You’re Not Losing Your Mind, It’s Grief!
Author: Stephanie Camins – MA, LPC
The COVID Grief Wheel Recovery Exercise
As the world as we know it comes to a screeching halt, many of us are left wondering, now what? When will our lives return to normal? What will the new normal look like? When will we see our loved ones again? What will the financial impact be? Will anyone I know gets sick or the unthinkable, die?
Along with these big picture questions, are all the normalcies of our lives that are now gone.
When will I be able to work from the office again? Will my children return to school in the Fall? When can we stand behind a neighbor in line without silently measuring 6 feet of distance? When will I be able to workout at the gym, or get a pedicure, or haircut, or go to my favorite restaurant or concert or travel? I miss my friends and family. Will we ever
be the same? The list is so long!
Life as usual with the typical ups and downs and the familiar daily routines is gone. Uncertainty is the new normal. The reality of the pandemic and its consequences to our daily lives hit us like a ton of bricks. With the shock of the situation comes resistance, disbelief, numbness preoccupation, disorientation, confusion, anxiety, and yearning.
The losses we are experiencing right now are enormous. The loss of loved ones. The loss of our normal way of life. The loss of the feeling of safety and security. The loss of plans, activities, workplaces, coworkers, get-togethers, graduations, weddings.
Although you may not have recognized your emotional reactions as grief, working through the grief wheel below is a useful exercise in moving through this crisis to emotional recovery. After the “loss,” the wheel takes you through phases of shock, protest, disorganization, and reorganization moving to recovery. For this exercise you’ll need paper and pen and 30-60 minutes in a quiet space to focus on the emotions and thoughts you’re experiencing right now.
Grief Recovery Exercise
Take a moment and write all the losses you are experiencing in your life right now from the smallest to the largest. It may be events, people, experiences, things, a way of life, a job, anything at all. Get it all on paper. Leave out any feelings of guilt or shame. Yes, other people may have it worse. That’s not what this is about. This is about YOU and YOUR experiences. Your feelings are real, and they are valid!
Next, think back to the first moment in this crisis you remember the light bulb of awareness going on. The moment when you thought, “Is this really happening?!” This may have been months ago, a few weeks ago or even a few days ago.
You may have thought things such as, this can’t possibly be a real thing, or they want me to stay 6 ft away from everyone, how is that going to work, or this won’t last more than 2 weeks and we’ll all go back to normal.
Denial of the severity and the reality of the situation or downplaying the impact of what is happening is common, especially in the beginning. You may have felt numb or irritable or despondent or experienced a loss of appetite and difficulty sleeping.
This is the shock phase of the grief wheel. Take a moment and write down the thoughts and emotions you had during this time. What experiences did you have with those around you? Were they supportive or critical? Number your emotional reaction 1-5, 1 being little to no emotional reaction to 5 being very strong.
During this phase its normal to be at a 1 or a 5, having little to no reaction or feeling numb all the way to high levels of anxiety. You may also find yourself moving between the two, moment to moment or day to day, as the very fluid situation evolves. Do you find yourself distancing yourself from people and information or becoming obsessed with fact-finding and planning?
*Note that during the cycle of grief you may experience any of the phases at any time. Grief does not move in a straight line.
You may have found yourself unable to stop watching the news trying to assess what was going on. You may have had a hard time thinking about anything but COVID. You might have found that ALL your conversations centered around the pandemic.
Excessive worry about having enough supplies, or how to keep you and your loved ones safe may have intruded on every moment of your day. It is normal to try and regain a sense of control during uncertain times.
This protest phase can include an increase in anger, irritability, and anxiety. What thoughts were you having as the reality of the pandemic and its impact began to take shape? What were some of the first actions you took?
We were all required to make changes in work and family life. List these changes. Next to the list write the number between one and five. One being no stress and 5 being very high stress. How did you manage the changes, with ease or with protest? What did you do the cope with any increase in stress, good and bad?
As the reality sets in protest turns to disorganization. You may find yourself sinking into, depression, despair and loneliness during this time. We are under stay at home orders, missing our people and not having any real timeline on when this will end, it is understandable that apathy takes over. The normal hustle and bustle of daily life has slowed to a snail’s pace in some respects and become chaotic in others.
You may be juggling working at home while homeschooling your kids. You and your spouse may be sharing the same kitchen table for a desk. Going to the grocery store is now an ‘event’. All your routines have been tossed out the window. A sense of unreality creeps in as the sudden shift in your life begins to sink in. One day you had a job you’ve been at maybe for years and the next day your employer has to shut down.
You are now told to stay at home and distance yourself from everyone that doesn’t live with you. Whether you are an extrovert or an introvert, humans are built to connect with each other. With decreased socialization from work and social activities, loneliness and isolation can become problematic.
Restlessness increases as timelines extend and restrictions on activity increase. Unclear information causes confusion and feelings of unreality. Whether you struggled with depression before the pandemic, or not you may now be feeling sadness, despair, hopelessness, helplessness and a sense of doom. This is grief.
Write down all the emotions you are experiencing in this phase. This can include anger, anxiety, irritability, frustration, or sorrow for example. Note also the glimmers of good feelings you’ve experienced. Maybe its relief at not having to run around so much or make the commute. Maybe its joy in the extra family time. The glimmers of positive will help you move into the next phase.
During this phase, you will begin to discover new routines that work. Have you put together a home gym, set up a mini-classroom, played Scattergories or had happy hours on zoom? Maybe you find that having your groceries delivered is fantastic like I have! Finding new ways to do your job virtually may have lasting benefits for your career. Or it may be literally, reorganizing your house or your mind! What new interests have you found during this time of being home? What new ways have you found to connect to others?
Take time to look for meaning. Larger meaning such as beneficial changes in our environment or our relationships or our priorities to ‘smaller’ meaning such as increased respect for hand-washing and haircuts. What are your take away lessons from COVID? What changes would you like to keep after the stay at home orders end? What values have helped you stay grounded in this situation?
Keep adding to this list as we move through the remainder of this situation. The pandemic has not ended, and we do not know what is next, but this will pass, and we will come together with our friends and family with an increased sense of connection and appreciation for each other and our lives.
Recovery or Deterioration
The goal is to move through this wheel to recovery. Grief, however, is slippery and can change directions on a whim. One day you feel positive and hopeful seeing the light at the end of the tunnel. Then, you may have a day when you’re exhausted, restless and don’t feel like you can take anymore. You may hear a rumor or see a post on social media that sends you into a panic attack. Deterioration looks different for different people but includes an increase in crying, loss of appetite, explosiveness, panic and anxiety, insomnia and self-shaming. If this happens, know that it is normal, validate your feelings and re-center yourself.
An example of deterioration:
You wake up feeling pretty good. You’ve found a new routine that seems to be working more or less. You get started with your day and are off and running. During the day however you notice that you are becoming increasingly anxious trying to manage your own work online with the kids doing work next to you or filling out endless virtual job applications that go nowhere. Your thoughts seem to be looping on catastrophic outcomes and you are struggling with focusing on your tasks.
You decide to take a break and scroll through social media. You see more confusing and conflicting information with panicked medical people and arguing politicians and reporters.
You start feeling a bit faint and your breathing gets rapid. “Well, that wasn’t helpful!” you say and go splash some water on your face and try to get back to work.
You make it through the rest of the day getting maybe half of your work done. You go to make dinner feeling bad about yourself because you can’t get anything done and you feel terrible, and now you don’t have all the ingredients you need for your recipe. You throw in the towel, get out the bag of chips and possibly a bottle of wine or some weed and lay in front of Netflix.
This could be a typical day for anyone, right now especially. Let’s take a look at how to manage the reality of what is going on around us right now in a healthy way.
From Deterioration to Recovery:
When you notice that you are starting to have difficulty focusing, this is usually the first sign that you may be sliding into anxiety, negative thought loops or you are too distracted by your environment. This happens to us all the time, not just during COVID. As soon as you notice losing focus or feeling distracted or anxious get up, stretch, take a deep breath. If you are still unsettled, get some water or splash some cold water on your face. Or a cold compress (if makeup is an issue-no excuses!)
Social media during this time will only exacerbate the issue. It is not a brain break and will increase distraction and/or anxiety. Save that for after the workday and set a short time limit. Use it only to check on friends and focus on positive posts.
Now let’s add in some realism (validation) for our current state of affairs. You may not get all your work done. You may lose some of your effectiveness and efficiency. Productivity may go down. It’s OK. You will catch up. Things will eventually get back to normal, or at least a version that you recognize as being a close runner up. This is the validate your feelings part. You will feel all the phases of the grief wheel and it is ok to feel these feelings, even when they are uncomfortable.
We will ALL have days where we start out feeling like we’ve got this and end up feeling like we definitely do not. The roller coaster of grief is random and unpredictable, mirroring our current pandemic situation. When you find that the level of your emotions is either too high (panic, anxiety, anger) or too low (depression, loneliness, apathy) it is important to have some healthy go-to coping skills to return to a calm state rather than going to overeating or substances.
Go to a quiet space and get into a comfortable position. Close your eyes and take several deep breaths focusing on breathing in for seven seconds, holding for two and then exhaling for 7 seconds. Visualize a place where you feel safe, secure and content. In your mind imagine what you see, smell, hear, taste and feel. Envision what is around you in detail. After spending several minutes in this place, take another deep breath knowing you can come back to this place anytime you want. When you open your eyes, focus on what is around you. Again, what do you see, hear, feel, taste, and smell. This will help you ground yourself in the present. Focus what is currently happening in your four walls right now. This will help ease your thoughts of anticipatory anxiety. When we focus on the present we eliminate the what if’s.