My feelings of loss are increasing as we approach the COVID two-year mark. My feelings of rage, apathy and despair change each day. We have more bad news on variants. There are more breakthrough cases. Long COVID continues to be a problem. More bad news about hope for returning to “normal.” Then I go to bed, wake up and do it all over again. It’s the worst version of “Groundhog Day.”
If I were speaking to someone else dealing with these emotions, this is the part where I’d usually jump in and offer some advice. It’s my job as a wellness editor to show people how to practice self-care.
What happens if self-care seems futile?
I can’t journal away 800,000-plus COVID deaths. I can’t meditate away the endless uncertainty. I can’t exercise away the anti-vaxxers and misinformation putting all of us at risk. There comes a point where the methods we’ve been told to rely on feel more insulting than helpful.
“The effectiveness of self-care strategies tend to fade if the stressor or trauma increases,” Racine Henry, a therapist and owner of Sankofa Marriage and Family TherapyNew Yorker, said to me. “You can only journal or meditate so much, and if those habits are not resolving the lack of basic needs being met, you’re going to be more frustrated than soothed. People are really suffering and struggling with things that are beyond their control to immediately fix.”
In May 2020, I started writing a piece about how daily outdoor walks were saving people’s mental health. In a moment when all seemed hopeless and unreal, I wanted readers to find something that could be used. I poured my soul into the story’s beginning, detailing my own experience. But the whole time I was writing, I couldn’t ignore the nagging sense that I was putting a metaphorical Band-Aid over a gaping wound. It felt more trivial the more I wrote. The book was not published.
“The longer it goes on, the less desirable things like deep breathing and going for a walk seem,” Henry said. “I also think the fact that we are aware, thanks to national and social media, that these issues are widespread only makes the situation that much more frustrating.”
The articles and self-help tips that are omnipresent in our news feeds can help to simplify the problem. Follow these steps and you’ll instantly feel better. That’s the point, and it’s generally a good thing. They work a lot of the time. Other times ― when the world is dark and you’re living through a pandemic that people have become desensitized to ― they fall flat.
“I can’t journal away 800,000-plus COVID deaths. I can’t meditate away the endless uncertainty. I can’t exercise away the anti-vaxxers and misinformation putting all of us at risk.”
I’m at a complete loss. I turned to experts for insight on how they’re processing this pain, and many feel the same. We can’t avoid the anger or the sadness. Instead, we’re learning to live with it and do what we can while it infects our lives.
Here’s our brief (and still maybe slightly useless) guide to taking care of yourself when taking care of yourself is a fool’s errand:
Do not be afraid to wallow in your pain
You read it correctly. If you’re going to be upset regardless, pushing it away only compounds your rotten feelings.
“I am a big believer in the healing power of wallowing. Instead of working so hard to fight or lessen the negative emotions, we can use that same time and energy to lean in and accept it,” Henry said. “A lot of things suck right now. It’s all there. There’s nothing wrong with embracing the suck and just staying in that moment for a while. So long as your basic functions are being performed (i.e., showering, eating and sleeping), then you can enjoy the moment. work, school, kids, pets), then you can also cry it out or eat the salty/fatty foods, or stay in pajamas all weekend.”
Make a change in your environment
This isn’t permission to throw all caution to the wind, but you can and should alter your surroundings (as long as it’s relatively safe for you to do so and you’re not putting yourself or anyone else at risk).
“Travel is always my go-to stress reliever,” Henry said. “The pandemic has definitely changed the ease and range of travel, but it’s also provided a good opportunity to explore locally. Staycations and road trips are often cheaper than flying. Even if it’s just spending the night at a friend’s house in the next city or state over, a change of scenery can help break up the monotony of being inside so much.”
A to-Do list can be made or completed
You know those annoying tasks you’ve been putting off? This is the time for them to be completed. At least you’ll be annoyed by something other than *gestures wildly* It’s all there.
“Last year I made a list of things I always said I was going to do when I found the time. And when I feel frustrated or anxious, I take out the list and pick something to do,” Henry said. “I either complete a task and feel accomplished or I distract myself by doing something else, which is fine because at least I’m not anxious or frustrated.”
Set boundaries, even if it’s uncomfortable
This is one that’s a little less concrete but just as important. What we’re feeling right now is a result of grief, trauma and burnout. To be able to deal with it, you must maintain your boundaries. It’s crucial that you give yourself space, said Jessica GoldAssistant professor, and director of wellbeing, engagement, and outreach at the Washington University in St. Louis Department of Psychiatry.
“Sure, skills are nice, and finding a hobby you enjoy can help with finding something that might work when it seems like nothing is working,” Gold said. “But you might also feel better by saying no to things and giving yourself more breaks, vacations, and more balance between work and life. It is not an easy thing to do, particularly in the pandemic, but it is important and key to coping.”
“A lot of things suck right now. It’s all there. There’s nothing wrong with embracing the suck and just staying in that moment for a while.”
Do something stupid on your phone
TikTok is my mental soul-saver for the past months. (Until maybe this week when all of the NYC breakthrough cases began infiltrating into my For You page). You can find a small respite in these silly and hilarious videos. If TikTok isn’t your thing, find something else on your apps.
“Social media is a gift and a curse, but I’ve begun using it to find someone or something new,” Henry said. “I limit myself to the explore page of either Instagram or Twitter and click around until something piques my interest. Facebook is full of random videos that show people making elaborate cakes and applying complex makeup. I will never do any of the things I watch, but it’s entertaining and there are endless videos available.”
If you are able, go to bed
It’s easy to know that times are difficult when you find yourself temporarily unconscious. Let your brain have the time it desperately wants and then go to sleep.
“When all else fails, take a nap or go to sleep for the night,” Henry said. “I remind myself that I’m doing the best I can, nothing can be accomplished when frustrated or stressed, and I need all the rest I can get to try again tomorrow.”
Punch or break something
Although I have always loved boxing, I now really love it. It is a form exercise. Sure. But that’s not why I recommend it. Physically expressing anger, in a healthy manner, is cathartic. My mind may drift back to my emotions later, but for a few sweet minutes, it’s just me, my gloves and an outlet. Find something you enjoy the same amount of release.
For support, ask
This one is on every self-care list for a reason, so it’s going on this one, too.
“Asking for help is a strength, not a weakness,” Gold said. “Of course the mental health system is inherently broken and saying ‘get help’ is a privilege, but if you feel you could benefit from getting help, I will always advise trying to find support professionally.” (Here’s a list of options to help find affordable therapy.)
Additionally, “it is really important to find someone, at least one person, you can be open and honest and vulnerable with,” Gold said. “This is a way of taking care of you, and knowing you have someone on your side.”
Can any of these things alleviate all our sadness? Most likely not. In a moment when we don’t feel in control, this might be the only thing we can do. That is all for now.
“There is no right way to feel or cope in a pandemic. Whatever you are feeling is valid and it is important that you let yourself feel,” Gold said. “There are no good or bad or right or wrong reactions ― just reactions. All of them matter and you deserve time and space to express them.”