By Paula Mayer.
We have all seen the news and read the papers: interpersonal violence and mass shootings over the last few months are escalating. At the same time, Garfield County Overall Covid-19 Score is green and 45% of its eligible population is fully vaccinated (garfield-county.com). On May 13, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention relaxed their recommendations for wearing a mask and social distancing, both inside and outside, for anyone who is fully-vaccinated. With such positive information, why do people feel as if they are unraveling now?
Before moving to Colorado, I was a clinical social worker at Boston Children’s Hospital. As part of the heart transplant team, I provided psychosocial support to pediatric patients and families undergoing heart transplant. Once listed for transplant, the child and their parents lived in suspended reality, wondering when a heart would be available and whether they would still be healthy enough when the time arrived to receive it. A child could be hospitalized for months as their native heart function declined. This usually meant one parent lived at the hospital while the other took care of responsibilities at home. Families lived day after day like this, with no idea when the situation would change, whether their family would remain whole, whether they could emotionally and financially survive the marathon.
Earlier this year, when COVID-19 vaccines were only available for category 1A, “the wait” for good news felt interminable. According to the CDC’s Household Pulse Survey dated April 2, 2021, “During August 2020–February 2021, the percentage of adults with recent symptoms of an anxiety or a depressive disorder increased from 36.4% to 41.5%.” An individual can maintain “survival mode” for an extended period of time while they are “in battle.” However, when the end is in sight and the tide turns toward relief, two things happen: we are no longer in fight-or-flight mode and our hormones are no longer secreted in overdrive. This can leave us utterly depleted while facing the reality of moving forward.
When providing psychosocial support, I found much of the work was helping people understand why their bandwidth, or their ability to absorb daily unexpected challenges, had shrunk so drastically that something which would previously not have been an issue could now derail them. Here’s an example: before the pandemic, a person might wake up one weekday and realize they are out of coffee, so they have to leave for work early and stop somewhere. On the way to the coffee shop, a low-fuel warning registers on the dashboard, creating concern. As the morning rush hour creeps forward, the car in front unexpectedly stops short, creating a chain reaction of fender benders. This is a terrible day to be late for work because your boss called an early meeting to announce budget cuts and probable downsizing. And you’re not even properly caffeinated yet! On any given day, this series of events would be a major inconvenience. However, after months of living with the stresses of a pandemic, political mayhem, an uncertain economy and no prediction for when things might “return to normal,” a person’s ability to tolerate even one of these events is significantly diminished.
So, what to do about it? Robert Frosts’ poem “A Servant to Servant” reads “…one more steady pull ought to do it. He says the best way is always through.” There really is no getting around the ups and downs that life throws at us. In fact, isn’t that what living is all about? Our resilience is tested in large and small ways, and we grow more confident in our ability to handle the next challenge because we have made it through and survived.
There is no one-size-fits-all, magic wand to surviving a crisis. The goal is not to evade worry and emotional discomfort. Rather, by exercising our emotional muscles, we build our reserves, arriving at the other side stronger for the experience. There is no right way to achieve this. There is only your way. For some, that may mean getting in touch with our physicality: working out, setting a fitness goal and working toward it. Submerging oneself in nature, going on a hike or digging in the dirt can also feel therapeutic. Meditation and yoga have proven helpful in managing stressful situations by connecting us to our mind, body and breath. Creative outlets can give people a way to positively channel their thoughts. Rejoining a spiritual community can help us feel less alone with our burdens. The Roaring Fork Valley also has a number of mental health professionals (psychiatrists, psychologists, social workers) who can be supportive in your journey for wellbeing.
Perhaps one place to start is being kind to yourself. The last year and a half have been tough on multiple levels. You are human. Cultivate an appreciation for your achievements. This morning, in that brief moment between wakefulness and consciousness, you felt hopeful enough to open your eyes and get out of bed. That’s a pretty good start.
In honor of May as Mental Health Month, The Sopris Sun is running a series of personal columns by regular contributors.