional response to someone else’s doesn’t make any sense at all! Your emotional and physical responses to a frightening situation are just that: YOURS.
A story like this one that normalizes, and even expresses appreciation for, your unique bodily and emotional wisdom-within-chaos offers encouragement for you to realize that even though what’s going on looks really messy, you’re in the right place. You just need support to bear the intensity.
Awaken to Your Stories to Soothe Yourself
So remember: even though the stories you tell yourself about your emotions and physical responses arise spontaneously and beyond your awareness, you can make them conscious, especially now that you know they exist. Then you can work with them.
Discovering, naming, and shifting your stories is one of the places within the current environment of uncertainty where you can have a big effect on regulating your emotions.
Remember that fear and anxiety are normal. Feeling okay and energetic is normal. Feeling more tired and sluggish than usual is normal. All of it is normal.
I acknowledge that though all of what you’re experiencing is normal, it can still be distressing, and you still need comfort. You do indeed need more information to help you deal with and manage all the big, normal feelings (or lack thereof), and that’ll be forthcoming in future articles.
In the meantime, let this be your initial self-reassuring response to your emotions:
“It’s okay that I feel this way. These are scary times. I can listen to what my body is telling me I need to do (or not do) to cope with this crazy situation. Coping is okay right now. Don’t worry whether it’s different from what my friends are doing. My body and my emotions are wise, and I will be able to learn more tools for working with myself in the midst of this difficult time.”
This story will go a long way toward creating an initial blanket of comfort around your inflamed emotions.
In Part 2 of this series, I’ll help you understand how naming what you’re feeling and naming exactly what you’re afraid of can help you to feel better.
Until then, be soft with yourself. Remember that you are a unique human being responding to your own individual life situation. What you are feeling makes sense, even if it looks and feels crazy.
Let me know how this reframing of the story of what your emotions are doing helps you to feel calmer…