Why Little Things May Set Us Off Right Now...

Updated: Dec 11, 2020

(Note: As I was about to post this, I just heard Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf talk about another shutdown of certain businesses in our commonwealth for 3 weeks, including gyms. I think this particular article is even more relevant now.)

According to Author and Grief & Loss expert David Kessler:

“We are all dealing with the collective loss of the world we knew…The world we knew is now gone forever.”

This pandemic year I have been feeling especially tired, I thought it was a bit of burnout, and I think some of it may be. As co-owner of a boutique fitness and wellness studio, “pivot” has become part of our daily demand, and while we are proud at being able to handle that demand quite successfully, it certainly has required a lot of additional work, brainstorming, decisions, coordination, and a lot of changes. So yes, a little mental fatigue is expected, but I’ve also felt heavy, had trouble sleeping, have been looking forward to a glass of wine in the evening, have buried myself in work and thoughts, and have struggled more than usual to stay connected with friends, even just via text or calls. None of it has been all that alarming, but it’s just kind of there in the background.

In the last round of restrictions brought about by the pandemic, gym owners and fitness instructors had to decide between teaching with masks (in addition to the social distancing recommendations already in place) or moving back to virtual-only classes. The decision wasn’t a difficult one for me or my business partner. We would teach with masks until told to close our gym. We pivoted again and tried different masks until we found the best options (for us it is the Under Armor Sportsmask), but this time, this pivot broke both of us a little. It’s getting much better, truly, but the first several times I had to wear a mask while teaching made me want to cry (thank goodness I didn’t).

I like to think of myself as fairly resilient. There is not a lot that can break me, so I was surprised at how I was feeling about the mask. It’s just a mask after all. It’s inconvenient and a little annoying to have to keep adjusting, but those things are not monumental. I can breathe, I can still dance and teach, we can continue to do what we do, all of which I am grateful for. So why did this little inconvenience throw me. As with everything, when it doesn’t make sense it’s because we are not seeing the whole picture. It wasn’t about the mask. It was about the accumulated losses this year all building upon each other.

Nothing is quite like it was. We have experienced the loss of our old routines, loss of how we work or loss of jobs all together and financial security along with it, loss of face to face connection and physical touch, loss of gathering with extended family and friends for meals, milestone celebrations, rituals and worship. Some have lost loved ones and with it lost the option to be with them in their final days, or to commemorate their life in usual ways. Children have lost almost a year of being in school with friends, celebrating graduations and prom. Celebrations of all kinds, weddings, birthdays, holidays have been modified or pushed. We cannot shop the same way, go to restaurants, even do our nails the same way. The list goes on. What we have lost is our ways of being, our freedoms, and for some even a sense of self.

So, should we really be surprised when we almost break down over wearing a mask to teach class? We will be if we don’t recognize our experiences of loss this year. With loss comes grief and we need to acknowledge that in some ways, we all are grieving.

Lisa Keefauver, who hosts a podcast called, “Grief is a [sneaky] B!tch” describes:

“grief [as] being akin to the manuscript of your life being torn to shreds and you’re trying to operate and rewrite the story of your life with no instructions.”

She expands this metaphor and says what’s happening during the pandemic “feels like someone took our sense of self and what we know about our world and relationships and everything and put it through the craziest office shredder you ever saw.” There is a sense of disorientation, uncertainty and confusion. According to Mayo Clinic:

the pandemic has had a major psychological impact, causing people to lose a sense of safety, predictability, control, freedom and security.”

The grief we are feeling right now is what Pauline Boss termed “Ambiguous Loss.” Ambiguous loss is one where there is no closure, no resolution, and no real understanding. With no warning, we unexpectedly lost the life we knew, and we have no idea if it, or any parts of it, will come back. There is uncertainty about how long it will take for things to resolve, what our lives will look like afterward, and everything is both still here, but also gone. Ambiguous loss leads to complicated reactions. We are grieving but don’t think we are grieving.

I can hear some of you thinking, “Oh, but I haven’t had it so bad, I still have a job and can work from home, and I didn’t lose anyone to COVID. I don’t have it as bad as others, so I have nothing to feel bad about. I’m not grieving.”

This may be true for some, but here is the thing: 1. We HAVE ALL experienced a bunch of compounded losses this year. 2. Comparing loss doesn’t take loss away just because it’s considered “smaller”. The experience of loss depends on many other factors including your own history of loss, your support system, and your specific circumstances. The last thing we should add on top of loss is a sense of guilt for grieving over losses that seem small. 3. Grief is a NORMAL response to loss. 4. Most importantly, ignoring grief and loss doesn’t make it disappear. Grief repression will only lead to a festering of that grief and it will eventually creep up in other ways. So, you yell at someone for no real reason, you feel generally irritable or anxious, you cannot sleep, you want to cry when you have to wear a mask to teach a class because “hell no!” you cannot deal with one more change!

In America, we are a “no negative feelings” kind of culture. We don’t like sadness or grief.

We don’t like to talk about it or dwell in it. We allow it for a short period, in private mostly, but then are a “pick yourself up” and “get on with it” kind of people. There are social pressures to “look on the bright side,” what some refer to as a “Toxic Positivity.”

Resilience is an attribute we highly value. I believe this is because we are a mastery focused culture. We want to be able to fix things, conquer things, control things. We are uncomfortable with uncertainty, not knowing, and not having answers. We are not practiced at not having control. We are not comfortable with discomfort, including negative emotions in ourselves or others.

I too value resilience, and resilience as a psychological construct is healthy and important to well-being, but truth is you cannot get to resilience through emotional suppression. I’m sorry, but we’ve got to face the icky feels.

I highly recommend a TED talk by Susan David on “The Gift and Power of Emotional Courage.” In it she talks about how in order to have true resilience and thriving, we need to strive for “emotional agility” as opposed to “emotional rigidity.” The idea we hold perhaps more implicitly than explicitly in our culture that some emotions are good, and others are bad, is emotional rigidity. So is our tendency to move more and more into rigid responses to emotions by either “Bottling” (pushing undesirable emotions away) or “Brooding” (getting stuck in our own needs and emotions).

“Life’s beauty is inseparable from its fragility”

David argues that the only way to build resilience in dealing with difficult emotions is to show up authentically to our grief and pain. In a beautiful way she explains, “Life’s beauty is inseparable from its fragility”; we are young and beautiful but then we get old, our children grow up and move into their own lives, everything we love will be lost. We have to be able to negotiate this frailty of life.

“When we push emotions aside, we lose our capacity to deal with the world as it is, not how we wish it to be”, says David.

Most powerfully David explains, not wanting to feel difficult emotions are “dead people’s goals”(!!!), and instead notes that research shows “radical acceptance of all our emotions, even messy ones, is the cornerstone to resilience, thriving, and true authentic happiness.”

Did I make the case that we need space to feel it? Ok so how do we do it?

Dealing With Loss In an Emotionally Agile and Resilient Way.

I am going select and aggregate a few suggestions I found for dealing with loss and grief (or any tough emotion) through various readings and research:

1. Name it. First acknowledge your losses and recognize your feelings of grief.

  • Name what you've lost due to the pandemic. It might help to write these down and recognize the loss you are holding.

  • Notice your grief. Grief is not a single emotion; it manifests itself physically, emotionally, mentally, and/or spiritually. Everyone is unique in how they experience grief and how long they grieve, even in similar situations of loss. There is no right way.

  • Symptoms of grief may include feeling sad, lonely, empty, angry, or numb. You may feel disinterest or lethargy in daily tasks. You may also have physical symptoms, such as crying, a change in sleeping or eating patterns, difficulty concentrating, excess fatigue, lack of energy, muscle weakness, or shakiness. You might have nightmares or want to withdraw from social interactions. You may even be left questioning your life choices and beliefs.

  • You can be grieving but still occasionally experience moments of joy/happiness.

· 2. Feel it. Allow yourself space to feel your "feels". Also find support.

  • First find your footing. According to Rick Hanson, “Take a second, a breath, a day, whatever you need to establish some solid base from which you can experience what there is to experience without being flooded, hijacked or retraumatized” by your emotions.

  • Don’t look for the emotional exists. Give yourself some space and time where you can open to your feelings by getting curious about them and letting them flow, but allow yourself to feel your feelings without getting lost in grief. This may mean just dipping into the grief for a few minutes them coming back out.

  • Connection is the greatest antidote to loss. Stay connected with people who are helpful to you.

  • Developing strategies to help you cope: 1. Rely on your strengths and coping skills. Consider other tough transitions you've been through. What did you do that helped you recover? 2. Create an adapted routine. This can help preserve a sense of order and purpose, despite how much things may have changed. Include activities that might help you cope, such as exercise, worship or hobbies. Keep a regular sleep schedule and try to maintain a healthy diet. 3. Focus on the present and the things you can control.

3. Release it. Let it out. Let it go.

  • Find ways to express and release grief. It may be through art, gardening, journaling, talking to friends or family (just with the intention of expressing, not fixing), cooking, music, gardening or other creative practices.

  • Sometimes emotions can be felt as tension patterns in your body; in this case you can mindfully notice those points of tension, focus into those parts of your body moving systematically from feet up throughout your body, and tell each part to relax and let go. You can also use several deep breaths to ease your parasympathetic nervous system.

4. Let in the good. Strive for emotional agility, a balance between bottling and brooding.

  • We can hold both things; the good and the bad. There is room for both. You can celebrate the joys of the holidays and still hold a space for loss.

  • Move toward meaning and gratitude. Loss can motivate positive action. Grief can have some positive effects. There is a saying that “sorrow tenderizes the heart” a