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6-Step Guide to Survive Pandemic-Related Distress

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Distress is a culmination of an uncomfortable storm of emotions, judgments, resistance, and physical sensations. Depending on a person’s specific triggers, coping skills, brain, and self-understanding, the reaction to distress can range from mild and controlled, to an intense experience of dysregulation and trauma.

Triggers of distress come in all shapes and sizes. It can be personal or global, such as this pandemic. Currently, the pandemic is a universal trigger poking and scratching at old wounds, especially experiences that left us feeling powerless and helpless — and it is creating new ones.

I’ve written this step-by-step survival guide. First and foremost, you must understand yourself well. Which leads us into Step 1:

1. Increase your self-knowledge & self-awareness.

Log your traits, strengths and struggles, interests, and values. Write the emotions hardest for you to regulate (common ones: anger, anxiety, helplessness), and then triggers for each of those emotions. It helps to recount the steps before the ultimate distress hit, and to be as specific as possible. For example: 

I was on the internet, felt powerless -> the articles contain a lot of uncertainty, so I kept reading -> felt powerless and confused -> the loss of control feeling hit my “landmine” of when I was once in a traumatic situation I had no control over -> panic attack, then lashed out at my child for not cleaning his room
*vulnerability factors: tired, hungry, overwhelmed, so it was easier for me to react and perceive it as more upsetting than it was.

This step elevates the pause in between trigger and your response — the ultimate power is in the pause.

You cannot change what you do not know, or what you do not accept is a struggle. Which brings you to the next step.

2. Radical Acceptance. For anyone who knows about Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT), you know how useful this tool is.

What radical acceptance tells us is we must acknowledge reality. As Paulo Coelho said, “The challenge will not wait.” Rejecting reality is preventing a solution. Note your rejection phrases. Common ones are: “I hate this.” “This sucks.” “I can’t stand this.” “I cannot handle this.” “Why is this happening?”

Resisting reality is a fight you will never win. We must accept we are living through a pandemic; we must accept what we can do, like using safety measures for the protection of ourselves, and for the protection of others.

Acceptance is not comfortable. It is often an event we will still interpret as “bad.” And that’s the point — radical acceptance is not about suddenly believing it’s okay. It’s about wholly acknowledging it exists so you can surrender, and focus on what you can control, what you can do to move forward.

3. Distress Tolerance

Pandemic-induced distress causes an array of emotions, even within one moment. Sadness, frustration, fear, depression, loneliness, powerlessness, to peace within the permitted pause of “normal routine”, to joy in newfound hobbies and skills to master, gratitude for all we have and want to have return.

But — what are emotions?

Emotions are a set of sensations and chemical shifts, within our brains and bodies. The “sad” category lowers our physiological arousal; it is often why we feel slumped and sloth-like when we shift into them. The “anger” and “anxious” categories produce a higher arousal state. Heart rate increases, blood pressure rises, tension grips. Both are highly uncomfortable states to sit with but become easier to tolerate with practice.


4. Sit with Emotions. Set a timer for fifteen minutes. A nice mindfulness practice I teach is labeling the emotional experience.

  1. First, close your eyes.
  2. Locate where the emotion is in your body (might be one spot or several). 
  3. What color would it be?
  4. Shape?
  5. Air, liquid, hollow, or solid?
  6. Texture?
  7. What would it sound like?
  8. What would it smell like?
  9. What would it taste like?

Enlist your senses to produce a “known” to better understand and sit with the emotion without judging it. You might notice your breathing slowed down on its own, your body shifts into a quieter hum, and your emotional intensity has lowered. The brain is soothed by labels, as well as re-centering with your senses as your guide.

Once the distress has quieted down, bring in some logic with step 5.

5. Check the Facts. This counters cognitive distortions such as magnifying a problem, only focusing on the worst-case scenario, and/or emotional reasoning (i.e. I feel anxious therefore something must be wrong, and it is the worst thing I can imagine). 

When we are not gathering information and using our reasoning alongside validating our emotions, our imagination can take us into horrible corners of our mind. Checking the facts allows us to step back, gain objectivity, and see what’s at play to let go, and what’s at play to solve.

Answer the “what-ifs.” Give your brain a “known” to survive the “unknown.” After answering, remind yourself of the “what IS” — the facts without assigning your opinion.

6. Wrap it up with self-compassion. Our confidence wanes, our strengths and use of skills fluctuate, and our self-esteem and self-worth can take a hit. But self-compassion is a tool that can remain constant.

Let yourself say, “This is normal. This distress is allowed. It makes sense that a pandemic would rise my levels of vulnerability. I will be extra special kind to myself during this time, and through it all.” 

We Are All Going Through This Together

The pandemic has removed our security of the future. Boost your mindfulness skills, add to your healthy coping skills toolkit, maintain little goals you can look forward to, and cultivate self-compassion.

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