Hanna's Helpful Hints

Coping with Grief, Loss and COVID stress – Survival Strategies

To say that 2020 has been difficult would be an understatement. The disruption, stress, and change that have occurred over the last year have been immense. What is less often acknowledged is the grief and loss that has been constant and compounding since the beginning of the pandemic.

When grief is discussed, it is often connected with a loss of a loved one. And while these losses are often felt the mostly deeply and profoundly, we as humans can grieve more ambiguous losses that are less tangible. These may be: loss of a job, loss of financial security, loss of health, loss of a sense of safety, a loss of stability and routine, a loss of what we thought our life would be, and of the idea that we know how to predict what will come next.

Take a moment to reflect upon the last months. We have all dealt with the trauma and grief associated with COVID-19 and its impacts:

  • Closures of schools and businesses that have led to parents juggling work, school and distance learning of their children
  • Closures of businesses that provided financial support and stable employment
  • The obvious health and life impacts on those contracting the illness

Along with COVID, we have also experienced devastating wildfires, have witnessed massive social unrest, and protests fighting for social justice and equity. The election came and went, and the change and sense of loss and uncertainty it may have caused individuals at different points, regardless of political affiliation, has been felt deeply.  This time has been experienced by many as one activating stressful event after another, with little time to process the feelings of grief, loss, anxiety, and pain that each on their own may have caused. This does not even take into account the individual losses that each person may have had during this time or pre-existing challenges and struggles with ill health, depression, and anxiety. The graphic below visually shows how this has been experienced by many.

covid anxiety balls

The way humans experience grief, loss, and complex stress is very individualized. There is no universal way of experiencing it. It may be a journey of weeks, months, or a lifelong process. It may be experienced with any combination of shock and disbelief, sadness, guilt, anger, helplessness, fear, along with physical symptoms of aches, pains, difficulty with appetite or motivation, feelings of sickness, and nausea.

Just as there is no universal presentation of what grief, loss, and complex stress looks like and is experienced, there is no universal way that is helpful in moving through and coping with it. However, there are  ways that help many people to cope with this process:

  • Acknowledge the grief and the distressing emotions that you are experiencing and give yourself permission to feel them. Pain and hurt do not go away by ignoring or invalidating their importance. Pain indicates a need, and often that need is to allow yourself to feel it. That may mean allowing yourself to cry or expressing your emotions in other ways; through journaling or other creative outlets, engaging in a support group or therapy, or engaging in a self-compassion break. We too often mistakenly believe that burying our pain makes it go away; however this often only causes it to fester. Noticing our pain, naming it, and honoring our need to feel it helps us move through it; honoring that it is painful means it matters. Accepting that grief and loss may show up for you in different ways each day, activating many different kind of emotions from day to day, allows us space to prepare for them.

Pain is healing

  • Allow yourself to prioritize your self in times of need, and lower expectations for yourself in some areas of your life, even if only temporarily.
  • Seek out support – through friends, family, colleagues, and professionals if needed.
  • Find a self-care routine that supports you mentally and physically. Alongside allowing yourself to feel the distressing emotions that come as you grieve, it is just as important to allow yourself to fill your everyday life with the things that help you rejuvenate and give you moments of rest and joy.
  • Take care of your physical health, Making sure you eat regularly and healthily, start a sleep routine that supports adequate rest, exercise and move your body often, get out in nature when you can, visiting medical professionals when needed are all examples of important physical self care, but are not exhaustive. When you take care of yourself physically, you support your mental health, as our bodies and minds are intricately connected.

Practice both emergency self-care strategies that help you in the moment when distressing emotions arise and you need to cope, as well as long term self care strategies you can integrate into your daily life. Some examples might be:

  • A self-compassion moment (described above).
  • Deep Breathing (taking a deep breath in through your nose to the count of 4 out through your mouth to count of 6-8).
  • Grounding in the present moment (name 5 things you can see, 4 things you can feel, 3 things you can hear, 2 things you can smell, 1 thing you can taste).
  • Listening to a uplifting song or watching a movie.
  • Taking a mental health day/break if you need one.
  • Reaching out to a loved one.
  • Reaching out to a professional.
  • Starting a gratitude practice such as a gratitude journal. Becoming intentional about noticing what we are grateful for, in the best of times and the most difficult, is connected with overall higher wellbeing and ability to experience joy.

Below is the Trauma Stewardship Institutes ideas for self-care and ways to survive and thrive amid stress, grief and loss.

  tiny survival guide

Always remember you are not alone. If you are a student, reach out to the UCC Life Coach if you would like to engage in personal counseling through Zoom or a phone call. If you are staff, reach out to your EAP for assistance with connection to professional support (866-750-1327).

Emergency assistance is also available 24/7 via Compass Behavioral Health 24-hour crisis line at 800-866-9780 or the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-8255 or text HOME to 741-741 to connect with counselors at the Crisis Text Line. 

If you would like to connect with a counselor because you are experiencing trauma, stress, and grief related to racism and discrimination, The Racial Equity Support Line, through Lines for Life, is available Monday through Friday from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m., at 503-575-3764.

References/Links for further learning:

Contact

Hanna Culbertson - Contact
MSW CSWA, UCC Life Coach, Student Services
Phone: 541-440-7896

Self Compassion

“When we give ourselves compassion, we are opening our hearts in a way that can transform our lives” - Dr. Kristin Neff

kindness

It is an unfortunate truth that it is often much easier to be more compassionate and kind to others than ourselves, even in times of great turmoil. Too often, we speak to ourselves in ways we would never speak to others, and this has negative effects on our mental health.

It has been 7 months since the world shifted dramatically in March. Due to changes brought on by COVID 19, we have changed the way we engage in our work, how we parent our children, how we engage in our most basic routines. Our worlds have been shaken up, changed in small and large ways, many out of our control. When we consider what we have all gone through, culturally and individually over the last 7 months, is it any surprise that we may be feeling a variety of emotions, positive and negative from day to day?

Over and over again, I hear individuals discuss the “wall” they have hit in the last several months; the sense that things feel suddenly so overwhelming and that as quarantine and physical distancing continues with no definitive end in sight, people are feeling sad, hopeless and anxious. They are grieving the lives they once had and trying to make sense of the current reality while juggling enmeshed roles and additional responsibilities. I have heard often “I just don’t know why I am feeling this way. This shouldn’t be this difficult.”  Amidst a world rapidly changing, we often blame ourselves for the way we are feeling or question why we cannot cope in the same ways we used to be able to.

An added stressor at this time is the election. The election may stir up even more emotions, regardless of political affiliation. We may feel worried, anxious, fearful, excited, hopeful, depressed and any other combination of emotions as we await the election and any combination of emotions as we process the results. Politics are often tied to our personal values and beliefs and so of course the election may be a time full of stress, during a year when we may already feel our capacity to deal with stress has been stretched.

In times like these when we are all having normal emotional reactions to multiple outside stressors, self-criticism may become a go-to response, when in fact self-compassion and kindness are most needed. Dr. Kristin Neff defines Self-Compassion as treating yourself as kindly as you would a friend. She says when you feel compassion towards others we first notice their pain and suffering. Once we notice their pain, we feel warmth towards that person and a desire to help them in any way you can. When you feel compassion towards others you offer them kindness instead of criticism and you recognize that suffering and hardship are part of the human experience, in as much as joy and happiness is. She says “Self-compassion involves acting the same way towards yourself when you are having a difficult time, fail, or notice something you don’t like about yourself. Instead of ignoring your pain with a “stiff upper lip” mentality, you stop to tell yourself “this is really difficult now,” “how can I comfort and care for myself?”

Neff’s 3 critical ingredients to self-compassion:

  • Self-Kindness vs. Self-Judgement – Instead of saying “Things shouldn’t be this difficult. Why can’t I just power through?” we say “I am having a really hard time right now.”
  • Common humanity vs. Isolation – Rather than feeling isolated or alone in our stress and uncertainty, recognizing that our emotions are universal and that we are connected to other humans who are feeling similar ways as us.
  • Mindfulness vs. Over Identification – Neff says “mindfulness is a non-judgmental receptive mind state in which one observes thoughts and feelings as they are, without trying to suppress or deny them. We cannot ignore our pain and be compassionate towards it at the same time…At the same time, mindfulness requires that we not be over-identified with thoughts and feelings, so that we are caught up and swept away by negative reactivity.”

Please see this link for a “self-compassion break” activity that incorporates all of the above and can be part of a larger practice of being self compassionate and treating yourself as you would a friend.

Research shows that when people are more compassionate to themselves that they are actually more productive, and motivated, and more able to be compassionate towards others; self-compassionate people allow themselves to be fully human and ask “what do I need in this moment of sadness?” instead of “why am I so sad? (Neff, 2013)” The answer to “what do I need?” will be wholly individual and different for every person. What you need in moments of stress or pain may be simply to validate yourself, to remind yourself that it is ok to not be ok. It may be to take a walk, set your work down, and come back to it after a pause, if possible. It may be to reach out to a friend, disengage from media, to permit yourself to cry, to give your self permission to be happy, to laugh with a coworker or vent in equal measure; it may mean a thousand different things that are all valid and reasonable given the situation. It also may mean reaching out for mental health support in the community or through our EAP ( 866 -750 - 1327). 

Whatever it is that you need in your moments of stress amid all we are going through in our world, my hope for you is that you will be compassionate with yourself, to treat yourself with kindness, and to care for yourself as diligently as you would a good friend.

References/Links for further learning:

MRSM Kristin Neff quote 1200

Contact

Hanna Culbertson - Contact
MSW CSWA, UCC Life Coach, Student Services
Phone: 541-440-7896