Surviving COVID-19

By Dr. Batya L. Ludman, Psy.D., FT · Published March 25, 2020

The last several days have had all us all scrambling to make sense out of COVID-19, the new coronavirus disease that until recently no one had ever heard of. Now we can barely think of anything without this taking over every aspect of our being. It has caused fear, panic, confusion and uncertainty in a way that has affected how we live our lives, how we work, how we shop, how we engage with others socially, how we think and what we do. We have no idea just how long it will last and what the long-term ramifications will be.

As a clinical psychologist trained in emergency response and serving on the psychotrauma crisis response team, my goal is to assess a situation and respond so as to lower the anxiety level of others. As I write this, and as I wrote in wrote in "Coping with the coronavirus" (March 12) about taking care of our children, I'm very aware that many people are not so much scared of getting coronavirus, but rather more concerned about its impact on our lives now and in the days and weeks ahead. I know also that this may change if and when we start to know people who are actually unwell.

My week started with 10 patients scheduled (no, not all at once, in the same place, as that is a coronavirus no-no), and I was somewhat surprised that no one canceled and only one person suggested that we do a phone session instead. So, with open windows, space between us, much hand sanitizer and awareness, teenagers through octogenarians came in for their regular appointments. For a few, the major topic was the virus, while for others it was their partner's actions, questions about how to survive the next weeks without school or work, living in the same house as parents (or children) without "killing" them, or how to keep busy, not give into fear, restrictions, loneliness, anxiety and uncertainty.

We covered it all and I saw tremendous strength and resilience. In these trying times, people demonstrated responsibility, humor and great coping skills. While people don't necessarily know what "okay" looks like at the moment, they have learned through living here that in some way, yeheyeh beseder (it will be okay). It is important at this moment to show our inner strength and calm, even in these uncertain times. We will get through this and be strong role models for ourselves, our families and others.

How you choose to see COVID-19 and the issues around it will determine how you respond to it. Your perception of the situation will determine how you react and cope. You can't control the events, but you can control how you cope with them and it is important for you not to ever live your life in fear, but rather to live your life, and live it to the fullest degree possible, even with the restrictions and compromises. In seeing this as a challenge and not a catastrophe, you can make meaning out of this time for yourself and others and that can be a positive thing in itself.

When faced with a new situation that is frightening, we tend to respond with "fight, flight or freeze." We are innately wired to do so for survival. Imagine confronting a predator in the wild. Do you defend yourself and attack back, do you run away, or do you become immobile? For some, your hearts race and you need to respond now, for others you feel stuck and unable to do anything. The goal is to become aware of how you react and work instead to respond in a way that effectively enables you to cope well.

You may feel a sense of "dis-ease" – of not knowing, of not being able to plan or predict, of feeling uncomfortable yet not being able to articulate just what is going on for you. You may be struggling desperately to make sense out of a situation that is chaotic, makes no sense, and is changing rapidly from moment to moment, impacting all spheres of your life. Your feelings are perfectly normal. It is the situation that isn't normal. You are not going crazy. Trying to stay sane in a sea of insanity does mean that you may feel off balance and that is to be expected.

I have put together some suggestions to help you and your family as the days and weeks unfold.

1. Go easy on yourself. You are in unchartered territory and may feel very unsettled. Take time to breathe. Yes, you actually need to take a breath in through your nose and exhale out of your mouth, as slowly as possible. Do it just twice and then repeat over the day as needed. You'll be surprised to discover how powerful your own body is in healing itself as it allows you to become calmer and think more rationally. When we are stressed, we often forget to breathe or do so in a way that is not helpful. Focus on your other senses as well. Find ways to enjoy what you see around you. Notice the small stuff with appreciation as you let go of the things that you can't change or don't have the energy to deal with at this time.

2. Allow yourself to notice what is going on in your body. How does your head feel? Your shoulders, your chest, your heart, your legs? You might discover that paying attention to your body gives you greater insight into what you are thinking and feeling and helps you to strengthen yourself. There is no one right way to think or feel. You may feel tired, or energized, sad and withdrawn, or in need of reaching out to others. You may eat too much or have difficulty eating at all. We all handle stress differently. This is an opportunity to attempt to ground yourself and feel as safe as possible in a world that is currently changing faster than you are able to be comfortable with. One way to ground yourself is simply to sit fully back in a chair with your feet planted on the floor. Look around the room and allow your body to calm. If you are having a hard time with this, look around the room and name 10 things that are orange or 10 shapes. It is easy for adults and kids alike and it will bring you back into this moment.

3. Ask yourself: in this moment, at this time, are you okay? In all likelihood you are okay, and you are coping with whatever it is that you need to be coping with. Looking back into the past won't necessarily be helpful and looking ahead to what "could be" can diminish your enjoyment of this moment when you are okay. This ability to be mindful of the present can be empowering and give you peace of mind in these unsettled times. I do an exercise with children and adults alike where they slowly suck on a candy or chew a raisin with great intent. It might sound silly, but it is a great way to calm your body and let's face it, you can't be both calm and anxious at the same time.

4. We all need to feel safe. Find your own safe place that provides you with calm, quiet, and relaxation, even if it is just for a short time. If you can't get to that safe space, you can always practice visualizing it. Respect each other's space as well.

5. The fear of what "might be" is often much worse than what is. By reframing a situation and maintaining an attitude of positivity, you can deal with just about anything. Remind yourself that most things have a beginning, a middle and an end, and you can ride the wave of uncertainty with greater calm. The future may hold difficult financial realities: job loss or business failures, but for the moment, there are many unknowns. If this is not within your control and you cannot change things, worrying does not help. Likewise, we know that some people will become ill, hopefully only mildly. Fear does not help. Actions such as following appropriate handwashing and other protective measures do help prevent spread of the virus. Remember too, that the government's drastic actions are not because the risk to any individual is so great (especially in the absence of risk factors), but rather to try to slow the spread of infection so as not to overwhelm the capacity of the health care system. So, we must all do our part: It's our collective responsibility for one another.

6. It is easy to feel overwhelmed and helpless , and feel a sense of hopelessness, when things are changing so rapidly. Part of what contributes to this is a sense of being out of control. By actually doing something, you take control back of the situation, as best as you can. By feeling you can do something to be helpful for others, you, too, will feel better and empowered to move forward. In this time of social distancing, social connection with others is very important. Even your tone of voice, your body language and your facial expressions can communicate a sense of safety and caring. Volunteering to help someone else is a sure way to promote feeling good. This is especially true in looking after the older members of our community. You can call and reach out, check on them and ask what they might need. Similarly, you may have single friends who feel very isolated during this time of social distancing, even if they are not in quarantine. Social distancing does not mean no eye contact, smiling or conversation. It is even more important now to be in contact with family and friends, especially those who are alone, if not in person, by whatever means, and with the gift of time, to work on your relationships.

7. Use this time period of reduced activity as a time to work on short- and long-term goals. That project that you had in mind can now come to fruition, maybe with the help of others. Keep a journal, track your successes, involve your children. They, too, can keep a journal during this special time of togetherness. Find a way to make this time meaningful. It's easy to plop your children in front of a screen, but this time of togetherness can and should be so much more. Let your children pick what interests them. You may be pleasantly surprised. Work together as a team. The Internet is filled with ideas to help your children create special projects. There is much educational and fun material out there. Among my favorites are the virtual tours offered through many of the world's museums and sites. These are adaptable for people of all ages and are a great way to involve the entire family. You and your children can have a virtual vacation traveling the world without ever leaving your living room. Make a theme meal with their help and each day visit a different country. Concerts and operas are being streamed online, but likewise, some of the best bands and concerts take place with objects found at home. Let your children go wild. Music is great for the soul. Children need to be active, so find ways to help them move.

8. Working from home can provide an opportunity to enjoy a commute-free job. It's important to have structure and a designated work zone while also making time for breaks to get up and get a breath of fresh air. Setting clear boundaries can help you maintain your sanity and since schools are also closed, you may need to work on sharing your space with others. A schedule and routine are important for everyone, helping maintain calm for everyone. Children can and should be involved in chores; remember, Passover is just a few weeks away.

9. Don't catastrophize if you have no evidence to do so. Now is a time to focus on what you can do to make things better and not on the "what ifs." Search for the positive. It is there – and not that far away. Forced proximity is not without its challenges, but what a gift to have time with the children, your partner, time to work on things, to read more (the good stuff), to exercise, walk outside. Get on with living!

10. There are lots of resources out there to help you in just about every aspect of living with COVID-19. Make sure that you check out the sources and rely on only those that are reliable. There are many educational opportunities. Social media has the ability to connect and this is crucial but beware of misinformation. Don't share speculative posts. It's always better to take things one day or one moment at a time. Also make sure that your children are accessing accurate information.

11. It is easy to get caught up in perusing the latest statistics and restrictions. This will not be helpful to you or your children. Similarly, there are a lot of home remedies out there that are useless. Stick to handwashing while singing silly songs with your children and you both will be better off. Speaking of good hygiene, now is an excellent time to work on your sleep. Exercising and eating right and enjoying the sunlight all will improve your physical and emotional well-being.

As these days grow into weeks and more, I wish for you and your family good health, physically and emotionally.

A version of this article suitable for printing is available here.