A Minneapolis psychotherapist has a word of advice for those whose lives have been turned upside down by the COVID-19 crisis — in other words, everyone. That advice is: Focus on the facts.
“In a situation like self-isolation, the particular thing that can drive up fear for people is that the stakes feel very, very high,” said Ann Scott Dumas, who works with clients on trauma and anxiety. “Yet their personal sense of power feels very low. That combination of high stakes and low power can be really quite overwhelming to the nervous system. And that's the recipe for a word that we hear a lot these days, which is ‘trauma.’”
Dumas talked about ways to overcome fear and to thrive during this time of self-isolation. One way to decrease our fear is to increase our sense of power in places where we have impact or influence.
“Getting the stakes to feel more manageable probably involves fairly basic and obvious things,” she said, “like getting realistic information about what we know and what we don't know. If we keep our eye on the actual facts, that can maybe help us not spin out into imagining really what we don't know yet, which can make the stakes go really high.”
Another good guideline is to control what you can: your space, your actions and yourself.
“Find what nourishes you,” she said. “Find what helps you move from a sense of crisis to a sense of opportunity, so you focus on how you can use this time well, how you can actually cultivate things that are important to you, and make this a meaningful time, a valuable time, a growth-full time. Maybe even an enjoyable or creative time. So, you’re not just trying to endure it.”
She said some people might have a hard time focusing on the positive right now, and that’s normal. When we sense that something is wrong, we have a built-in “what's wrong?” antenna.
“We feel like we can't take our eye off of what's wrong because No. 1, something might jump out and get us. No. 2, we might look like we're being sort of cavalier, or uninformed or even irresponsible, or crass to not be focused all the time on what's wrong,” Dumas said. “But in fact, to focus on what's wrong is very metabolically expensive. It really burns out the energy in our bodies very quickly. We're not really designed to focus that way. We're really designed to focus on what's wrong only as long as it takes to run from the tiger and climb the tree. And then our systems want to calm down again.”
“So, it's actually better for our immune systems, better for our psychological well-being, and ultimately better for our community if we focus on what feels good. What helps us feel relaxed. What helps us feel connected. What helps us feel productive. What helps our nervous system settle into a more sustainable gear. So, that's actually the responsible thing to do.” Dumas said.
This is a good time to examine our relationship to stillness, rest and solitude. This will come more naturally to some, but the people who struggle with stillness may reap the most benefits from embracing it. Luckily, self isolation is not all about being quiet.
The other side of resting is accomplishing. Dumas suggests that it’s a good time to clean, order and repair things.
“That will reflect back to you, ‘Hey, I got some agency. I've got some power here. My space looks better. It's more beautiful, it's more functional. It's more clean and orderly. I feel kind of in charge of my world,’” she said.
Dumas encourages us to look for things we enjoy doing, and for things we find beautiful. She also thinks it's a great time to connect with those we love, near and far.
“It’s a great time for long-distance relationships because honestly, everybody's going to be home,” she said. “People are less busy, they're not going anywhere. They're probably feeling lonely, too. They might be a little bored. So there’ll never be a better time to reach out and probably find people eager to hear from you and looking for something to do.”
When we think in terms of connecting, sometimes we only think in terms of connecting to other people. But Dumas says it's an important time to also think about just connecting to something larger, whatever that means to you.
“That might mean connecting to nature,” she suggested. “This might be a good time to take a walk in the natural world. Again, it could be a good time just to even look at photographs of nature, to listen to nature sounds. It could be a good time to do yoga, to pray, to chant, to do spiritual reading. You know, whatever it is that helps you feel like there's sort of a larger web here and I am part of it and I can be connected into that.”
Dumas’ practice is called Deep River and is located in Minneapolis.