Mental Health Survival Guide

An abridged version of  THE FIGHT contributor James Guay’s online feature on dealing with the pandemic. For the full version visit: www.livingmorefully.com

BY JAMES GUAY, LMFT

COVID-19 has transformed our world. Not only has it led to spiked infections, it’s also instilled mass hysteria, global grief, worldwide trauma and a huge stop to our everyday normal routines. So, how do we cope with a worldwide pandemic given our fears of infection and spread? How can we practice greater compassion at a time when we fear limited resources? How can we take into account the impact of our actions on others who may be more vulnerable than us?

1. Increase Self-Awareness

The first step to managing our COVID-19 stress better is getting ourselves off auto-pilot by increasing our self-awareness. Let’s call this what it is, again. We’re experiencing collective trauma and grief on a worldwide level. We’re responding to this with panic, fear, disbelief, hopelessness, numbness, denial, hoarding behaviors, and a wide variety of other thoughts, feelings and behaviors. 

We first need to know what we’re dealing with internally and the best way to do this is to bring a sense of curiosity, without judgement. When we criticize ourselves for our reactions, it’s not safe for those things to come into conscious awareness. If we don’t create enough safety for us to feel what we feel, think what we think, and sense what we sense, then they will operate at the mercy of our unconscious, out of our awareness. Unaddressed, they’ll wreak havoc on our lives, like this coronavirus has. Mindful curiosity, without judgement, is the first step to treat what is bothering us mentally, emotionally, and spiritually.

2. Attend to Thoughts, Feelings & Body Sensations

Attending to our internal landscape, we need to acknowledge what’s there, allowing for whatever exists without trying to force it to be different. When we reject what we find or judge it, it often gets more intense and lasts longer than it otherwise would. Next, by naming what we find we get closer to identifying it and attending to it in ways that are needed. We then need to be with what we find in a balanced way, not denying/minimizing/ignoring but also not overindulging/obsessing/ruminating. We need to give it the space and time it deserves to inform us of what’s going on so that we can take appropriate actions, if any, and let it flow through us into something different. 


“It’s a reset to come back to our common humanity and address destructive othering of each other. It’s a time to wake up to our inherent goodness, worth and value.”


3. Take Mindful Action

Before we take any actions, let’s ask ourselves, is this the best course of action right now? Sometimes we’re doing something just to do something, and it’s not actually what we need. Other times, we are in producing mode in an attempt to justify our worth and value. I’ve had to even pace myself in writing this and take longer than I’d like to, because I recognized that I needed my own downtime first in order to process everything that’s going on and take care of myself in the ways I’m encouraging you to do here.

There are lots of great lists out there about what kinds of activities we can do while staying at home. We don’t have to do any of these things but rather whatever feels supportive and nurturing right now. 

4. Create Down Time

We are at an opportune time for a global reset on how we manage our time. For far too long, and really since the Industrial Age, we have promoted production and DOING at the expense of balance and BEING. Both doing and being are essential in living a full life but when they’re out of balance we’re more likely to experience illness, burnout, boredom and overall dissatisfaction in life.

We need to slow down to do more. If we’re over-producing and over-working, there comes a place of diminishing returns. We can lose our creative spark, concentration and focus. We lost connection with our life force that replenishes us and keeps us inspired.

For a more balanced life, we need to be clear about what’s most important to us, take action based on these goals, take in the nourishment from doing this, and then rest in order to recuperate. When we circumvent this process and don’t allow enough down time, especially during crises like we’re currently experiencing, we increase our suffering.

5. Spread Compassion

We are all in this together, even if we have differences in how it affects us given our specific circumstances and vulnerabilities. We’re all in this together despite our responses. Some of us are on the front lines providing essential services. Others are in self-quarantine to prevent spreading this infection. There are still some of us who are denying the gravity of all this or not caring about the impact of our exposure to others in our communities. It brings out the best and the worst in us.

This moment can magnify our soft spots and increase our anxiety, depression, loneliness, suicidal thoughts/actions, and relationship conflict including domestic violence and abuse. It can engender harmful racism, discrimination and xenophobia. There are many LGBTQ youth and adults that are not in safe homes during all of these stay-at-home orders. This moment in time highlights our wealth inequality and the systems that support it. Hyper-capitalism, hyper-individualism and extreme religiosity are systems that make it difficult to adapt appropriately to a pandemic.

Mindfulness WITH compassion is the antidote for what ails us. When we increase our awareness in the present moment with curiosity, instead of judgement, and bring compassion to whatever we discover, we can navigate our response to real-life threats, like pandemics. We honor our organic response, get to know it, be with it and create space inside for how we can care for it with gentleness, grace and even fierceness. It takes both tremendous courage and vulnerability to do our internal work, especially at a time like this.