COVID Journals: whatever works

Hello, friends. It’s been awhile.

First and foremost, I hope that you and your loved ones are safe and healthy. And if fate has not been kind, may recovery be swift and full.

During the initial onset of the pandemic, I was writing regularly. Mostly, I was keeping a personal log of events as they were unfolding: the numbers of infected, the local and national response, etc. At that time, I was employed and physically going to my job on a regular basis. I would work all day, then come home and write in the evenings. Although I was exhausted, life still had a minuscule sense of normalcy. But like millions of others, I too lost my job, along with any accompanying semblance of structure. I became adrift, navigating a crush of strong and simultaneous emotions. And like everyone else, I was adjusting to the new reality of the lockdown. Confined to the four walls of my apartment and restricted from the usual wellness-generating activities, such as going to the gym, I found it almost impossible to concentrate on even the smallest of tasks. With the reptilian part of my brain activated for survival, the rest of my mind slipped into numbness, a creative coma of sorts. For a few weeks, writing was not an option.

But throughout my life, writing has always been the anchor, during both tumultuous times and periods of grace and ease. While the flow temporarily went on lockdown with everything else, I intuitively knew it would return. I could at least trust that much. Sure enough, a few days ago, I began to feel the familiar stirrings. Ideas and words resurfaced. And I’m back with you now. Of course, even this has an air of uncertainty. Thoughts come in fits and starts. Inspiration, ever fickle, could blow away again in an instant. Sentences could give way to rambling. The read could be bumpy at times. But if you’ve made it this far, I hope that you’ll please bear with me. My goal is to share my perspective on the crisis, but even more, to offer up what has helped get through these days a little more comfortably.

The past several weeks have been an exhausting crush of intense feelings and wild thoughts. Fear, anxiety and despair menace relentlessly. Worst-case scenarios gallop through my brain, torching any notions of favorable outcomes or even optimism. It’s a real-time hell that I know many of us have been experiencing. But in spite of the mad bleakness I battle, I’m stubborn. I also have faith in my own resilience. And although chaos is whirling all around me, I’m determined to stay sane and well.  With that intention as my guide, here are a few things that have been helpful for me:

  1. Every morning in my journal, I come up with a sanity plan for the day. This is basically a list of options for bolstering my well-being (i.e. going for a walk) and minimizing anything that is harmful or counter-productive (i.e. reading hospital horror stories). It also includes whatever tasks I “have” to do, like updating my resume. Recognizing that my brain bandwidth is limited at present, I try to keep the “have to-do” list to one or two things. Mental, emotional and physical health are my main priorities right now.
  2. I get outside every day. The sun is good for the soul. The cool air is refreshing. Everything is in bloom right now, and the neighborhood is blazing in bright colors. The growth of the spring plants and flowers is an affirmation of life. I need that sense of perpetuity.  And I’ll take whatever beauty I can get.
  3. Exercise. I try to get in some kind of workout, if not daily then every other day. Thanks to Zoom and other platforms, there are all kinds of fitness options available to us. I’ve been particularly grateful for the Zumba community and for all the instructors who are holding virtual classes that anyone can join. Dance is a source of joy for me, so attending these Zoom Zumba classes not only bolsters my physical health, but my emotional and mental as well. The YMCA has also been great about hosting live classes on Facebook and also posting a variety of workout videos that can be accessed at any time. Exercise has been a lifeline.
  4. I have a wonderful housemate, and we get along quite well. Still, it’s beneficial for me to connect with other friends and family members several times a week. I’m grateful for the technology- Zoom, Facetime, Skype – that allows me to do this. Over the weekend, I joined a virtual surprise party for my sister’s birthday. I also participated in a group chat with old friends whom I’d not been in touch with for some time. These happy interactions bring such comfort to the days and also offer respite from the hardness of current circumstances.
  5. I’m learning that not all of my thoughts are helpful or even true. Understanding this helps circumvent a lot of self-imposed suffering and to ease anxiety over things I can’t control. I’ve been investigating the Stoic philosophy, which teaches that it’s not what happens to us but how we react to it. Although this isn’t new to me, it’s easy for me to lose sight of, especially when in the thick of a wretched situation. The Daily Stoic has been a fantastic resource for this. The “Unf*ck Your Brain” podcast, with Kara Loewentheil, has also been quite useful. Kara does a great job of explaining how the brain works- especially the Amygdala, which is programmed to constantly scan for danger- and provides various exercises to calm mental chatter and redirect thinking to more balanced places. “Thought work,” as she calls it, has been invaluable and has enhanced my sense of well-being during this crisis.
  6. I limit my consumption of social media. I’m well aware of what’s going on in the world and don’t need to constantly scroll through Twitter or Facebook to remind myself of how awful things are right now. It’s like repeatedly poking your tongue at a canker sore to confirm that it still hurts. Over-consumption of news and social media is unhealthy for me and counters my efforts at self-care. Gaps in the day can be risky in this regard, so I’m making an effort to fill these moments with more productive activities. I’ve signed up on Duolingo in the hopes of brushing up on my Spanish. The lessons are a little bit like short video games, but I enjoy them and I’m learning.

Of course, some days are better than others. Most days, I’m able to check many of the aforementioned boxes and feel that my efforts at self-care are paying off. However, I still have some bad days, which usually involve bingeing on chocolate and Netflix or nervously pacing around the apartment and engaging in busy work (i.e. doing dishes) just to stay grounded. But this is okay too. We’re all going through scary and uncertain times. Although global pandemics are not entirely unprecedented, this is certainly new for all of us. We don’t have instructions on how to do this. There are no maps or guides. And what is helpful for one person, might not be for another. We’re in this together but figuring it out for ourselves.

History gives me hope. Generations before us have survived pandemics and have rebuilt after the fact. I also have faith in all the scientists who are using their highest skills and expertise to help us find a way out of this. In the interim, the best we can do is to take care of ourselves and each other. Save for physical harm, there are no right or wrong approaches. The goal is to survive with our hearts and minds intact. To that end, I say do whatever works.

Go outside whenever you can.