A coronavirus mental health crisis: how do we meet the moment?

How to do we meet the coronavirus mental health moments?

Sometimes (not often) it feels hard to write these blog posts. In fact, I wrote a very different post that was supposed to be published last week.

But I found myself wondering and doubting: Is this helpful? What could I possibly have to say in the midst of a global pandemic?

So I ended up putting it aside for now.

The next day I read an article about the brewing mental health crisis brought on by the pandemic.

The World Health Organization predicts it will be largely due to isolation, fear, uncertainty and economic turmoil.

Right! That snapped me back to reality. No wonder I was questioning my worth and my writing, feeling uncertain and a little queasy in the pit of my stomach. That’s what fear does to me sometimes, leading me toward the forests of depression and anxiety.

As it turns out, I’m not having a mental health crisis. Hopefully you’re not either. Still, there’s no way around the fact that this new normal is affecting our mental health.

To paraphrase Gavin Newsom, California’s governor, we’re all being asked, like it or not, to meet this mental health moment.

Lately I’ve found myself describing it in vague terms, as some sort of dark, shadowy force lurking right outside the door, scratching and sniffing to find its way in.

We’re not exactly aware of these mental health moments, but they hover in the background. They affect us.

The most ordinary things might now seem difficult: getting out of bed, going to bed on time, planning our days, taking a shower.

And the more I think about it the more I see that we are empowered by simply naming it.

Or naming it simply. Like the poet Rumi advised, let’s open the door to these mental health moments and invite them in.

Okay, I’ll go first. Right before sheltering in place kicked in I started a project that involved sorting, purging, filing and organizing a lot of papers. And those papers stayed on my dining room table for two months, spread out in all directions, because I just couldn’t get traction on them.

This mental health moment isn’t normal for me. But each time I looked at that table it felt like a great weight, unmanageable and overwhelming.

Alright, I can name that. I was meeting a moment of depression.

That’s what low grade depression does. 

You’re functioning, getting through the day but it’s an effort and there’s less satisfaction, less enthusiasm than usual woven in with more ambivalence and apathy. 

You might feel like you’re slogging through your days, a phrase I’ve heard a lot of people saying lately. Or, there’s the phrase I tend to use to describe my experience of it: swimming through mud.

And then there are those collective mental health moments we’re all having: forgetting what day it is, feeling distracted, having difficulty concentrating.

I think we can name that too. We’re meeting moments of stress and anxiety.

Those moments might include worrying more than usual, particularly about health, safety, family, finances and lifestyle. The worry might come alive in your body too, bringing with it tense muscles, headaches, shallow breathing, tummy troubles and difficulty sleeping.

There’s also another new term going around related to stress and anxiety that I learned from a friend a few days ago: precaution fatigue. I think that means that the actions we’re taking to feel safer are now becoming stressors in and of themselves, mental health moments that we never saw coming.

But precaution fatigue is probably a play on the term compassion fatigue, a type of stress reaction related to traumatic stress.

So we should definitely name traumatic stress as a mental health moment to meet and be aware of.

Traumatic stress happens when the events taking place around us are shocking and emotionally overwhelming, with the potential for serious injury or the threat of actual death. Living in the midst of a pandemic meets all those criteria.

Of course, that doesn’t mean you have PTSD or even that you’re feeling more stressed these days. But we’ve all probably been exposed to some level of traumatic stress, especially essential workers and health care professionals. And for those who’ve been sick with COVID-19 or lost someone to it, traumatic stress and the ensuing grief go hand in hand.

Grief, yes. A huge mental health moment we’ve been meeting during the pandemic.

A lot of smart people got out in front on this one, wisely naming grief and seeing it in the multiple everyday losses that stacked up quickly, things we take for granted and literally feel lost without. Like losses of routine, connection, belonging, freedom, safety, space, well-being.

There’s a sense of collective grief as well, along with survivor guilt. It’s complicated though. I mean, where do we take these mental health moments?

Here in the U.S. we’ve just passed 100,000 deaths and counting.

Yet it’s barely acknowledged. Instead, it’s swept under the rug, with the emphasis placed on getting back to “normal.”

There’s even some subtle shaming going on, an undercurrent suggesting that we should just get on with it. When that happens our grief can become disenfranchised, and we begin to believe it’s socially unacceptable to feel this way and must hide our sorrows.

And when nothing is offered to help us find solace or come together, when no path is laid out to help us transform our relationship with what’s been lost, then the quest for normal feels more like limbo and the grief may continue.

Okay, now we’ve named and met all these moments.

I know, it’s a lot. But awareness is good, especially because it helps normalize what we might be feeling and also prepare us for the future.

And while there’s tremendous power in naming and claiming what is, it’s important to tell the whole story, to remind your heart and soul of all the ways you’re taking care of yourself in the midst of these mental health moments.

I bet there are many ways you’re making it a bit easier for yourself. Even if you don’t think your efforts fit in with “approved” self-care.

Remember, though, that your self-care in these moments is just for you.

You don’t need to compare it to what anyone else is doing. It doesn’t need to mirror one of the many lists telling you how to cope during a pandemic.

Because you’re unique and wonderfully quirky. Like I’ve said many times, you already know a lot about how to live your life. And if I could share what my clients say about how they’re taking care of themselves right now, I suspect you’d smile like I do.

But since I can’t do that, how about I share how I’m making it a little easier to meet these pandemic moments?

  • Re-watching Downton Abbey
  • Increased dark chocolate intake
  • Phone conversations with friends
  • Popcorn for dinner
  • Journaling with no expectations
  • Falling asleep in front of the TV
  • Sitting in the sun as many mornings as possible
  • Virtual sessions with clients and the journaling circle

Making my list and writing it down definitely gives my mental health a boost. And it makes me smile.

So why not make your own list right now?

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This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all!

-Rumi

Patty Bechtold

Patty Bechtold

I help women find their way back to their deepest wisdom when they feel like something’s missing in their lives or themselves. On my blog I write about the stories, insights, ideas, and wise words I’ve picked up along the way. Thank you for being here.