#90: Coping with One Year of COVID-19 Lockdown, with Therapist Emily Derouin

Today’s guest is Emily Derouin, a licensed psychologist in Denver, Colorado. She works as a clinician and supervisor at a community mental health center, where she is a generalist, helping people with a wide variety of issues. She also works one day a week in private practice, where she specializes in eating disorders. 

As we approach the one-year anniversary of the pandemic lockdown, Emily helps us figure out how to deal with our emotions around that. Milestones and anniversaries are difficult, partly because they remind us that time is passing. In the case of the pandemic, we’re reminded that not only is time passing, but it’s passing and we still can’t do a lot of the things that we want to do.

Grief has been a common emotion this past year. A lot of people think of grief in terms of a death, and maybe a breakup, but grief applies to any kind of loss—loss of routine, predictability.

A lot of us feel we should be used to this, the lockdown routine, by now. Emily jumped on Melanie’s use of the word “should,” saying “should” is not who we are. “Should” is an idealized version of ourselves or the situation. Stop telling yourself how you “should” feel or what you “should” do.

Emily gives validity to whatever we’re feeling: “There is no right way to feel. Whatever you are feeling right now is valid. You aren’t able to control what pops into your head or the emotions that you feel, and that’s OK.”

The pandemic over the past year has been a rollercoaster as COVID-19 numbers have gone up and down throughout the seasons. And, humans are not built for the long-term stress we’ve been forced to deal with, and our pandemic stress compounds—one thing on top of the other, on top of the other.

Some of the trends Emily has seen: a lot of anxiety early in the pandemic, along with novelty around it as we tried to figure out so many new things, which were a bit distracting from our anxiety. Many of us thought lockdown would only be a few weeks or a few months. Plus, summer was starting, allowing many people to be outside a lot.

Now, a year later, there’s more of a fatigue and depression than anxiety. People feel stuck: “We’re still doing this.” And it’s winter, so we feel more trapped and isolated. (In case you’re wondering, a study in Minneapolis showed that people can stay inside about a month before it starts to affect their mental health.)

Now, people are feeling new emotions related to the vaccine rollout, including anger at the messed-up, inequitable rollout and envy of those who’ve been vaccinated. Some people who got the vaccine may also feel guilt. Emily got vaccinated because she is a health care worker exposed to people with COVID-19, but she had some “weird feelings” about getting the vaccine before others because she’s young and healthy.

By 2022, as the U.S. hopefully beings to open up again, with crowds at sporting events, concerts and busy restaurants, people may feel new emotions, like disappointment or anxiety over being around too many people. We may also go through a grieving process, as some things will never go back to “normal.” We may also grieve the version of ourselves that we lost.

Emily uses acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT)—learning how to make space for the things we are feeling, without getting rid of them, while also focusing on the things that make our life meaningful.

You don’t have to engage with your negative feelings. The more you engage with a negative feeling, the worse it feels. Instead, acknowledge your feeling without feeding into it. That’s easier said than done. But, it can be helpful to learn this process of acknowledging your feelings, without trying to get rid of the feelings.

It’s important to know what works for you when you’re feeling certain feelings. For example, when some people are anxious, they find it helpful to exercise, clean their house or play a video game. Know what works for you.

Emily suggests “grounding,” which is anything that helps you connect to the present moment. You can use the five senses to ground yourself: What are five things you can see? What are four things you can touch right now?

Anxiety doesn’t often live in the present. You’re often anxious about a past or future event or situation.

Doing a body scan can help you figure out how you are feeling. Start at your head and scan down. Perhaps you notice tightness in your shoulders or your jaw, which could single stress for you. Perhaps an upset stomach signals anxiety.

In loved ones, including children, be on the lookout for behavior change as a clue to emotions.

New resources, such as online therapy and low-cost therapy, are making it easier to connect with a therapist. Melanie saw a therapist virtually briefly in summer 2020 and found it helpful to learn tools to help her new anxiety but also to talk through her concerns with a nonjudgmental, objective person.

Self-care continues to be important. However, self-care doesn’t have to be a huge thing, which can feel overwhelming or like one more item on your to-do list that you don’t have time for. Self-care can mean getting outside, doing some exercise, eating healthy, getting more sleep.

It’s critical that you are taking care of yourself, that you are “filling your cup.”

Melanie encourages people—especially parents, especially moms—to let some things go on the to-do list. Or, as Emily put it “changing where the bar is.” Maybe you don’t fold the laundry, or clean as often as you want, or you don’t care if the kids don’t make their beds or they heat up a frozen pizza for dinner two nights in a row.

What will this long-term stress do to us? Too much stress can hurt our memory and concentration. Chronic stress—and high levels of cortisol—impacts the brain. Intense stress can kill brain cells. Genetics plays a role, but some people might be suffering from this long-term stress right now.

Resources:

Lower cost resources for therapy:
1. Open Path Collective
2. Your local Community Mental Health Center, which offers sliding fee scales if someone does not have insurance. It can be as low as $5 a session. Many of them are also taking private insurance now too and have lots of other services such as groups, psychiatrists, case managers and other great resources. Google the county you live in and “mental health.”
3. Online apps like TalkSpace and  Better Help
4. National Crisis hotline
800-273-8255
While they often have “suicide” in the name, you don’t have to be suicidal to call. The national number will route you to your local call center.

Deliberate Freelancer #48: How to Cope with Coronavirus Anxiety, with Therapist Mira Dineen

Deliberate Freelancer #70: Techniques to Deal with Anxiety from My New Therapist

Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers” by Robert Salposky

The Happiness Trap website—free resources online that Emily likes

Washington Post article “‘Oh, we’re still in this.’ The pandemic wall is here.”

AARP article “COVID-19 Vaccine Rollout Comes With a Dose of Guilt and Envy

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