Times are difficult globally; awakening is no longer a luxury or an ideal…It’s becoming essential that we learn how to relate sanely with difficult times. The earth seems to be beseeching us to connect with joy and discover our innermost essence. This is the best way we can benefit others.”

~Pema Chodron

 Like everyone I know, or know of, my reality is suddenly surreal. Quarantines and restrictions are getting stricter every day. As this week has evolved, the reality is sinking in—we are in for the long haul, and that is indefinite. Isolation is our new normal. So, how can we be resilient? How can we survive with grace?

There is no handbook for psychologists on what to do in the face of a pandemic. I’m learning with the rest of you. I did, however, have a very similar experience when I first moved to Saudi Arabia in the spring of 1989 (Saudi Stories #1). I’ve gone back and looked at what helped me then, and I’m paying close attention to what is helping me now. I want to share with you what I’m learning.

Living in a gated, guarded compound in Saudi, after having my passport confiscated, felt the closest to what I and others are feeling now. Containment and total powerlessness. Isolation. Deprivation. Fear and paranoia. The helplessness and hopelessness that can lead to depression. Anxiety that can tip depression into suicidal ideation. In Saudi, I learned the importance of resiliency for healthy survival during difficult times.

Two months into my stay in Saudi, I was clinically depressed. I knew I had to take action or I wouldn’t survive—so I listed the things I knew I could do to feel better every day.

  1. Exercise—which usually meant an early morning run on the beach
  2. Write—something, anything. Journaling my feelings, writing about my experiences in Saudi, working on a creative writing project
  3. Interpersonal contact outside my family and women seeking therapy from me

These were small things, but they were important because I knew they would make me feel better. They were choices I could make to feel empowered. Every morning when I woke up feeling depressed and/or anxious, I could choose to get up and do these things and feel better, or I could choose to stay in bed, knowing I would feel worse. Some days I lost the battle, but over time I won the war. I made it through Saudi relatively sane, and sometimes I even felt happy!

Now, in the time of COVID-19, I’m finding these things to be helpful:

  1. Extreme self-care—critical to keeping our immune systems strong.
  • Good nutrition
  • Vitamin supplements
  • Adequate sleep
  • Plenty of water
  1. Exercise—if you can safely get outside for a walk, do it. Otherwise, do something in your home.
  •  Go online for free classes. I’ve found the community of fitness instructors to be exceedingly generous in offering free, streaming classes. (Thank you, especially, Suzy Crawford, for keeping me dancing with Zumba!)
  1. Write—something, anything.
  • Journal your experiences, feelings, what works and does not work for you. These are historical times, capture them. (Thank you, Wendy!)
  1. Interpersonal contact— This is especially important if you live alone.
  • Make a list of people to reach out to, and do it.
  • Reach back to those checking in on you.
  • Sites like Instagram and FaceBook give us opportunities to connect, especially if we are thoughtful and actually make personal contact with our online friends.
  • Have virtual meet-ups to chat or enjoy a glass of wine with friends online.
  1. Every day do something that feels productive and/or creative.
  • If you can still work, be thankful.
  • Tackle a long-overdue project that’s causing anxiety.
  • Draw, paint, write, knit, quilt. Color in a coloring book.
  1. Reduce anxiety however you can.
  • Turn off negative and/or alarming media.
  • Read uplifting or entertaining books.
  • Avoid toxic people whenever possible.
  1. Meditate to quiet your mind.
  • If you already do, continue.
  • If not, check below where I’ll share an exercise I teach my patients and I practice when I’m stressed. *
  1. Practice gratitude.
  • Make a list of at least three things for which you’re grateful every day
  • Remember, we, the whole earth’s population, are in this together. Focus on how we—those who have access to electricity, iPhones, computers, and the internet to be able to connect with others and to write and/or read a post like this are more fortunate that 99% of our fellow world citizens. For this, be grateful.

Resiliency can be learned. It may be the most important lesson any of us ever learn, because feeling hopeless and helpless can be a lethal combination. Choosing to take actions we know will make us feel better, gives us a sense of empowerment, and paves the path toward happiness. We don’t know when and how this will all end. To the best of your ability, make each day as happy as you can.

As I learn more, I’ll pass it along. In the meantime, please take good care. I appreciate each and every one of you.

*Meditation exercise: I particularly like this method because you breathe naturally in and out without any complicated counting. I also like it because it’s portable! Once mastered, you can use the breathing/counting in almost any stressful situation. Counting keeps anxious thoughts at bay and breathing is the most natural and effective way of relaxing.

Set an alarm for 10 minutes.

Sit comfortably with eyes closed or softly focusing on a lit candle.

As you breathe in, think to yourself “ONE.”

As you breathe out, think to yourself “ONE.”

As you breathe in, think to yourself “TWO.”

As you breathe out, think to yourself “TWO.”

As you breathe in, think to yourself “THREE.”

As you breathe out, think to yourself “THREE.”

Continue on until the alarm goes off. If you lose count, start over. Practice every day and jot down the number you get to. Eventually you’ll see what your average number is on a day with no distractions. Good luck, and please let me know how it works for you.