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Karen Stewart, MA, and David Stewart, PhD, are psychologists who work with individuals, couples, groups, and organizations in their Durham practice.

Remembering, Validating, and Releasing

By Karen Stewart, MA

Karen Stewart, MA

What a year this has been, hard in so many ways—pandemic, racism, political unrest. We had to give up so many things we took for granted. We experienced isolation from friends and loved ones, children unable to attend school, parents needing to take on full time child care in addition to their own work, and, for many, grief over the death of friends or family. Even the simplest things became fraught with concern: getting the mail, groceries, pumping gas. Added to coping with the pandemic was the renewed awareness of the terrible effects of racism in our country, the refusal of our president to acknowledge the results of the election, and a violent attack on our capitol.

My hope is that this column might provide one way for us to slow down, relax, and reflect on the journey we made from the time our lives shifted with the onset of the pandemic until now. My purpose in pausing to reflect is to allow us to really take stock of all the ways we have coped this year. I hope that we can each breathe in and appreciate the courage, patience and wisdom we have shown in surviving this year. I hope that we can validate how hard it was and how strong we were in getting through it. We also learned a great deal about ourselves and our world this year that is important and we want to remember and take those lessons with us when our lives get back to normal.

To Begin:

Take a minute to breathe, slowly in and out. If you can, make time for five deep slow breaths before you continue reading.

Now, think back to last February, how did you first learn of the dangers of the virus? How long was it before you really knew how serious it was? Were you able to stay at home or have you continued to go out to work? If you had to go back to work, were you provided with adequate protective measures? Masks? Plexiglass barriers? Social distancing? Remember the feelings from those early days—Disbelief? Frustration? Overwhelm?
How did your life change? Were your children home? How was it trying to help them with on-line school and their feelings of confusion, anger, sadness? Remember the shortages—toilet paper, hand sanitizer, other essential products? What was especially hard for you? How did you cope, what helped in those early days?

Remember and just take deep breaths as you feel the feelings, validating how hard it was and that you made it through. Breathe in and send yourself love and appreciation for coping and then remember: that was then, this is now and you made it through.

Let your mind wander, from the early days through the summer. In addition to the pandemic, the terrible effects of racism came into sharp focus as we learned of George Floyd’s murder at the hands of the police. Yet again, we were forced to acknowledge the horrors of racism in our country. Again, think about the summer, what were the hardest things? What helped you cope? Who helped you cope? How did you stay connected to others?

Remember and take deep breaths as you feel the feelings, validating how hard it was—and that you made it through. Breathe in and send yourself love and appreciation for coping and then remember: that was then, this is now, and you made it through.

Finally think about the fall. Our country went through one of the most divisive elections ever. We had a president who refused to accept the results of the election and foster a peaceful and effective transfer of power—the hallmark of democracy. We had a violent attack on our capitol with lives lost and the whole country stunned and disbelieving. And the pandemic raged on, more lives lost.

What was the hardest part of that for you? How did you cope? Who helped you cope? What do you know now that you wish you would have known then? What do you wish you could have done differently? Let the thoughts and feelings come, breathe them in and breathe them out all the while remembering that you did the best you could.

If you have lost someone to Covid, if you suffer from the effects of racism, if you are food insecure, or have lost your home, the feelings are deep and complex and ongoing. Hold yourself with great tenderness as you would a beloved child as you breathe in and breathe out. Feel the feelings, validate how hard it was and how you made it through. Breath in and send yourself love and appreciation and then remember: that was then, this is now, and you have made it through.

Think of the things you have learned, what will you no longer take for granted. Think of those things that have brought you joy and for which you are deeply grateful. What do you want to be sure to remember? Have your values shifted?

Look around you and, if possible, go outside and stand in the fresh air. Feel the support of the earth, the gift of the trees that breathe for our planet, taking in our carbon dioxide and producing oxygen. Take a look at the plants that take in sunlight and water and produce food for us. Breathe in, breathe out, and just be present in this moment, grateful for surviving.

I think it might be especially hard right now. As we enter a period where more and more of us are receiving vaccinations and can begin to feel a bit of relief and excitement about things returning to normal, I think it becomes even harder to be patient. Our tempers may flare and we may want to throw caution to the wind. We can just hold on a little bit longer, stay masked and socially distanced when we are out in public and careful with our friends and family. We will get through this and perhaps be more mindful of what is really important—peace, justice, equity, caring for our environment, and each other.