As we all try to make sense of our experience right now, I’d like to put forward a few organizing principles which can guide us.
One basic feature that runs through everything is the diversity, the individualism of our experience, and of our responses.
Please do not take anything I write as what “should” be happening in your house. If anything, my message is: Be open to what is happening even if it’s not what you expected or wanted. Awareness without judgement.
What are we experiencing?
Many aspects of this experience are common to all of us: The almost total pause in our regular lives, and the uncertainty about what parts will or will not return.
The isolation ; the yearning for the kids or /and grandkids we can’t see. Fear about the future; some of us have little or no parnasah. Loss/grief; we are grieving the lives we had; our world will never be the same.
I think we can all say that Corona has brought huge disruption to our lives. With this extent of disruption, there is always the possibility of long term emotional change. Those of us who have prior trauma which is being set off are not going to react like others. Our stress toward Covid is appropriate to a dangerous situation.
Then there is the internal personal journey I imagine most of us are also on; I think we are doing an incredible job. We have been forced to look closer at the person we are behind the various masks we put on for our lives, at who we are behind the roles and titles, without the “props” by which it is so much simpler to define ourselves. Some of us are constantly running and doing; now we are forced into a quieter space, an inner place. Corona, if it has been anything, has been a great equalizer. We are all helpless right now, from the CEO to the store owner. We have all come into contact with new parts of ourselves; and we all cope in different ways. Some of us naturally use more intellectual defenses, perhaps by following all the science of the pandemic. Some of us express the emotion in our bodies; our bodies are holding the pain and frustration. We may be having headaches, migraines, back pain.
What I’d like to encourage is awareness of what we are experiencing without judgement. Once we are aware of how the present is impacting us, we can look for appropriate relief. If we have someone to turn to who will hear our raw fears and emotions without judgement, then we have less chance of coming out of this experience traumatized.
So on the one hand we have our current experience .
On the other hand we have our resources ; these are the resources we can turn to that build or boost our resilience to withstand crisis.
This space between our distress and our resources is the space we can be active in. In this space is the opportunity for healing and growth. This space is also where trauma will occur if our distress is not appropriately responded to.
I will talk here about external resources, though we all have internal resources also.
How do we respond?
I’m sure some of you are aware that when in crisis you have a particular way of responding. We are physiologically programmed to react to stress in one of three ways: fight, flight or freeze. Seeing as fight and flight are not real options in the case of Corona, I’m hearing many people say they feel numb, paralysed, frozen; able to do mindless things but not tackle anything very challenging. It is taking enormous energy from each of us to constantly be on alert. These are biological responses, out of our conscious control. But important to look at so that we are aware of how our body responds to stress. There are ways we can deal with this.
So what helps us cope with new, frightening and potentially dangerous situations? What are these resources that we can turn to? How do we strengthen our resilience?
Most essential is the family. When a person has someone to share their honest feelings with and can feel ‘held’, understood, supported and not criticized, that is the greatest resource to have. We need to be able to express the emotions to someone we trust. Research has shown that the tendency for PTSD is greater amongst the weaker sections of the population, the people without a”gav” as we say in Hebrew, those with nobody to turn to. Because feeling isolated and alone inside a terrifying situation is a central element of traumatization, just being able to share is a tremendous step towards healing.
As I was giggling at some of the posts regarding eggs before Pesach on our community women’s whatsapp, I realised what an important function we were filling for each other. We were saying: You’re not alone; we’re all in this mess together. And now let’s panic about eggs, because that’s so much easier than what’s really going on! We were helping each other regulate ourselves. Men are experiencing this feeling in the minyans they have on their mirpeset. Some are finally meeting their neighbors! We have to be able to turn to each other. Not for platitudes, but for real expression of our most troubling feelings. We need to listen openly to our family and friends, also if they are expressing fear and sadness. Until our feelings are validated we cannot truly move on. In these times we need to learn to show love and comfort in non-physical ways.
A belief system
Attaching meaning to experience can make a huge difference to how we cope. Meaning can be anything from- “WOW what a wake up call to the planet” all the way to “Mashiach is coming”. We each have the right to assign personal meaning to our experience. That meaning can also come from the changes we have undergone during this period, if we feel positive about them. The meaning we give our experience helps it become more manageable. If there is meaning we are willing to stretch ourselves, to go that one step further. We may feel we have become more accepting, compassionate, and maybe more tolerant. We may have discovered parts of ourselves which were previously hidden. There are larger meanings and smaller meanings; some parents are finding pleasure in watching their children gain life skills they would never have had the chance to. School will return. This unusual space in time will not, Gd willing.
These are all channels through which we express ourselves. Some of us write, some of us play music, some of us involve ourselves with the play or the fantasy lives of our children. We all have ways of self soothing which we have learned work for us; for some it’s physical exercise, for some it’s watching a comedy. There is also a huge range between people who love being with people all the time and those who feel that they are literally choking. Being accepting and understanding of these differing needs goes a long way. We need to be aware of the things that set us off, and use calming behaviours. Our kids need to each be given age and personality appropriate information. They need to be taught to feel competent about the behaviours they can use in the face of this challenge, even if that means simply knowing how to wash their hands effectively. We have very little control in the current situation, so the small things we can do become important.
Competency reduces the feelings of helplessness.
And now I come to the unbelievable part. Many of us will come through this crisis having experienced something deeply transformative. Our lives will feel somehow improved from the experience. We will feel differently about our families and friends and communities. Our priorities will have shifted. We will be able to take with us something new and precious and very intimate. The demand for greater authenticity which we each came up against can be a tremendous gift to carry out with us.
May we all merit to see our personal meanings actualized.
I’m a social worker at heart so I need to say……. If anyone is feeling triggered or their experience has been very different to what I’m describing, please feel free to contact me afterwards. Not all of us are sitting this out in optimal conditions.