By Dale Atkins
Our lives have been turned upside down by the coronavirus. Emotional responses include fear, sadness, grief, anxiety, anger, loneliness, and worry. Previously unnoticed or ignored feelings that allowed for “normal” life-coping strategies may help us grow and become “comfortable” with what is unfamiliar, uncertain, and scary.
Physical confinement can ignite feelings of restriction or constriction. Without usual routines and distractions we feel more vulnerable and exposed. Worry can make it hard to access hope, gratitude, serenity, or kindness.
The potential for circumstances to become traumatic depends on how we view and process them. Emotional liberation can result if we consider how to adapt, help and connect with others, and learn from situations as we find meaning in them.
Deeply saddened by personal stories of grief, I offer hope and practical techniques, when possible, to address overwhelming fear and concern. I also practice lovingkindness meditation to focus on the wellbeing of people I both know and do not know.
It can be strengthening to quiet ourselves, breathe in, and recall times we struggled, relied on inner resources, and prevailed. What helped then can help now. If not, we can develop new strategies. We can challenge our views of ourselves and the world, recognize our capabilities, and develop optimism.
We can also consider how role models handled challenges. I am awestruck and inspired by the endurance and wisdom of survivors of horrific circumstances, how their perception of their experiences became part of their lives, and how they have maintained realistic yet optimistic perspectives. They have gained meaning and perspective by finding healthy ways to integrate painful experiences.
I remember my recently deceased mother’s inner strength. Once, when I was 10, she cautiously navigated deserted back country roads in an extremely dark and dense fog. As she hugged the side of the road, we sang the entire score of “The King and I” until we arrived safely home. In 2003, when she was 81, we landed in Hong Kong along with the arrival of SARS. Despite loved ones pleading for our return, we continued our journey, committed to keeping safe. Our first purchases in Vietnam were face masks. We wore them for much of the trip, including in Singapore, where we encountered bird flu. I have countless examples of my mom’s adaptability, positivity, and resilience. Despite being a worrier and ruminator, she was smart, judicious, careful, and jumped in and learned from experience. Every adventure was tightly woven into her “fabric.” Many photos of her convey both pain and joy in the same moment.
The lyrics to “Smile” remind me of the positive effects of smiling during tough times. As a psychologist, I’m conflicted about promoting a song that suggests “hide every trace of sadness.” Yet acknowledging and validating feelings is not ruminating and becoming paralyzed by them. Being present in pain allows discovery of opportunities for gratitude, pleasure, and even laughter. Laughter helps to maintain sanity and has a positive influence on healing. Experiencing nature, meditation, connecting with friends, and cherished photos all help refill my emotional reservoir.
I hope society will learn from this crisis. We must work together to create a “new normal” where we care about each other, appreciate what we have in common, and refuse to go back to what was unhealthy. The GOOD STUFF that happened while we were isolated needs to be preserved.
Dale Atkins is a licensed psychologist with more than forty years of experience as a relationship expert focusing on families, wellness, managing stress, and living a balanced, meaningful life. Author of seven books and many chapters, articles, and journals for popular and professional audiences, Dale is a featured speaker who lectures and leads seminars worldwide and has appeared regularly on NBC’s TODAY and CNN. She has a private practice in New York City and has been a member and advisor of several nonprofit boards, including Jumpstart for Young Children, from which she recently retired. Her websites are www.drdaleatkins.com and www.thekindnessadvantagebook.com.