How to Get along When COVID19 ‘Isolation’ Feels More Like an Endless Road Trip With the Family

Over the first two weeks of the pandemic I was surprised that most of the couples I do emotionally focused couple therapy with, were doing really well.  It’s not that all of their issues were gone, but they seemed to be communicating more purposefully, and working well together, in a crisis.  

COVID19 requires households to plan and to act.  What food do we need from the store?  Which room will you use for your online meetings?  Who will be with the kids, during which times of day?  All of these kinds of changes in a person’s day to day life necessitate communication.  And everyone is in the same boat, so there was a ‘we’re all in this together’ feeling that pervaded at the beginning of this wild ride.  

Many of my couples have a long history together and despite’s the difficulties they’ve faced, they do a good job in a crisis.  They’ve been through a lot and know how to rally together when necessary, for a short period.  

Some have more time now because they’re not working as many, or any, hours.  Despite the financial stresses that this brings, some couples and families have noticed that the time together has calmed some of the tensions between them.  Some family and couple difficulties are made worse from not having enough time together to simply be in relationship with one another. 

I noticed all of those positives in the first few weeks as I worked with couples over video on my computer.  But this past week, things were getting back to normal in some not so good ways.  The negative cycles that the couples are working on in therapy to dismantle, began to rear up again.  This does not surprise me, but reminds me that we could all use some pointers about how to get along in this time of prolonged togetherness.  

(Note:  This article is intended for people in non-abusive relationships.  If you’re in an abusive relationship, please call a therapist in your area for help, the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233, your state’s child protective services number, or if necessary call 911). 


  • SHARE FEELINGS, NOT CRITICISMS   There is a big difference between saying, in a soft, vulnerable voice, “hey Sweetie?  When you said that the way you just did, it really hurt my feelings…” versus, “don’t talk to me like that. that was so rude…”.  If you share your feelings softly and vulnerably, you’re more likely to get your needs met.
  • LISTEN  If your partner, or child complains, really listen.  And don’t just hear them, but hear them.  Try, for a moment, to ignore how they said it and instead try to really hear what they’re saying deep down.  So, when responding to your wife who is saying, (in that irritated tone), “I thought you were going to take out the trash… put the dog out… read to the kids… not be on your phone…”,  etc., do your best to respond to how she likely feels, not the defensive tone she used to tell you.  
  • BE EMPATHIC  Your job is to try to care about your family member’s feelings.  Try to let their concern move you.  Respond from a place of true empathy for their experience.  
  • VALIDATE  If you can, reassure them that you get where they’re coming from.  “It makes sense to me that that upset you.”
  • TAKE TURNS  What happens if two people try to walk through a door at the same time?  It doesn’t go well.  It also doesn’t go well if you both try to share your view point, or feelings at the same time.  No one gets their needs met.  If someone is upset and they’re sharing about it, it’s your job to catch them.  If you’re also upset about something, finish responding empathically to them, take an hour or so in between, and then you can share your feelings with them. 
  • DO WHAT YOU SAY YOU’RE GOING TO DO, and if you can’t do it, tell them ahead of time, tell them why, and apologize.  
  • OVER-COMMUNICATE about plans, sharing space and feelings.  Basically, explicitly communicate about everything for a while.  
  • TOUCH  When words fail, give a hug or a kind hand on a shoulder (as long as that touch is wanted and appreciated).
  • TALK TO THE TEACHER  If you are overwhelmed with your new parental responsibility, called, “being a teacher’s assistant,” take a breath, consider lowering your standard for yourself and your child and consider giving the school or teacher some kindly worded feedback about how it’s going.  I have had more than one parent give feedback to the teacher and then work was decreased or changed in a helpful way.  
  • BE FAIR  Be aware of the concept of invisible labor.  These are the many things that women are expected to do, because the culture is used to it being that way.  No matter how much we talk about, or may want equality in the home, regarding chores and responsibilities, we all tend to play in to keeping the status quo.  I am hearing a lot about this issue right now from women.  “I’m expected to work from home now, take care of guiding the kids learning, on-line and also do most of the cooking and cleaning.”  Or, “why is his meeting prioritized over mine?”  This is a really important time to consider what each of your responsibilities are, and get together and divide them.  Negotiate agreement on who will do what, when, and then try it for one week.  Give it your best shot and then sit down and talk about how it went and see if there’s anything that needs to changed for the next week.  Keep trying different things until you find something that works.  It’s not you against your partner.  You’re in this together, remember?  Trying to make it work and feel good for everyone.  
  • BE FORGIVING  Remember that everyone is stressed… in one way or another about one part of this pandemic or the other.  Everyone has their own real fears, real stress and real worries, whether they’re talking about them or not.  Change alone is stressful and we’re dealing with a lot more than change.  We’re dealing with loss of work, loss of income, loss of control, temporary but significant loss of a way of life, fear of the unknown and fear of illness and death.  
  • GIVE EACH OTHER SPACE   You’re all suddenly together a lot.  Make sure everyone has some time to themselves if they want it.
  • TAKE TIME-OUTS WHEN YOU NEED THEM   If you find yourself flooded with emotion and about to communicate in an unhelpful way, take a time out.  And if your partner or child needs a time out, let them have it.  Don’t follow them around insisting it gets worked out right away.  Letting each other cool down will allow you more healthy communication when you resume.
  • FIND WAYS TO SELF-REGULATE  If you find that you’re trying to do things from this list, like taking time outs when you feel triggered, but you’re losing your cool anyway, it could mean you need to give yourself some extra time to unwind, or get regulated.  This could look like taking a walk, meditating, doing some exercise, or just laying on the bed, alone for 10 minutes.  It could also mean that you’re dealing with more anxiety than you realized.  Feel free to read about managing anxiety, here and here.  
  • TRY TO SURPRISE EACH OTHER WITH SMALL KINDNESSES  This can be as simple as taking a moment to give a kiss, or a kind word.  It could be doing someone else’s chore to make life a little easier for them, or being explicit about the appreciation you have for them.  
  • UNWIND  Whether you’re working from home, looking for work or volunteering, take time for relaxing.  Find time for yourself alone and time for good connection with your family members.    

If your partner or family member is a medical practitioner or first responder, or if they are a delivery driver, sanitation worker, grocery store clerk, or one of the many heroes keeping vital services going, please be oh, so understanding.  

And if you’re a partner or family member of one of the above, get extra support from friends and family, and be kind to yourself.  

Tell me in the comments, how it’s going in your house?  What’s working and what’s not?  

Practical Help for Pandemic Panic

Anxiety in the time of a pandemic makes sense.  Anxiety is normal and protective in many ways.  Some amount of fear can help us make the choices we need to protect ourselves and others from spreading the virus.  But too much of it is not good for anything, including your immune system, so here are some practical action oriented things that can help….

  • Problem Solve   Think about the things you’re worried about.  Many of the these, are things you can do something about, and doing something about them may help lower your anxiety.  If you’re worried about money because your business is temporarily shut down, make a budget and track your spending to see what the reality is.  Look for a temporary job online, or if it feels right for you, work at a grocery store, or deliver food or packages.  
  • Lower Your Expectations   The idea that you can fill your time, and your children’s time, with totally productive activities, not to mention becoming their teacher as well, is pressure you don’t need.  Decide how you will spend your time by listening to your inner compass, not societies expectations, nor social media’s latest thing. 
  • Exercise   Get that blood flowing, and body moving.  Really get out of your head and into your body.  Do anything that creates a little joy or pleasure.  What did you used to love doing?  What do you love doing now?  Hiking, dancing, yoga, lifting weights?  Do it.  You can do it alone, with people you love, or join an online class.  Even hiking, walking and riding can be done at least 6 feet apart.    
  • Enhance Your Nutrition   Good nutrition can help us be at our best emotionally, mentally and physically.  Avoid alcohol which can be a depressant and may lower our immunity at times.  Avoid too much sugar which can also mess with our mood and immunity.  Eat nutrient dense foods.  Try to avoid the SAD (standard American diet).  See if you can eat lots of whole foods.  Drink lots of water.  Avoid anything you know you are allergic or sensitive to.  Those foods can create more inflammation in our bodies which can seriously contribute to emotional disorders like those of anxiety and depression.  
  • Sleep Well and Enough   Sleep 8-9 hours per night.  If you’re having trouble sleeping, contact a knowledgeable doctor or medical practitioner, herbalist, doctor of Chinese medicine or talk to a staff person at Pharmaca.  There are many good solutions for sleep.  Good sleep is essential for good mental health.  
  • Get Outside   Garden, or just sit or walk in the sun.  Vitamin D is another essential ingredient for mental health and we can get a lot of that from the sun.  Nature is also a reminder of what is going really well in the world right now.  From the big sky and beautiful trees to a tiny lady bug, or spring tulip.  Revel in all that is beautiful and just as it was meant to be, in the natural world.  
  • Help Others   Focusing on others can sometimes get you out of our own troubled mental state long enough to help it shift.  There are plenty of people who need lots of help.  In the state where I live the governor has called for volunteers, blood donations and donations of money.  There are elders that need someone to bring them food.  There are many opportunities right now.
  • Busy Your Mind   If you have more time on your hands, do something productive.  Take an online class.  Study something that interests you.  Learning can provide a nice distraction from anxiety.  
  • Do Something Active   What is the saying?  You can’t wring your hands and role up your shirt sleeves at the same time.  Busy your body and your mind may quiet down.  
  • Re-organize Something   Do a home project, garden, paint something.  Just get busy.
  • Meditation, Guided Imagery, and Biofeedback   All of these are very regulating to the brain and body and therefore, the emotions.  The more you do them the more helpful they will be.  
  • Deepen Your Spiritual Connections   Whatever you believe, dive in a bit.  This could look like online services, prayer, acts of kindness, study, etc.  It could also look like meditation or simply appreciating and connecting to nature.
  • Connect With Others   Connect over video, on the phone, with those you live with, standing outside, apart from, but with, neighbors.  Try to work on your relationships.  Enjoy them.  No matter what happens with this pandemic, life is short.  Let’s live it.
  • Consider Adding an Animal to Your Life   Maybe you already have one, or maybe not, but being at home a lot might lend itself to bonding with an animal.  But make sure not to go that route, if you won’t have time for them when life normalizes and you’re at home less.  
  • Sit Still and Notice   Be quite and still.  Just let things stop.  
  • Use Aromatherapy   Scents can be very soothing.  Find a scent that brings you more calm and relaxation.  Lavender is a go-to for many.  
  • Take Baths   Really let yourself feel the full experience of sinking your body down into a warm bath of water.  You can add some flowers, herbs, or scents to your bath to add to the calm.  Candles can add to the ambiance of relaxation as well.
  • Get Creative   Paint something.  Write a song.  Write a book.  Write a poem.  Choreograph a dance.  Learn how to play an instrument.  Express yourself.  Do something creative with your angst.  Transform it. 
  • Figure out What Kind of Person You Are Regarding the News and Information   Some people feel very grounded by getting all the facts, so they can have the best response.  Others feel overloaded and scared by all of the info and need much less.  If you’re the latter, have someone you trust read the news and just give you the facts you need to know to be as safe as possible.  Even if you’re the former, perhaps just look at it once or twice a day.  Receiving news notifications to your devices can create a constant sense of panic and not enough reprieve or sense of normalcy.
  • Meet With a Therapist   We are lucky to have many great therapists in our community.  Ask your friends if they know someone good, or research them on Psychology Today, and the internet.  Try a few or a handful.  If they don’t have expertise in what you’re struggling with, or even if you just don’t like them very much, find someone else.  Then give it a little time.  We are so lucky to live in a time where we can access online therapy and even do it from our couches.    
  • Try Medicinal Herbs and Supplements   These products can help a lot with anxiety.  Contact a functional medicine practitioner, an herbalist, a doctor of Chinese medicine, or talk to a staff person at Pharmaca, if you can.  Traditional herbal medicines have been around forever.  Before pharmaceuticals, herbs were all people had.  Learn about them and make use of the ones that are right for you.  These are simple and powerful medicines from the earth.  
  • Pharmaceutical Help   If your anxiety is too much and not getting better soon enough, consider a pharmaceutical.  There are some antidepressants that are known to help with anxiety.  Consult your physician or better yet, a psychiatrist.  Don’t mix anti-anxiety, and antidepressant herbs and supplements with pharmaceuticals without a doctor’s approval.  

Remember that at any given moment, you are sharing whatever experience you’re having with countless other people around the planet.  You are not alone.  

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Coping With Fear in COVID19

As a psychotherapist, I have seen a whole range of responses to the COVID19 pandemic, from denial, calm acceptance, to mild anxiety, and all the way to true panic.  We are all responding to the same event, but to different triggers regarding that event.  Some people are triggered by seeing the empty grocery shelves.  Unless you’ve lived through a natural disaster, you may have never seen something like that before!  Just the sight of it seems to have triggered panic for so many.   Some are afraid for their parents, for their children, for their medically vulnerable spouses, and some about not having enough money.  Some are afraid about what will happen to their animals, if they can’t take care of them for a time.  Many are afraid for themselves.  Afraid of pain and sickness and potential death.  Some are afraid of all of this.  And on and on the list goes. 

Anxiety is a totally normal reaction to a pandemic.  So is denial.  As the days tick on, less and less people seem to be falling into the denial camp.  Let’s try to continue to be compassionate with others as we see each other reacting differently to the same event.  And let’s be compassionate with ourselves if we sometimes don’t like our own responses to this event.  

There are fears about the situation as it stand now, today, and their are fears about the unknown.  How long is this going to last?  How will this change our lives for the next year, or even beyond?  So, what can help you when you’re scared?  

Basically there are two tracks to go down to get relief from fear:  to go deeper into it, or to move away from it.  Moving away may seem like the obvious choice, but it’s not always possible, and when you try, it may not help enough.  Try to deepen into the fear first, and then go to do some of the things in this article.  If this feels too scary to start with, then try the things in this other article first, and if they don’t work well enough, come back to this.  😊  This may feel a little scary at first, but it’s likely to make you feel much better!

Before you start, make sure you’re somewhere safe and sit back or lay down, and close your eyes.  And if your house is chaotic, with lots of kids and family, you can find a space away, or just do your best, right in the midst of the chaos.  Really go inside of your own experience, taking your time with each step.  Try to take a few minutes, at least, for each one.

Remember, You’re Ok Right Now
In the spirit of Thich Nhat Hanh’s work:
Take a big breath in: I am in my body  
Exhale:  Right now, I’m safe
Do that several times.  Breathing in and out through your nose (not mouth)

Feel the Feeling
Check in with your emotions, your heart, and your body to find the feelings.  If you check in to your emotions and find fear, say to yourself, “I feel so scared right now.” And name the trigger: “I am so scared of…”.  And remember, this is just the feeling that you’re having right now. 

Notice your Body Sensations
Sometimes the best window into the room of the emotion, is through he body.  When you’re in the fear, just notice the sensations in your body.  Find where it is that you feel it in your body.  Your stomach?  Your heart?  Where?  And how would you describe the sensation?  Mentally measure the area of the fear.  “Ok, it’s 4 inches wide, but 12 inches long”.  Just notice.  Just noticing can help you be present with the emotion in a slightly more detached way. 

Validate Your Feelings
Validate what you’re feeling.  It makes so much sense that you feel this way right now.  Of course this is scary.  Just say to yourself, “Of course you’re feeling scared.  There is so much about this that is scary.  That’s so normal you’d feel that way”.

Meet Your Fear With a Nurturing, Compassionate Response
You know that amazing, nurturing, loving grandmother (or mother, father, aunt, teacher, dog, etc) you had who made you feel safe, calm and protected no matter what was going on in your life?  And if not, then the one you wish you’d had?  This is what we’re going for here.  Meet the painful emotion, with a loving, compassionate, and maybe even wise response.  Really imagine that loving response.  Really see that loving presence, and hear and feel their response.  Meet the scared feeling with inner compassion, love and empathy.

Accept the Situation
So much of our distress comes from trying to fight what is happening right now.  But this is what is happening right now.  For example, if you’re scared that you aren’t sure if you can pay your rent or mortgage next month, say to yourself, “It’s true.  I may not be able to pay it.  I’m not sure yet, but I might not be able to”.    

Remember: Feelings are Temporary
Know, this level of fear cannot last forever.  Emotions rise and they fall.  Just like a wave.  Just let them rise.  Feel them rising.  Feel them get to the peak of awfulness.  Know they will come down.  Feel them peak and then notice them coming down.  No matter what you do, feelings will rise and fall.  Knowing this, can help us not panic about the panic.  Fear of the fear can be worse than the fear.  

Have you ever seen this drawing?  
The fear is sometimes smaller than the fear of the fear.  

Separate out Your Feelings from Your Story (and Don’t Believe Your Story)
The story is often confused for the emotions, but it’s actually something totally different.  The story is what we tell ourselves about the trigger.  It’s filled with our assumptions.  The story can be dangerous and inaccurate no matter what it is.  “I’m going to die” can be just as inaccurate as, “I’m going to be fine”.  You have no idea what’s going to happen.  That is all.  You just don’t.  The other thing that’s true is, you’re feeling whatever you’re feeling.  Feelings never lie.  But beliefs and stories are “a bunch of hooey,” as my Granny would say.  So instead of an internal dialogue that goes, “I’m going to die.  Oh no.  This is so bad.  We’re all going to get it and it’s going to be awful…” needs to be changed to, “Wow.  I’m really scared.  I hate this situation and it’s really totally freaking me out.  I’m afraid something awful will happen, but honestly, I have no idea what’s going to happen.  All I know is right now, I’m afraid.”

Connect With Others
When we are afraid, or hurt, or lonely we need to be emotionally and or physically held and comforted.  We need another to be with us.  If you have another who can hold you that way – with love, compassion and empathy, turn to them.  Let them hold you.  Physical touch and holding can be so grounding in ways that words often miss.  And if your other is scared too, hold each other in the fear.  If you are with a dog or a cat or another animal, tell them about it and have a snuggle.  If you’re alone, call a friend, have a video call and talk deeply, or ask a neighbor to talk with you over a fence or from the distance of the driveway.  Let any good feelings that come up from these connections, expand and sink in to your body and your heart. 

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