It’s interesting to see where the mind wanders when it has more time to do so. Like many of the people I work with, COVID-19 has given me the mental space to truly reflect, which has caused an important internal recalibration of sorts. And so, while my blog is typically quite educational in nature, I’ll be writing from a more personal place today and share what I’ve learned during this crazy time.
The body keeps the score.
There’s a well-known psychology book by Bessel Van Der Kolk with this title, which is seen as one of the most influential books of our time due to its research on how trauma impacts the brain and body. After conducting countless studies trauma survivors, Van Der Kolk concluded:
Trauma victims cannot recover until they become familiar with and befriend the sensations in their bodies. Being frightened means that you live in a body that is always on guard. Angry people live in angry bodies… In order to change, people need to become aware of their sensations and the way that their bodies interact with the world around them.
Once Van Der Kolk’s research was released, more and more research continued to highlight the inherent connection between our physiology, emotions, and thoughts. The point is, if you’re under a lot of stress, your body knows it. No amount of over-analyzing, self-motivation tactics, or baths in the name of self-care will change that. Sometimes, you just have to take care of your body and give it a break in whatever way it needs.
This reality slapped me in the face when COVID-19 started. Amidst all of the confusion and panic, I found myself feeling utterly exhausted at the end of the week despite seeing so many less people. This wasn’t normal ‘what-a-week’ exhaustion; it was ‘I-feel-like-a-lifeless-zombie-and-need-to-sleep-for-three-years’ exhaustion. I realized that it was because my body was in a chronic state of fight-or-flight. Every time I turned on the radio, I heard about COVID-19. Every time I looked at my phone, a news alert showed up, and all of them had to do with people dying, stores closing down, panic buying, and more. The fact of the matter was that no matter how much I tried to ‘pull myself up by the boot straps,’ my body kept the score. And it was tired.
I’ve realized more than ever how important it is to be kind to your body. For me, this means allowing myself to have moments of not being productive, go to bed at 9pm if I need to, and avoid high-intensity workouts if I can’t handle them. I’ve developed a stronger ability to check in with how my body is feeling and just respect it rather than fighting it and it has made all the difference.
2. Sometimes you just need your friends.
Even though my partner and I don’t live together, we decided that him staying at my apartment—yes, my one-bedroom apartment that also houses two pets—would be better than having to be apart for God knows how long. While we’ve been getting along shockingly well given the circumstances, I’ve realized that it’s really hard for just one person to give you everything you need. This is something I've always known—I’ve never bought into the idea that your partner should be your “everything”—but it became all the more obvious during this time, especially a couple of weeks ago.
Two weeks ago, I felt like crap all day every day. To make matters worse, my partner and I were just not on the same wavelength. He had had a positive, productive week and was in high spirits. And to no one’s fault, the way he was offering support somehow didn’t match what I needed. So, I had a Zoom call with two of my best girlfriends and it made all the difference. My spirits lifted, my heart felt full, and I was okay again. It reminded me that sometimes you just need to talk to your friends. Sometimes you just need to talk to people who ‘get you’ in a different way, who can support you in a specific way, who can make you laugh with their own unique sense of humour. I guess The Beatles were onto something when they sang, ‘I get by with a little help from my friends.’
3. My weekends seldom felt like weekends prior to this.
I’ve realized how many things I did out of obligation before COVID-19. I’m not saying I didn’t want to spend time with certain people or that I didn’t enjoy their company; what I mean is that weekends can become so packed with socializing, running errands, and driving across the countryside that you don’t feel remotely rested come Monday.
I’ve learned that having weekends where nothing’s on the agenda is crucial for my own mental health—weekends where I don’t have plans, where I don’t go to 2305230958320985 events at restaurants that require three methods of transportation to get to and a psychotically over-priced menu, where I don’t have to make small talk with strangers I will never see again. I need to reclaim the weekend in all of its glory.
4. Thank God for hobbies.
I’ve always been someone who loves creative activities. I’ve gone through phases of making my own jewelry, crocheting coffee sleeves, knitting hats for charities, and lately I’ve been obsessed with knitting socks and making watercolour cards.
I’ve learned that having hobbies is apparently not the norm at ALL. I can’t tell you how many people have told me that they have no idea what to do when they’re not at work. Many of them are perplexed at what they even like to do for fun or what hobbies they’d be interested in pursuing in the first place. This tells me a lot about our culture as a whole—that apparently it’s all work and no play for many of us—though I hope we can all use this time to find hobbies nonetheless. I know I’ve been enormously thankful for mine!
5. Boredom is a gift.
Like many people in Western society, I’ve learned that productivity is king. If you're not being productive, you’re lazy! You’re wasting time! You’re not being your best self!
Well, I’ve discovered that boredom is, ironically, extremely motivating. After my period of intense exhaustion (see point #1), I decided to slow down to almost a screeching halt for a couple of weeks. I didn’t work out, I didn’t spend every waking minute reading 309803925 therapy books, and I gave myself permission to not ‘be the best therapist I can be’ every second of every day. The result? I felt… bored! And it was from this place of boredom that I actually started wanting to work out, wanting to go to work, wanting to read books again because I was finally experience that distant yet familiar feeling of being antsy and wanting to put my energy towards something—anything! Perhaps we haven’t given boredom the credit it deserves.
6. Anything related to my appearance is actually just about how I feel, not anyone else.
No manicures, no haircuts, no makeup stores to browse… let’s just say I’m certainly not looking my best! But I’ve realized that I only care about this because of how I feel, not because of how I look to other people. Some mornings, I’ll spend an extra long time doing my makeup just because I want to feel good in my own skin, not because I remotely care about looking nice for anyone else.
I’ve actually been really pleased about this realization. And I’ve discovered that so many people judge others for getting eyelash extensions, plastic surgery, or whatever because they’ve “succumbed to societal pressures” (which no doubt is a ‘thing’), but is it so ridiculous to think that they’re doing these things just because they want to? If it brings them some sense of happiness, similarly to the happiness I feel from picking out a nice outfit even if I’m not seeing anyone, then let them live.
7. It’s been a different story for exercise…
The day I received an email from my gym that their doors were closed during COVID-19, I breathed a sigh of relief… like, a HUGE sigh, which really surprised me. I’ve always been someone who has felt like exercising is a part of my identity somehow, but it occurred to me that a lot of this has to do with vanity. Don’t get me wrong, I have 100% gone through periods of time where the gym keeps me sane and maintains my mental health. But I’ve also 100% gone through periods of time where I have zero desire to work out but feel like I “should” to maintain a certain physique.
I’ve learned that my often all-or-nothing approach to exercise has made me resent working out a lot of the time. Now, the relationship I have with exercise has changed. Now, I find myself going for a walk or bike ride because I really want some fresh air or because I want my body to experience some movement, not because I want to burn calories or “work off” that piece of cheesecake I had yesterday.
8. ‘Judgment-free zones’ are crucial.
One thing that’s been keeping me sane during this time is TikTok, an app where people post short videos about a variety of topics, most of which are humorous or light-hearted in nature.
In my experience, the best thing about the app is that people just have no shame in a hilarious way. Many of them don’t care if they’re filming a video in their pyjamas with greasy hair and a lot of the content is about the things we’re doing to cope during this time (think binge-watching Netflix, eating ridiculous amounts of junk food, and drinking at noon).
Regardless of if you’ve been engaging in any of these habits, I’ve noticed that many of us have finally given ourselves a “free pass” to be less hard on ourselves. Self-criticism about not exercising has turned into self-compassion for the fact that we’re tired—and that’s okay. The relentless legacy of diet culture, including feeling guilty about eating “bad foods,” has transformed into the less catastrophic belief that enjoying popcorn with a movie isn’t the end of the world. I like it, and I hope we keep doing it.
9. I need to disconnect and slow down way. more. often.
For the first time in a long time, I’ve been going on walks without music, conversing with the grocery store clerk more regularly, turning off my phone more often. Somehow, my internal clock has slowed during all of this in a way that I really appreciate. I’m finally realizing that there’s so much you miss when you’re constantly rushing, when you’re constantly busy, when you’re constantly thinking. There’s a beautiful value to sitting, stopping, observing, and resting.
10. The only things that matter to me can be summed up in four words.
Our culture places so much emphasis on wanting, having, and accumulating. I’ve learned that certain things that I may have thought were “important” before simply are not. As long as I have friends, family, health, and personal fulfillment, life is good. ‘Fulfillment’ has nothing to do with the stuff, it has to do with relationships and having a sense of purpose.
The Bottom Line
Overall, I’m continually reminded of how incredibly fortunate I am throughout this—so fortunate, in fact, that I had the time and emotional space to even reflect on how this has impacted me, which is a luxury in and of itself. I’ve been heartbroken to hear people tell me how difficult it has been to go back to living at home, which, in many cases, is the very environment that caused their problems in the first place. I’m one of the lucky ones.
This awareness is precisely what inspires me to not take these learning lessons for granted and truly bring them into my life after all of this. As hard as this has been for all of us, I’m thankful for some parts of it, too, and I hope it hasn’t been all bad for you as well.
If you or someone you know needs some extra support right now, we're offering psychotherapy virtually or in-person with strict precautions at our Markham office. Email firstname.lastname@example.org to book an appointment.