As a mother living with complex PTSD, the current options for continuing with my trauma recovery are painfully dwindling. In-person therapy is no longer available due to the rapid spread of coronavirus, and plans to start up digital sessions with my counselor have not yet been finalized. My young children are out of daycare and here with me at home all the livelong day (and night), so I no longer have the usual breaks in my schedule to take care of myself. My husband has begun a strenuous full-time job this week, leaving my part-time work hours in limbo. And the triggering moments in my household are endless.
All of this has resulted in the immediate reemergence of complex PTSD symptoms that I cannot escape no matter how hard I try. I’ve experienced more involuntary frowning and somatic muscle spasms in these past two weeks than I have in the last several months. My anxiety and panic levels are at an all-time high, and they dance alongside the depression that lurks in the dark corners of my mind. I’m currently on lifesaving antidepressants that have certainly helped a great deal, but there’s no roadmap for how they will aid me in dealing with a global pandemic.
I can only imagine that I am far from alone in the very legitimate fears and erratic behavior I’m experiencing on the daily as my family isolates in self-quarantine. Remembering that we are all in this together is so important right now. Here are my top seven tips for how I’m tending to my mental health during the COVID-19 outbreak, and I hope they provide even a little bit of comfort to anyone currently dealing with the onslaught of news, statistics, and massive changes to life as we know it.
Recognize that our current president is modeling qualities that can potentially trigger anyone with a traumatic past.
Whatever your political stance, it is so important to recognize the signs of verbally abusive person. If you grew up in a traumatic home with a caregiver who violated you with their body or words, you will definitely feel triggered by a public figure who regularly blames others in public, uses hateful rhetoric, gaslights on the regular, and exhibits a slew of narcissistic tendencies.
The moment I realized this for myself was while watching Donald Trump shame a reporter during a recent press conference when the reporter asked what the president would say to scared Americans right now. Trump’s damaging reaction elicited an abrupt wave of muscle spasms, tears, and panic that filled my entire body. Having grown up with an adult who had an undiagnosed and untreated mental health disorder, I know all too well about being on the receiving end of reactive, destructive responses. I am also well-versed in narcissistic and gaslighting behaviors from living with someone who utilized both in moments of feeling threatened.
Being able to understand the similarities between our commander-in-chief and anyone who may have harmed us during childhood is essential for creating solid boundaries around our exposure to any individual (the president included) who is a detriment to our mental health.
Limit your media consumption (I know, I know – easier said than done).
If you’re living with a mental health disorder brought on by past trauma and you’ve been working to heal with a counselor, then you know all about the importance of separating fact from fiction in your mind. Having complex PTSD means that my body still believes I’m in the threatening situations of my youth, and it leaves me in a constant state of overwhelming anxiety over scenarios some people may not even worry about. I’ve had to focus for years to create coping mechanisms that help me assure my mind that I am no longer in an unsafe environment anymore. But how do we do that if we are living in an unsafe, chaotic, and threatening time during this pandemic?
By limiting your consumption of all media and becoming aware of moments when you dive down the rabbit hole of information overload, you can create space in your day to investigate any thought that unnecessarily adds more stress to your system and doesn’t contribute to your overall sense of relief.
Believe me when I say that I understand how challenging it is to follow through with this, but it is essential to our collective mental well-being to pick and choose exactly how much news or social media we want to absorb. I also believe that it is imperative to identify any time someone in the media says something damaging, demeaning, or flat-out wrong about this current global pandemic, remind yourself that the state of our world is not your entire responsibility or fault, and acknowledge that it is okay not to be okay with the status quo right now.
Feel your feelings – and if your emotions overwhelm you, ask for help.
As I said, it is perfectly okay not to be okay right now. If you try to push down your emotions, they will always find a way to erratically drive the car. When you have an overwhelming feeling, stop and notice it. Acknowledge that it’s there, and let it pass over you like a wave.
If you’re a parent who is going through a lot right now in front of your kids, remember this. More than simply raising “happy children,” we want our kids to understand and be able to easily work through their varying emotions. The best way to teach them that is by having a compassionate and accepting relationship with all of our own personal feelings and showing them how we move through each one. Our children don’t need perfect parents. They need authentic, loving, and supportive ones.
In response to COVID-19, a growing number of insurance providers are beginning to allow for virtual therapy sessions, and there is some legislation that is expanding Medicare’s coverage of it. While this may never provide the exact same benefits of an in-person meeting, it can allow you to have temporary mental health support at a time when so many desperately need it.
If you are unable to line up a therapist at this time, The National Alliance on Mental Illness has an extensive website filled with tons of resources – and they even have a 24/7 crisis text line.
If you are experiencing hopelessness or despair and these current circumstances cause you to feel like you have no way out, please keep showing up. If you are self-harming, know that I have been there, and that you deserve to be supported. There are hotlines with helpful people on the other end who can be there for you. You are not alone, and there is always some kind of help available to you. At the very least, please call or Facetime with a loved one who unconditionally “gets it,” and try being vulnerable as possible with them.
Let go of impossible expectations and the pressure to be everything to your kids right now.
If you’re a parent like me and have never homeschooled your kids, you’re most likely feeling swamped right now. Well, here’s your permission to keep it really simple and ask yourself what is most important during this time of self-quarantine. I don’t know about you, but my top priorities at the moment are making sure I keep my kids safe, have fun while stuck inside, continue to earn money from home as much as my husband and I can, and do whatever I need to stay mentally sound. This may translate to our first “homeschooling week” being filled with television show marathons, day-long snack sessions, and more moments devoted to unstructured play.
Basically, I’ve adjusted my current expectations to be softer, more adaptive, and easier than ever before. And my kiddos are grateful for it.
On the flip side, if keeping to a homeschooling schedule helps you and your kids feel at ease, or if you’ve already been homeschooling this whole time, keep it up. Just try to read the energy of your children throughout the day. Maybe they learn a lesson easier while moving around the room. Or maybe they need to spread a lot of work out over the course of a full day. Staying flexible, loving, and accepting right now can make a huge difference to those who have had their young social lives and educational structure completely upended.
Watch shows and movies that make you feel good.
Hilariously enough, seeing the movie Outbreak really comforted my hubby and me this past week. It was awesome to root for Dustin Hoffman’s character as he went against protocol to save a virus-ridden small town. I’ve also become a recent fan of a particular genre I used to totally loathe for giving me the perpetual willies – good old-fashioned horror movies. I’m living for anything with creepy twists and turns that keeps my heart racing and allows me to get out some of my bottled-up anxiety. True crime docs and mystery series like Buzzfeed’s “Unsolved” are also helping to make my mind reel about anything other than the coronavirus pandemic.
Hey, maybe horror thrillers aren’t your thing. If that’s the case, just stick on some Grace and Frankie, laugh out loud to a Tiffany Haddish comedy special, or catch up on reruns of Star Trek. Whatever floats your boat, gets you to laugh, or feels like a nice respite from the chaos is what will totally work right now.
Regularly connect through Facetime or Zoom with friends and loved ones.
We’ve come a long way in the world of technology, and video chats with people we love are now more accessible than ever. Take this time to reconnect with anyone who lifts your spirits, can sit with you in moments of pain, and genuinely wants to be there for you. Human beings are hardwired for belonging and connection, and this pandemic is limiting our ability to cultivate both. It’s so essential to our mental health to find any way to connect with our people right now however we can.
Having video chats can be especially helpful if you are holed up alone right now without others nearby, but it can also be a great tool for children who may be needing some serious QT with anyone else besides their housemates. My daughter loves to read her grandparents books over the phone, and my son loves to eat a meal with them. Seeing my kids’ little faces light up during this time makes my occasional dark days a lot brighter.
Treat yourself at home – or at the very least, just fucking take care of yourself.
Even if it means carving out a mere fifteen-minute break in your day to start, devote some time to tending to your own basic needs and wants. Clean your house. Take a shower. Swap naps with your spouse. Drink coffee out of your favorite mug. Put on the outfit you only save for special occasions. Fill up the bath with too many bubbles. Take a yoga class online. Go look at the stars at night on your porch. Eat the damn chocolate. Wear a snuggie. Feel your feet on the grass in your backyard. Dance to that album you love. Curl up with a good book that brings you comfort. Foster a puppy if you’re feeling lonely. Ugly cry in a damn closet. Or tell silly dad jokes to your kids. Literally do whatever you can to add comfort, ease, stability, and relief to your life right now.
And if all else fails, try this awesome exercise that my fabulous therapist taught me. Breathe in for a count of four, hold in your breath for another count of four, and then breathe out for a count of eight. As you repeat this, you can increase how long you do each round. Breathing out for longer than you breathe in is the key to calming down your parasympathetic nervous system, which may be going haywire right now.
My wish for you (and myself!) during the next few months is to hang in there, find bright spots in your day, and be as gentle with yourself as you can. This shit is hard AF right now, and we don’t need to make it tougher on ourselves by keeping expectations impossibly high and access to support drastically low. I know that “this too shall pass” and all that, but sometimes it seems downright impossible to believe that when the minutes feel like years. As I said before, you are never alone in this struggle, and there is always help of some kind available. Take some small steps starting today to help get you through.