We are in a time of communal grief and worry.
These are the suggestions I am offering to everyone in my care during this time of social fasting and self imposed retreat. I share them with you.
Remember that anxiety is the natural human resting state. We notice it when our sympathetic nervous system, the part of our system that assesses and responds to threat, gets activated.
Our four primary response options tend to be:
Fight, Flight, Freeze, Appease
Fight looks like stocking up, refusing to stay in place, avoiding recommendations.
Flight looks like vacationing or insisting on one’s usual in-person routine. It also looks like hoarding masks, hand gel and toilet paper.
Freeze looks like avoidance. One refuses to take in information or minimizes the speaker/scientist/doctor. One is afraid to leave the house. One doesn’t know what to buy. One waits till tomorrow.
Appease looks like “doing everything right.” Which in itself can be paralyzing. It can also indicate a mindset that follow the thought that if I do everything “Right” nothing bad will happen to me [I must get everyone I love to do the right thing too so nothing bad will happen to them].
Anxiety needs a channel or a path of expression. We recover from anxiety best when we have action we can take such as:
- Crying. Tears release toxins from our bodies. We are cleansed as we cry. Go ahead and cry.
- Exercise: Walking, biking, treadmill, climbing stairs. These bi-pedal and bi-lateral movements allow both brain hemispheres to connect and work things out systemically. While it does this, neurochemicals are adapted to manage distress and still anxiety. EMDR [Eye Movement Desensitization Reprocessing] is one of our best treatment strategies for PTSD. It accesses the power of bi-lateral brain hemisphere engagement. While walking/running/stairclimbing is not EMDR, it is bi-lateral stimulation for the brain. How many of our best spiritual leaders use[d] walking meditation?
- Fresh Air is divine. If you can go outside, go outside. Breathe. Attend. Move.
- Focused goal oriented activity: organizing papers, home offices, closets, shoes, sock drawers. Knitting, making dinner, showering, brushing teeth. When we have a goal oriented activity we know when we have finished and we know we have accomplished something, [Do not overdo. Overdoing is Fight/Flight.]
- Stick to a schedule. Go to bed at a usual time and wake at a usual time. Dress. Make your bed. Brush/floss. Cook meals. Have daily connections with someone you love, trust, don’t mind talking to.
- Storytelling: Personal narrative. These are exceptional times. What story is unfolding that you will tell your children, grandchildren and great grandchildren? Attend to these days as they unfold. Who are you today? What is known/unknown? What did you leave behind when you arrived at this place in time? What were you planning? What do you see in your [hazy] future? [Note: the answers may give you information about what you want to keep and what you want to give away. They may also point you in a direction that surprises you. The reset button has been pushed.]
- Grounding in a larger narrative: Where is God in this? What other times in the history of the world as we know it are similar to this one? How did our heroes and antiheroes manage their time in the Unprecedented? How do I participate in that larger picture while sheltering in place? While being an essential worker?
- Eating for nourishment: certain foods trigger the release of neurochemical we all make and use naturally [serotonin] and this extra bump of serotonin helps ease anxiety. [Note: this is one of the reasons we all eat emotionally sometimes.] In this instance, I offer the data so that folks attune to how and what they are eating. Foods that have l-tryptophan [that then cues the brain to release serotonin]: our traditional thanksgiving meal such as turkey, sweet potatoes, cranberries, idaho potatoes, etc. Fish and warm milk also have l-tryptophan.
- Trouble sleeping: try to stay away from melatonin supplements [unless your doctor has prescribed them due to an imbalance], alcohol or marijuana/CBD oils to aid sleep. Inability to sleep in an anxious time is simply the system’s method of handling danger [fight/flight]. We look for REM cycles when assessing insomnia or trouble sleeping. A REM cycle is between 2.5 and 4 hours long. In times of trouble, we might sleep for one REM cycle, wake and stay awake for an hour or two then return to sleep for another REM cycle. This is an archaic method of making sure the wolves don’t come close to the camp fire. Most of us will return to a “regular” sleep cycle when we settle in to the new normal, our new understanding of our world. [Note: if you are following doctors orders, please continue to follow the regimen prescribed by your doctor.]
Grief is ever present right now. We have all let go of something of importance to us such as community, in person worship, hugs, livelihood, people, places and things. Some of us are anticipating grief.
Some things to know:
- Grief is the time it takes for our mind and spirit to cross that liminal space between “what was” and “what is.” The before/after moment is often just a moment in time. Our ability to cross that divide, that “moment” can take a bit.
- Fresh grief, new grief can be sharp, attenuated, constricting. It can also make us feel befuddled, hazy, heavy, numb. This passes.
- Sometimes we are afraid to let it pass and will try to keep the experience in place so we can remember, still feel connected to [someone or something], feel alive or feel numb.
- We experience grief in waves: some days/hours are fine and others bowl us over with experience and memory.
- Anxiety is very much a part of the grief process as our system remembers what has happened, fears what will happen, faces the hazy future. This is neurochemically driven. Our thoughts can exacerbate this experience. When we use reminders, prayers, mantras, touch stones, we shift our neurochemicals.
- Grief is not depression although it can kick off a depression or exacerbate a depression.
- Depression and depressive symptoms tend to be pervasive and do not let up.For example: persistent distress, unhappiness and anxiety is depression. Waves of distress, unhappiness and anxiety tends to be grief.
- Use the strategies listed in managing anxiety as a response to grief.
Remember that an emotion lasts approximately 10-15 seconds unless we attach a story or narrative to it. We can get distracted by our narrative and dive deeply into an emotional state.
- Prayers for Use by a Sick Person [in the morning; BOC page 461]: “This is another day, O Lord. I do not know what it will bring forth, but make me ready, Lord for whatever it may be. If I am to stand up, help me to stand bravely. If I am to sit still, help me to sit quietly. If I am to lie low, help me to do it patiently. And if I am to do nothing, help me do it gallantly.” This prayer is useful for the sick person, the carer of the sick, the essential workers and for those of us who are sheltering in place.
- Serenity prayer: whichever version one uses. This is a formula of next steps: I rely upon God. I take stock and assess what I can indeed have an impact on. I assess what I cannot change. I attend to those things I can attend to; those things I can impact.
- Using the Serenity Prayer as a cognitive strategy to kick one out of rumination, fear and reactivity: replace the word “God” with the name of a golden calf [such as “Covid-19 grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change…”; “Purell, grant me the serenity…”; or “Charmin, grant me the serenity…”]. Most folk will be jarred by the naming of a something that is not God, to which they have turned their well being over to. This is funny at times. Most importantly,it is a playful [sometimes meaningful] way to remind us who we want to be praying to.
Take good care of yourself. Truly. Sleep, eat well/for nourishment, allow yourself to be restored. Pray. Meditate/Listen. Allow yourself to be wrapped in God’s prayer shawl. Monitor your energy. Try to have limited “office hours” in which you tend to others and your leadership duties. Speak kindly to your Self. If you are relieved to be home and on retreat, honor that experience. Stay on the job but allow for respite. That is what you need. If you are saddened to be home and on retreat, honor those losses and those things you are aware of. If you are scared, don’t worry. That’s normal.
As always, take what you like and leave the rest. Not everything will apply to everyone. Please share as helpful.
My best to all of you,