It’s OK Not to Be OK in a Pandemic

“Everything is going to be OK” is a mantra that many of us tell ourselves—and yearn to hear from others—when we are trying to get through hard times. Not being OK is scary. It can even be terrifying. Most of us fight hard to get back to being OK as quickly as we can. And, there’s a flood of advice out there on how to do this. Go for a walk. Create something. Work out. Engage in something productive. Call a friend. See your therapist. Breathe. Meditate. Tell yourself: “I’m OK.”

But sometimes it just isn’t true. Sometimes we are not OK at all. And our bodies know it. Our psyches, minds, and hearts know it. If telling yourself “I’m OK” while breathing deeply does not increase your inner peace, if it leads to stifled crying or outright sobbing, if you find yourself shaking while wanting to curl up in a ball, you are not alone. Plenty of us are not OK. And whether we were already coping with depression or anxiety, burning out on caregiving, trying to survive or escape domestic violence, trying to start anew as a refugee, living life while targeted by oppression based on our race, gender identity, sexual orientation, religion, national origin, ability, socioeconomic status, age, and so on, so many of us were not OK even before COVID-19.

If telling yourself “I’m OK” while breathing deeply does not increase your inner peace, if it leads to stifled crying or outright sobbing, if you find yourself shaking while wanting to curl up in a ball, you are not alone.

A traumatic stressor the magnitude of a pandemic, logically evokes a similar magnitude of stress within us: we experience the automatic physiological and neurological stress response that allows us to do whatever it takes to survive a major threat. Our muscles are primed for kicking or hitting or running, if that unconsciously seems to be the most likely means of surviving. Or we freeze, when we unconsciously know that fight or flight are not going to help us make it out alive. Or we fawn, when we unconsciously know that persuading an aggressor that we are on their side will result in less harm now—and a greater likelihood of escape later. But our bodies don’t know that none of these automatic stress responses are actually going to be effective against the chronic traumatic stressor of a viral pandemic.

Amidst this stress, we may have few to no answers for countless questions that may not have had any urgency just a short time ago. “How will I or my family survive the financial impact of no income—for weeks or even months?” “If a member of my family gets really sick, how will we pay for medical care with the insurance we can barely afford—or with no insurance at all?” “What if someone I love dies?” “Who will raise my children if I die?” We may push such questions out of our minds in one moment and go round and round with them in another. In a time without threat, such avoidance might be considered sensible and such perseveration might be considered problematic. But now, if we haven’t already done so, we really do need to research the steps of how to designate a power of attorney, draw up a will, and select a guardian for our children. We really do need to make our best possible choices in a confusing and ever-changing context with a multitude of factors that are completely outside our control. And we need to do these all while our minds, hearts, and bodies are repeatedly experiencing fight, flight, freeze, or fawn.

So, we are not OK. And not being OK is a logical response when we’re navigating life during a pandemic.

If you are crying at this point, take the time you need to cry—if at all possible. The crying does not need to be stopped. It is not the hurting. It is the healing. You may need to walk away from reading this until you can find a time when a child isn’t needing your immediate attention. You may need to pause until you can find a moment away from an abuser, so you can be who you really are and not what they demand that you be. If you are an essential worker (and thank you so much for all that you are doing), you may have to wait until you are done with your shift, rather than about to end a break to go right back to helping scared people buy groceries, disinfecting a thousand surfaces, delivering package after package, or providing medical care for those who are sick or dying. Pause if you have to pause. And, then—when you can, no matter how long it takes—come back to the crying. It is profoundly good to cry when you are not OK.

Among the most important things we can do when we are not OK is to make space for that truth.

Among the most important things we can do when we are not OK is to make space for that truth. To make space to honor the questions, the tears, the shaking, the exhaustion, the loss, the grief, the trauma, the injustice, the powerlessness, … the authentic experience of being human during a major crisis. By definition, making this space is hard to do. Sometimes it is impossible for long periods of time. Sometimes we have so much on our shoulders that we can hardly find the time to breathe, much less to settle into the pain of our humanity, still less to recover from settling into that pain. For we know that we also need time to bring ourselves back to some semblance of functioning, so we can keep doing the things that we must do in everyday life. And because we know this, we can find ourselves just holding it all in, increasingly worried that our hearts are becoming dams that could crack and break with the force of everything we cannot feel, much less express.

And that breaking is OK, too. People with hearts care. We love. We yearn for goodness and justice. And when that caring and loving and yearning are met with loss, injustice, and trauma, our hearts do break. That is the completely logical response for a loving heart in such times. Our broken hearts need to grieve like a river needs to flow—with thoughts and feelings that come and go, come and go, and come and go again. We may need to weep a torrent of tears that carries our grief outside of us, rage at the sky (so we don’t rage at our loved ones), pound a pillow in the futility of our powerlessness, speak our truth (or write it in a journal), pull weeds with a vengeance, hammer nails into wood, …. Just let the river flow, because grief is the gateway for choosing life. Grief is not where we stay; it is the journey through which we heal our broken hearts and learn to live again.

Just let the river flow, because grief is the gateway for choosing life. Grief is not where we stay; it is the journey through which we heal our broken hearts and learn to live again.

With time and space in which to grieve, we can move through the fight, flight, freeze, or fawn responses that we automatically and repeatedly experience when experiencing traumatic stress. If we can find ways to honor the truth that we are not OK, we can, paradoxically, become more OK. We can learn to move more fluidly between the rising and falling waves of all that we feel. We can be less afraid of being humans who, quite naturally, are not OK right now. And, with the compassionate honoring and releasing of at least some of our emotion, we may find that we actually can go for a walk, create something, meditate, work out, engage in something productive, call a friend, see a therapist, breathe, and tell ourselves: “I’m OK.” Because it’s OK not to be OK in a pandemic.

Take good care,

Cynthia

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