April 25th, 2020

Making room for yourself during the pandemic.

Paola Bailey, Psy.D.

A therapists guide to navigating the coronavirus pandemic (part 1 of however many it takes).

You’ve probably already read several pieces about managing anxiety in the time of coronavirus… Most may have told you to limit your exposure to the news, create structure and routine in your new “normal,” and stay (remotely) connected to the ones you love. While these are important strategies in helping you cultivate sanity during these difficult times, I have found them not quite sufficient in managing my own feelings these days.

What I found to be missing is the skill of embracing and/or thinking.

And/or thinking is a topic I frequently discuss in therapy because I often find we are terrible at this kind of cognitive and emotional flexibility. Humans have a tendency to get rattled when we hold contradictory thoughts/feelings about any one thing. It can be confusing at best, disorienting at worst. We like to know exactly how we think and feel about any one topic, ranging from your husband’s habit of leaving socks on the floor, to which brand of yogurt is best, to gun rights. We like to think one way about things and have one set of complimentary feelings about those thoughts. And here is where the trouble lies, as life can sometimes generate circumstances that are much more nuanced and complex and which elicit a variety of cognitive and emotional responses. And our cumulative reactions to the COVID-19 pandemic is nothing if not nuanced and complex.

What I mean by and/or thinking is give ourselves permission to be anxious, sad, deeply worried, AND to find grace and gratitude in some part of the specifics of our particular circumstances. To feel overwhelmed and at a loss about how our world seemed to change overnight AND feel grateful to spend extra time with your family. To feel dread in the face of the virus’ spread AND feel some joy when we hear of polluted skies and waters clearing as we all reduce our activity.

Let me give you a for instance. For me, this skill has been deeply tested this week as I struggle to balance the reactions of fear, anxiety, and panic with deep gratitude and perspective. In moments of anxiety and grief I found myself feeling guilty for these experience because I have a job I can do from home. A loud voice in my head yell that I should JUST feel grateful. In those moments I have to pause and remind myself that two things can be true…. that I can make room for seemingly contradictory experiences without having to pick one as the winner of truth or the sole reality. I can feel both scared AND grateful.

So, I invite you to make conscious and compassionate room for yourself during this particularly difficult time. To be generous and allow yourself various reactions without having to chose one as the truth. To feel both sides of whatever it is that you are feeling and to know that difficult circumstances are particularly good at eliciting complex and seemingly contradictory reactions and that two seemingly opposite things can be true at once.

Dr. Paola Bailey is a psychologist practicing in Manhattan & Brooklyn, New York.