How to Cope with Strange Emotions in the Time of COVID-19

10 Minute Read
During the coronavirus pandemic, we’ve noticed many of our clients are experiencing difficulty identifying and labeling their feelings. The entire human race is experiencing a collective trauma that’s reminiscent of a wartime era. Most people have never experienced anything like this before, and with this type of unprecedented event comes a great deal of psychic fallout, without much knowledge of how to cope with this strange new landscape. 

While isolation and confinement may lead to easily identifiable responses such as anxiety, loneliness, or depression, we’re also seeing acute, more elusive emotional experiences that appear unique to the current situation.

Here are 7 of those more elusive emotions, as well as steps you can take to soothe yourself. Jump to one you may be struggling with, or read through them all below.

1. Losing a Sense of Time

“The Great Pause” button has been hit on our normal daily routines as we answer the call to self-quarantine. We’re no longer commuting to work, seeing many friends or family (if any), celebrating holidays, or fully experiencing the seasons change. Days turn into weeks and time continues to pass with a humming and mind-numbing monotony.

Life outside of confinement has also come to a screeching halt with the exception of a few industries, so for many there’s no benchmark or anchor that business and life is carrying on as usual. This experience of our lives essentially being frozen in time and having to wait is very unsettling, and it makes our experience of time nebulous, or “mushy.”  

How to Cope with Losing a Sense of Time

Practice mindfulness. Pay extra attention to your sensory experience the next time your window is open or you’re on a walk.

What’s your experience of nature? Instead of focusing on the unsettling images of the pandemic—the shuttered storefronts, people wearing masks—really take a moment to pause and focus on Mother Nature.

Be intentional about keeping a small daily routine. The days may blend into one another more easily if we pass the entire day in pajamas on the couch watching TV. This isn’t to say you should force a routine of productivity; it’s about finding what feels right for you. This may mean incorporating small amounts of structure into your day. Something as simple as making sure you’re eating, waking up, and going to sleep at your usual times ensures your sleep cycle and nutrition don’t get derailed, which is essential to learning how to cope with this new reality.

spring cleaning grounding
Be intentional about keeping a small daily routine. This isn’t to say you should force a routine of productivity; it’s about finding what feels right for you.

2. Anticipatory Anxiety

There’s a great deal of anticipatory anxiety about events that may occur as a result of this pandemic. People are experiencing so much uncertainty and asking themselves, “How long will this last? Will I lose my job? Do I have enough in savings to ride this out? Is the government assistance going to be enough? What will happen if I get sick?”

The truth is we don’t know when things will go back to normal, and that uncertainty is difficult to manage. Anxiety is often a result of ruminating about future events that haven’t happened yet. 

How to Cope with Anticipatory Anxiety

Focus as much as possible on what you have control over in the present moment. Start with identifying one worry that is in your control and approach it with curiosity in order to find a solution. For many of our clients, the best place to start is by simply identifying that they do indeed have control over how much power they give their worries. Reduce the power your anxious thoughts hold over you by making this commitment to yourself every day when you wake up.

This is a pandemic, not a plane crash, and the slow drip of disaster news reporting amplifies and reinforces negative emotions.

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3. Grief and Loss

Many people are experiencing grief and loss reactions during this time but don’t realize that’s what they’re feeling until it’s labeled for them. Being able to recognize and accept the more intangible losses we face because of this pandemic can be profound: loss of community, loss of trust in our government or leaders, loss of how things were, our “normal” way of life, loss of financial stability or being able to provide for our families, loss of feeling like the world is a safe place.

This type of grief is harder for people to identify—and therefore, to know how to cope with—because there’s no public funeral or formal recognition for what they’re feeling. 

How to Cope with Grief and Loss

Even though we’re experiencing this on a large scale, it’s important that you give yourself permission to grieve and recognize the loss and how it’s impacted you personally. Depending on our life circumstances, we experience it in our own way (some may even outright deny any losses). It’s common to experience the same stages of grief just as you would when you grieve a loved one who’s passed.

Explore and talk about what you’re experiencing with a trusted partner, friend, or therapist to work through your feelings associated with the loss.

One of the first steps in learning how to cope with this “new normal” is to give yourself permission to grieve, and to recognize the loss you’re experiencing.

4. Guilt, Shame, and Self-Criticism

On social media, we’re seeing people post their daily schedules, which basically amount to highlight reels. This is the rule of perfection for social media; why would there be an exception or day off during a pandemic?

We’re seeing our friends’ and bloggers’ productive schedules, which include the toughest workouts, Michelin-star-level gourmet meals, picture-perfect family activities, inspirational monologues, all the while continuing to thrive in their jobs and relationships despite quarantine. People are obsessing over productivity.

There’s a quote going around that says something along the lines of, “If you don’t come out of this with a new side hustle, skill, or knowledge, it wasn’t about not having the time.” People are shaming each other if they’re not productive enough or they’re being overly self-critical if they’re not using this “down time” to be productive. 

Adopt the motto ‘Alert but not anxious.’ Make a conscious decision to not to let fear or anxiety consume you.

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How to Cope with Guilt, Shame, and Self-Criticism

Remind yourself that this isn’t a paid vacation. It’s okay to not be a super high achiever, it’s okay to not force yourself into hyperproductivity mode. During periods of stress we all function and cope differently, so why would now be any different?

Start with being a bit more compassionate and forgiving toward yourself. Many people aren’t even aware of the self-critical or judgemental thoughts they tell themselves. We get used to our thoughts just floating around in our minds and accept them as our internal reality.

It’s time to turn up the volume on your awareness of your inner dialogue. What are you telling yourself? Then ask yourself what you would say to a friend who’s experiencing similar guilt over productivity. Would you tell your friend to do more than what they feel they can right now? Of course not! Talk to yourself as you would a friend and challenge self-defeating thoughts, especially ones that include “shoulds” and “musts.”

 

5. Anger

The myth that America is invincible simply because we’re a wealthy, powerful nation has been shattered. Until now, things like pandemics always seemed to happen in faraway places with oceans between us. Once it arrived on our soil and our efforts to contain the pathogen really mattered, our healthcare system has proven itself completely unprepared to provide even the most basic protective measures to frontline workers. There’s anger with our leadership, or the lack of leadership, the lack of action, and lack of empathy. 

How to Cope with Anger

Acknowledge the anger and, more importantly, what’s underneath. Anger is often a mask for grief. Allow yourself to feel both the anger and sadness, and use them as fuel for action. Where can you help or make a difference for someone else? Can you donate a meal to frontline workers? Offer to pick up an elderly neighbor’s groceries? Call your state legislators to demand reform?

Even if it’s just a matter of offering kindness or comfort to someone, identify how you can channel these feelings productively.

With this type of unprecedented experience comes a variety of emotions. The good news is there are actionable steps you can take today to ground and soothe yourself.
finding joy

6. Heartbreak and Sadness

People are experiencing collective grief and injustice. Returning to grief, we may experience sadness surrounding the loss of loved ones, friends, or colleagues due to the virus itself, or sadness due to other intangible losses given the current state of the world. Some people may still be feeling shock, numbness, or anger. Once those emotions wear off and the quarantine is lifted, people may experience these powerful emotions if they haven’t already.

How to Cope with Heartbreak and Sadness

Similar to grief, it’s important to you give yourself permission to feel sad and the emotions that may follow. This is often a stage of grief, and it’s vital to work through the emotion instead of trying to stifle its expression. Not crying doesn’t mean you’re expressing it incorrectly; this is a highly personal experience.

Allow yourself to just experience your feelings without self-judgement or criticism. Don’t be afraid to talk about your sadness with trusted friends or family—they may also be struggling with the same feelings.

 

This type of grief is harder to identify—and therefore, to know how to cope with—because there’s no public funeral or formal recognition for these feelings.

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7. Fear

There’s a lot of fear surrounding this pandemic because there are so many unknowns. When this first started, we witnessed a knee-jerk panic reaction manifested in the form of sold-out grocery store aisles and people hoarding more than necessary. When people are afraid they go into survival mode, and that’s what we were seeing.

We don’t know how long this will last, how long we’ll have to quarantine, or when life will return to the normal we once knew. The virus is new, so we don’t have life-saving vaccines, therapies, or even herd immunity at the ready. On top of the fear of getting infected or possibly dying, it also feels like we’re defending ourselves against an uncontrollable, invisible enemy.

How to Cope with Fear

Adopt the motto “Alert but not anxious.” Make a conscious decision to not let fear or anxiety consume you. Follow health officials’ proposed guidelines to wash your hands, avoid touching your face, and take the necessary precautions when you must leave your home.

Remain informed by checking the news once a day, but limit your overall news consumption. Don’t leave the news running all day in the background.

This is a pandemic, not a plane crash, and the slow drip of disaster news reporting amplifies and reinforces negative emotions.

Remember That You’ve Got This

With this type of unprecedented experience comes a variety of emotions. While some feelings are easily identifiable it’s important to also honor our more elusive emotional experiences that appear unique.

The good news is that there are actionable steps you can take today to ground and soothe yourself.

Your Turn: Did any of these emotional experiences resonate with you? If so, how? I’m curious about your perspective on what emotions you’re experiencing during COVID-19 and how you’re coping. Let me know in the comments below!

Dr. Logan Jones

Dr. Logan Jones is a Psychologist and Founder of Clarity Therapy. Sign up for his free 30 Days of Gratitude email series and follow him on Instagram at @drloganjones.

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