The emotional response many of us are experiencing from social distancing and sheltering due to COVID-19 has been accurately compared to feelings of grief. The coronavirus crisis has temporarily robbed us of physical contact and our sense of security. We feel powerless over an uncertain future and sidelined by our sudden loss of freedom.
Grief associated with death or loss impacts us exactly the same way.
Whether hunkered down in isolation or a frontline responder, each of us undoubtedly finds ourselves contending with feelings along the continuum of grief that Swiss psychiatrist Elizabeth Kubler-Ross introduced more than 50 years ago. The five stages are:
- Denial associated with the coronavirus’s rapid spread, resulting in avoidance, confusion, shock and fear.
- Anger that comes from continually withdrawing from our daily lives, resulting in frustration, irritation and anxiety.
- Bargaining as we struggle to find meaning in our circumstances or negotiate some sense of control or hope.
- Depression as the crisis persists, bringing with it overwhelming feelings of deep sadness, hopelessness and despair.
Like that associated with death, coronavirus-induced grief is a journey that can shift course daily. The longer we continue to social distance and shelter, we begin adjusting to our new temporary norm and settling into the changes we must make for our health, as well as for the sake of others. It’s then that we step into the final stage of grief, which is:
- Acceptance that enables us to explore options, put a new plan in place and move on.
As we continue to social distance and shelter, there is much we can do to help ease our fears and sense of isolation using the same approaches to alleviating grief over a lost loved one. Hospice of Michigan and Arbor Hospice statewide grief counselors recommend following these 10 self-care practices:
- Pay attention to your thoughts. Prevent continually hopeless or anxious thoughts that can affect you both emotionally and physically. Practice cognitive reframing by finding another way of looking at your situation or circumstances.
- Give your thoughts and feelings words. Share them verbally with a friend, confidant, religious adviser or professional counselor, if needed. Also consider journaling and prayer.
- Control what you can. While you may not have a choice in sheltering at home, you do have control over your decision to comply with governmental guidelines and stay safe. You also have control within your home and how you can use this time positively.
- Be physically active. Enjoy yoga, pushups, stretching or even a dance party in your home. Or venture safely outdoors for a walk in the woods, hike on a trail or run in a large open park. Physical activity helps your body to release tension and allows your nervous system to get back to a state of rest.
- Keep a schedule. Consistency is comforting during uncertain times. Try sticking to a regular exercise and meal schedule, bedtime, even a routine phone call with a loved one. These are things you can control that are important in relieving anxiety and stress.
- Practice meditation and mindfulness. Even for just 10-15 minutes a day, notice what is happening with your thoughts and redirect them from anxiety-laden territory. Also scan your body for tension and alleviate it by taking deep breaths, softening your muscles, or practicing progressive muscle relaxation. Find online sources that can virtually guide your sessions.
- Get creative. Pour your feelings into art, music, play, design, writing or another form of expression. Transforming fear and uncertainty into something beautiful can be empowering. Sharing your creativity on social media can be rewarding.
- Disconnect. Renew your spirit by turning off the news and setting social media and technology aside daily — maybe for several brief periods or a couple hours at a time. Spend this time doing something you enjoy that engages your senses, such as reading a book, cooking, knitting or leaning a new skill.
- Dress up. While relaxing in sweats can be comforting, the simple act of getting out of your pajamas, taking a shower or bath and putting on makeup or shaving can do wonders in lifting your mood and boosting your spirit.
- Laugh and smile. It really is true that “laughter is the best medicine.” It strengthens your immune system, boosts your mood, diminishes pain and protects you from the damaging effects of stress. Smiling does the same. So, reminisce over old photos, tune in to a comedy classic, watch cute or funny pet videos online. Indulge in what gives you joy.
Above all, stock up on compassion for yourself and others. We may not be acting like ourselves at times during this coronavirus crisis. And those who we are sheltering or social distancing with may not either. Don’t be hard on yourself or them. We’re all in this together … and better days are ahead.
Karen Monts is director of grief support services and practice manager for counseling services at NorthStar Care Community.