When Disaster Distress Hits Home

Try reconfiguring the expectations you have for yourself and others.

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The first confirmed U.S. COVID-19 case was reported on January 20, 2020. Since that time, cities around the country have witnessed an absolutely alarming number of persons affected by the illness. The U.S. death toll recently surpassed 40,000 people—more than any other country in the world. In the Houston area, there were over 7,000 confirmed cases and almost 150 deaths as of late April. 

The impact of COVID-19 on our economy, our healthcare system, and our very personhood is being felt in a tremendous way. But dealing with this crisis is about more than just getting through the day while managing anxiety and fear. For some, reckoning with past decisions and the realities of life circumstances can cause even more distress.

Small rifts and previously unspoken issues in romantic relationships are now manifesting as full-blown arguments, marital discord, and the dissolution of relationships. Sadly, in some cases the anger spills over to become intimate-partner violence or other threatening kinds of behaviors.

Difficulties in parenting children, who are also experiencing significant disruption and stress in their young lives, compounds the quarantine stress. Unhappiness with one’s living space can also be magnified, since we are now forced to spend practically all of our time in our homes. Even pre-existing job dissatisfaction can worsen in an environment where meetings occur primarily via telephone or online. (This, of course, assumes you still have a job that hasn’t been negatively impacted by changes in the local economy.)

This crisis asks not only that we manage the stress of a global pandemic, but also that we personally confront the realities of who we are, the consequences of our decisions, and the overall quality and direction of our lives. But this is not necessarily a bad thing. In the evaluation of the self, there are always signs of hope. As we wrestle with the ups and downs of the pandemic, the opportunities for self-reflection can lead to planning and trigger action.

Without access to our typical outlets for activities and social interaction, many of us are feeling the effects of living under a heightened state of chronic stress. We vacillate between optimism (“Oh, everything will turn out totally fine”) and hopelessness (“The world is doomed”), speeding right past the middle ground of objectivity and accurate perspective. There is sometimes simply too much fear and uncertainty to feel comfortable for sustained periods of time.

Acknowledging our collective struggle is an important step in managing COVID-related stress. When we verbalize our experience and share it with others, we find validation and understanding. This type of connection may be even more critical in a time when our ability to physically connect with others is limited. In the absence of touch—handshakes, hugs, and other types of physical intimacy—the creation and maintenance of emotional ties through the use of shared words serves as a vital and necessary surrogate.

Managing Expectations while in Crisis Mode

Reconfiguring our expectations for ourselves and others can be extraordinarily helpful during this time. Your response to this completely abnormal event is normal, given the circumstances. As we try to implement more positive and adaptive ways of coping, keep in mind that we are all experiencing the near-complete disruption of our routines.

At the same time, we certainly don’t want to keep using our most maladaptive patterns of behavior for the temporary alleviation of stress. Instead, our goal can be to employ a more balanced perspective regarding coping.

Ask yourself: what feels like a reasonable or manageable expectation in the midst (or the aftermath) of a crisis? For example, maybe the goal isn’t to avoid eating sweets altogether. Perhaps you plan to continue eating a few cookies each day, stretching the bag over several days and practicing moderation. 

Take time to celebrate the curtailing of behaviors such as emotional eating or excessive drinking and drug use, and build upon success. When you find you’re able to reduce or avoid certain behaviors, think through what helped you achieve your goals for the day, and try to repeat them.

If you have a bad day, practice self-compassion. Instead of shaming yourself for eating an entire package of cookies in one sitting, remember that expecting entirely healthy behavior while going through a crisis can create more of the very frustration, guilt, and shame that drives our poorest coping strategies. Extend to yourself some grace as you weather this storm.

Use Your Resources

Perhaps the issues in your relationship or family have become so uncomfortable that you feel you have no choice but to do something about it. Begin looking for individual, couples, or family therapists to assist with navigating these complicated situations. Access to affordable mental-health professionals via online services is popping up everywhere. Explore your options.

Employment (or the lack of it) has also become a particularly challenging aspect of life, but it’s never too early to start reaching out to people for support. Use your existing networks for assistance with navigating the job market. People can’t help if they don’t know you’re looking for work or considering a job transition. Since this crisis has provided us with the gift of time, use it to research careers, update your résumé and online work profiles, and search and apply for jobs.

We Are “Going Through It”

There is something so important about the recognition that we are going through something together. “Through” implies a beginning, a middle, and an end. It signals that things are in process. And though we may not know all that lies on the other side, we can certainly acknowledge that there is another side.

No doubt, we will be changed—in some ways for the better, and maybe in other ways for the worse. But focus on how this crisis is like other big changes we have endured. Call upon the internal resources and external supports (friends, family, community) that have helped bolster you during previous difficult times. The work ahead can be accomplished as long as we remember that we get through things by going through them together.

This article appears in the May 2020 edition of OutSmart magazine. 


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Daryl Shorter, MD

Daryl Shorter, MD, is a Diplomate of the American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology and is board certified in both general and addiction psychiatry. His clinical practice focuses on veteran care, and he lectures widely on LGBTQ mental health. Dr. Shorter can be reached at [email protected]

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