The COVID Rollercoaster

By Suzanne Manser, PhD

When I first got on this ride, I had no idea how long it would last or how many twists and turns there would be. I am so glad that I was clueless. If someone had told me in March that my kids would not return to in-person school for over a year, I very well might have spontaneously combusted. I am not a roll-with-the-punches kind of gal. It was helpful that they first said it would be two weeks before the kids returned to school (I laugh now at how unmanageable that felt). Then it was a month, then it was a few months. By the time I realized what the situation actually is, I was strapped in and had already been around some gnarly corners. I realized that there is no choice but to hang on.

We are all hanging on, some of us having much more stressful rides than others. My ride is easier than most, and I am still drained most of the time. The ups and downs are draining. There are “up” moments when life feels really good. More often, there are longer periods of time when I feel like, “Ok, it’ s a little precarious, but I got this.”  And then suddenly I’ll realize that I don’t got this. It suddenly feels like it’s too much, it’s too heavy, I need a break. But there’s really nowhere to go for a break. This ride is on a loop, and there are no refueling stations.

Welcome to the COVID rollercoaster, ladies and gentlemen. It’s like life, only much more intense. In addition to all of our usual stressors, we also have the extraordinary stressors that come with living in a pandemic. Though most of us now have sufficient toilet paper, we are still constantly wondering how long this will last, whether to send our kids to school, how to do our jobs and take care of the kids at home at the same time, whether the kids can have playdates, whether the adults can go to restaurants or other gatherings, whether it is safe to visit our at-risk family members, how to stay afloat financially, how to stay connected to friends and family, and generally how to make life happen safely. These kinds of thoughts and worries are a constant for most of us and have been for half a year. They are a tape that is sometimes playing in the foreground and sometimes playing in the background, but always playing. The constants are as draining as the ups and downs. It feels like there is no relief in sight.

Most of us are in this situation of having too much on our plates because of COVID. At the same time, we don’t have access to our usual methods of recharging ourselves. We don’t have the time, we can’t be with the people/we can’t be alone, we can’t go to the places, and we don’t have money for the things. Spas and gyms are closed. Europe is closed. We can’t spend time with the people who give us a shot of good feelings. Alone time is no longer a thing if you live with others, especially if any of them are under the age of 12. We don’t even have the commute from office to home to help transition us out of work mode. All of this (and so much more) is leading to burn out and breakdowns. By my estimation, most of us have burnt out at least once and are on our second or third mental breakdown at this point on the ride (I see you teachers!).

We are stretched paper thin. This rollercoaster is not ending any time soon, and we can’t do our usual things to help us deal with it. It makes sense that we are exhausted and drained. It makes sense that we are breaking down. We are not supposed to be able to do all we are doing. Here comes the big question: how do we recharge and strengthen ourselves in this impossible environment?

We reflect. Reflection is the best way to take a little bit of time and create a significant impact on your experience. Reflection is noticing what you see when you pay attention to something. When we reflect on something, whether it’s our breath, our day, or our feelings, we mentally slow down and focus on that one thing. When we’re reflecting, our job is to notice. It is intentional. There are no right or wrong answers. We are not producing anything for show or fixing anything. It is about the process, not the product.

Reflection doesn’t have to be anything elaborate or fancy. Most reflection exercises require relatively little time and usually no external resources, making them very COVID-appropriate. Here are some examples: journaling, meditating, making a list of what you are grateful for, doing tai chi or yoga, jogging, making a list of emotions that you felt this week, setting intentions for how you want to show up in your day, writing poetry, reading poetry, praying, identifying your values, gardening, and walking a labyrinth. While you jog, you can reflect on your day or you can reflect on the sound of your shoes hitting the pavement. It is the act of reflecting, more than the content of the reflection, that creates the mental space.

When we slow down and reflect on the sound of our footsteps, on the way we want to feel today, or on why I can’t seem to motivate myself to go for a run, we automatically engage our observer self. This is the part of us that is aware that we are noticing or thinking or judging. This is the part of us that is aware if our mind wanders from the job of reflecting. The observer self is crucial to being able to make changes in our lives: If you don’t have the awareness, you won’t understand what or how to change.

Because of the observer self’s vantage point, she has a very helpful perspective on life. The observer self sits in one of those really tall lifeguard chairs. She can see it all from up there – she sees the big picture. When we are in touch with our observer self, we can see this moment in the context of our whole day, in the context of our whole life. From that perspective, we are more easily able to discern what is truly important and worth effort, and what is not. If we can tune out the stuff that is not important right now, we can create space for ourselves.

Mental space is the recharge that so many of us are seeking right now. Our brains and emotions feel overly full. We are overwhelmed with all that we have to do and think about and adapt to. When we reflect, we are not paying attention to any of that. When we reflect, we pay attention to what feeds us, not what drains us. It’s a quieting of noise. It’s sense of spaciousness.

I am a strong introvert. I recharge by being alone. It doesn’t much matter what I’m doing during my alone time, as long as I’m alone. I live with a husband, two small children, and a very enthusiastic, large puppy. We are all home now, all the time. There is no longer any such thing as alone time. Which means that my last nerve is sometimes stretched veeeeeeery thin.

I have had a morning reflection practice for over a year, and I am feeling its benefits so profoundly as the pandemic wears on. On weekdays, I get up an hour early. I meditate for 25 minutes, and then I write down what I’m grateful for. I then either do some journaling or I go for a run. Afterwards, my head feels less crowded. I feel grounded, refreshed, and more clear. I do not feel the remnants of yesterday’s emotions; I am solidly rooted in today. After a  period of reflection, I have a better perspective. Make no mistake, this is not the level of charge I would get from going to Hawaii for two weeks, but it does make a noticeable difference.

If you want to try a reflection practice, it doesn’t have to be a big time commitment. If you only have 3 minutes, do a 3-minute meditation (try Headspace, which has a free starter kit) or write down 3 things that you are grateful for today, including how they make you feel. If you have 10 minutes, do a 10-minute walking meditation. If you have 20 minutes, journal, including setting an intention about how you want to show up today. And if meditation is not your thing, try a different form of reflection. The point is that you slow down, focus on one thing, and engage the observer self. Create space. Recharge.

Until the ride comes to a complete stop and we can all safely exit the vehicle, this is our life. Rest in the moments that feel ok, glory in the moments that feel good. Make time for reflection when you can. Be kind to yourself through all of it, and continue to stay safe, my friends.