So Much Is In The Doing

My wife and I both work in service industries. We both do a lot of listening. She is a flight attendant who travels all over the world, walking up and down the aisles of Boeing and Airbus airplanes at forty thousand feet, listening to stories and responding to requests. I am a psychiatrist who is usually found sitting behind a desk, tapping away on a laptop, listening to stories and responding to requests. We have have many conversations about how people interact with each other, how they talk, how they ask questions, how they respond to demands and rules, and especially how they function under stress. I know you have seen the various YouTube videos of enraged, unruly passengers who have attacked cabin crew members over issues of mask wearing or alcohol consumption or some such. My wife has never been on the receiving end of one of those attacks, thank goodness, but she is aware of the possibilities every time she signs in for a flight. I have been hit twice and lunged at several other times but never seriously injured while doing my job. We do realize, as I am sure you do, that the last eighteen months has brought out the best and the worst in all of us, and part of that is the lack of attention to the social graces and the simple interactions and courtesies that we once paid each other as a matter of course.

In her recent 8-14-21 article “COVID Anxiety and Fear of the Base”, Wall Street Journal columnist Peggy Noonan addressed some of this. Now, my own column is not political, so some of her writings in the beginning of her piece are beyond the scope of what I want to discuss with you. However, she does start out by stating that people now have mask fatigue and other associated side effects of living through the first serious global pandemic in a century, and that issues such as mask wearing are pushing people to pick a side. Moderation, which in my book went hand in hand with politeness and social grace and simple courtesy, has now become only “for the gutless and insincere”. My wife and I have both noticed, in our very different but very similar worlds, that moderation, patience, respect, and tact have all become signs of weakness. As Noonan put it in her piece, “nothing has been so damaged by the pandemic as what had remained of American tact”. We pick sides of an issue or an action, then demonize and vilify those with different opinions. Noonan suggests that we “make a decision, then encourage, persuade and and exemplify helpful behavior” to win over our fellows who may have opposing views. We all tend to talk and rage against one another, but she says that instead of emphasizing the verbosity, “so much is in the doing, especially in a crisis”. Why are we this way? We are tired. Very tired. We are irritable, and we are much less confident than we were even a year ago because we simply do not know what is coming at us next. We cannot predict the future of this pandemic, and that now makes us gun shy about predicting anything that has meaning in our lives.

Now all politics and divisions aside, the part of her column that I liked the most was the part where she asked, “What rules of the road might help us…….what general attributes?”

First, she challenged us to “regain a sense of give”. We should stop pushing each other around. We should strive to have a generous and sympathetic sense of who our fellow Americans are. Those people that you so vehemently disagree with? Have you ever thought, asks Noonan, that they might be thinking about things that had not even occurred to you? We should be patient. I am always looking for signposts in my own life and work. Two recent events assured me that patience was a virtue that I sorely needed to pay attention to. First when my seven year old granddaughter stayed with us for five days, we learned that operating on her schedule and living life with her level of energetic intensity requires planning, stamina, and yes, patience! The other was when a patient told me the story of living with an incurable and potentially fatal disease, while caring for an elderly relative with their own serious health issues, and how this had lead to a major upheaval in schedules, vigor, and enjoyment of life that was not as it used to be, but as it now was.

Second, Noonan challenges us to stop picking on each other. Does it help to ostracize others? To demean or fight or assault? No. Once again she asks us to empathize, teach, educate, and lead by example. Third, we should admit that there most likely reasons that people do not trust the experts. (This could hold for virologists, and psychiatrists and flight attendants too, I suppose!) If you are ever in a position where you are the designated expert, and believe me, almost anyone who reads my column is more than likely in that camp at some point, play it straight, says Noonan. If you don’t know, say you don’t know. (It took me years after I finished medical school to get comfortable with this very simple but extremely difficult act) Do you like your fellow Americans? Are they “other”, “imbeciles”, or dare I stray into the political quicksand and use the term “deplorables” to you? Or are we all Americans, with different ideas and beliefs and values, and through our differences, embody e pluribus unum? Noonan tells us that if we do not like and respect each other, no matter how hard we try to hide it, “nothing is more obvious than a lack of affection”.

Lastly, she says we must “adjust our sense of proportion”. Put quite succinctly, “COVID now is part of life; it’s not life.” There are so many pressing issues in the world right now, war and famine, and climate change and heart disease and cancer and poverty and mental illness and we focus just on this pandemic and lose sight of all the others at our own peril. We will be dealing with emotional stress of these times for the foreseeable future. Life is hard. Illness is hard. But as the WSJ column concluded, “Life has to be lived.”

Mentors

My six year old granddaughter was getting frustrated. It was very hot as we played a round of nine holes of miniature golf under the blazing sunshine at Topgolf, the first such round for her. She was doing quite well, all things considered, until we hit one of those holes that required a tricky shot into one of two small holes at the end of a log which then allowed the ball to roll downward to the green and cup below. She lined up, struck her pink ball up the gentle incline, and down it rolled again. When she was finally close enough to attack the shot through the log, she stood with feet pointing in two different directions, putter head at a strange angle and an aim that was obviously going to send the ball upwards to ricochet back toward her and perhaps down the hill again. Golf that only Sisyphus could appreciate.

I approached her and gently asked that she let me help her with her stance, club alignment and swing. “No! I can do it myself! I want to do it myself!” I tried to remain calm but finally said, “No, you can’t, and I would like to show you what might make it easier for you to get this ball in that hole and down to the green.” After a little more bluster and vague noises of discontent, she allowed me to guide her hands. After a couple more tries, the ball entered the log, came out the other end as expected and a stroke or two later she had successfully completed the hole.

We all need a little help at times. There are things that we have never learned to do, things that we have learned to do incorrectly and things that simply require learning skills that we do not yet possess due to age, or training, or experience. As a young medical student, I remember thinking that I knew more things about more things than I had ever known in my entire life, but also having a vague inkling that most of this knowledge was absolutely useless without primary experience and the guiding wisdom of teachers that had my best interest at heart. Like my granddaughter, I wanted to cry out, “I can do this myself! I want to do it myself!” Fortunately for me, I was surrounded by learned men and women who were patient, skilled and who wanted to teach me how to be a doctor, an excellent doctor. I listened to most of them (I think!) and am the better for it every day of my working life now.

Over the last couple of years, I have lost several of those mentors. Some were ill and died too soon. Some were old and it was just their time to pass the baton along to my generation. One taught me general medicine mixed with psychiatric consultation, one taught me rheumatology, and one taught me how to approach problems in medical ethics, still one my all time favorite courses in any of the schools I have attended in my lifetime. I was shaped by these teachers, in ways that not even they fully knew, and they will always be a part of me and the way I approach medicine and patients who need my expertise. They not only taught me the facts, but how to think about the facts, and then how to take that thinking one step further and formulate a viable plan that would help my patient recover from whatever ailment they presented with. There are still times that I cannot do it all by myself, and I turn to those who can help when help is needed.

We are still battling the coronavirus pandemic, like it or not. As we have discussed here in several previous columns, this illness has lead to both physical and mental illness in thousands of people. It has cost hundreds of thousands of lives. In this fight to better understand this illness, to learn how to treat it and to save lives, we have desperately needed mentors who could guide us in our endeavors. Whether it has been the pure science of the vaccines, the protocols involving ICUs and ventilators in acute care hospitals, or mental health and substance abuse issues we have sorely needed words of wisdom and tested treatment measures. Unfortunately for us, this is the first such pandemic in one hundred years, and no one alive has been able to act as such a mentor.

Now, we are at a crossroads where science and facts learned over the last eighteen months are in juxtaposition to fears, misinformation and rigid dogma. We must, like it or not, allow someone to come in and guide our hands. We need those with facts and tests and procedures that will help us to beat this illness modify our grip on our own fears, align us with solid scientific facts, and insure that our steady and confident swing is complemented by a fluid and smooth follow through. We need the mentors that this crisis has created in real time. Like my granddaughter, we can learn to make the shot, but we cannot do it alone.

Mercy

“Woah, ah, mercy, mercy me

Ah, things ain’t what they used to be.” Marvin Gaye

I have another podcast that I want you to know about in this week’s column, but first I have a few questions to ask you. Better yet, I want you to ask them of yourself as you read this and think about it today. We have been talking a lot, a lot, about the COVID-19 pandemic and how it has affected us physically and now mentally as we struggle to find the finish line of this biological disaster. Many of my family, friends, colleagues and patients have been dealing with issues of isolation, depression, anxiety and stress for well over a year, and the dilemmas that have come up have not been easy to resolve.The questions I have for you?

Has the pandemic made you reevaluate your associations and friendships with others?

Do you find that you have been carrying grudges based on old wounds that now feel just a bit trivial in the shadow of six hundred thousand deaths?

Do you struggle, amid the pandemic, with wanting to unburden yourself of hurt and anger but somehow find it easier just to keep carrying them after all these years?

The podcast suggestion I have for you this week is Hidden Brain, hosted by Shankar Vedantam. This is a wonderfully rich podcast that takes deep dives into emotions, motivation, relationships, stress, coping and everything in between. On a recent episode, Shankar welcomed Charlotte Witvliet, a psychologist at Hope College in Michigan. They had an in-depth discussion about grudges, holding them, dealing with them, letting them go, and the emotional stress and strain involved in all of that.

Dr. W, if I may be so bold, started out by telling us that we often go about our lives with a detailed ledger of all the wrongs that have ever been done to us, all the betrayals and hurts that we keep meticulous records of. Our anger over these can fester and grow stronger with time, not fade as we might think. It can feel both good and bad to hold a grudge. It is sometimes easier to keep it and nurture it than it is to let it go once and for all. Grudges, she says, may take the edge off of our profound sadness, and help us feel that we have a tiny bit more control over our emotions and lives.

We may always be on the lookout for clues that justify why we feel the way we do, clues that feed our anger. We sometimes dismiss things that might get us out of our destructive loop and actually make our lives better. Sound familiar as we navigate the treacherous waters of this pandemic? As we get more inflexible in our responses to a pandemic or an old grudge, we tend to get stuck in a do loop of bad behavior and anger that brings us further down. This rumination on negative emotions can actually affect us physically, according to Dr. W, in that our blood pressure rises, our heart rate increases, and our beat to beat variability ( a measure of healthy heart function) may be off as well.

Have you noticed that your response to that old friend or even a new acquaintance may sometimes be out of proportion to the thing that they said or did that set you off in the first place? Dr. Witvliet says that focusing on the humanity of the person, the fact that they are a person just like you, with a story, stress of their own, and their own baggage, may help you deal with them in a more positive way. The interesting thing about this to me was that even if you cannot completely give up the thoughts and hurts that might haunt you, if you truly try to understand the person that offended you and truly try to forgive and show mercy, your actual physical response will be very real, in a very positive way. She goes one step further (and you may or may not agree with her here) and says, “Forgiveness is a moral response to a relational breech.”

Now, you might tell me that in your case, you can just distract yourself with other thoughts, other activities, other pressing issues and that the grudge is dealt with in that way. You might be right to some superficial degree, but real forgiveness trumps distraction every time, says Dr. W. The real physical effects that I mentioned above, such as lowering your blood pressure, tend to be much more long lasting if the forgiveness, the grace, and the mercy are sincere and real.

Forgiveness is a process, says Dr. Witvliet, a journey. It unfolds over time. It’s like grief in that way, in that it is not a linear, A to Z process, but more a series of rolling waves. We have all had deep hurts from losses. All of us. That’s being human. Where we fool ourselves sometimes is that we tend toward decisional forgiveness, which is based mostly on our cognition, instead of the truer emotional forgiveness which involves a change of heart. The psychologist says that the two are not equal.

The trick to dealing with these relationships that you are struggling with now that things are opening back up? The way to deal with the hurt, the anger and the wounds that have been allowed to fester for over sixteen months now? Generate positive, empathetic responses to other people, says Dr. Witvliet. Empathy is key. Think about the gift of grace, forgiveness and mercy that you can give that person, and then think how wonderful it would feel to receive that kind of gift. Commit to giving the positive, not committing the negative again.

The hardest relationship, hurt, offense or slight to deal with? One that is truly targeted, evil, or destructive. These kinds of hurts are not just subjective or a matter of having our feelings hurt, muses Dr. W. They are objectively terrible wrongs that are terribly hard to forgive. One example that hits close to home for us in South Carolina? The shooting of nine innocent churchgoers at Mother Emmanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina. The tragedy that occurred there that day was unspeakable, but the responses from the families of the victims, a commingling of grief, sadness, anger and profound love and forgiveness towards the shooter, was almost unimaginable. But, as many of you might know more than I, it was about as real as it gets.

So, back to my questions. In this time of reentry into the almost normal of a post pandemic life, are you struggling with relationships, grudges, long ago hurts and injuries, or the inability to let destructive issues in your own life go? Were these magnified or made center stage by the isolation and stress of lockdown, working at home, more time with your family or wearing multiple hats between work and home and schooling your kids? Do you harbor and carry those heavy grudges towards someone and wish you could unburden yourself? As the psychologist in this podcast episode about the power of mercy instructed us, thinking about the humanity of the transgressor, truly forgiving them, and approaching the coming days with positivity and creativity will surely help you to experience less anger, stress and physical ills than you ever did before. Find this episode, listen to it, and ponder. You will be glad that you did.

Reentry

Reentry

 

 

Did you watch any of the comings and goings of the Crew Dragon capsule as it went up and down from the International Space Station? It’s a sleek, slick, dazzling white, truly space age looking piece of hardware that has now ferried several astronauts to space and back as part of the partnership between SpaceX and NASA. I decided to watch a video on the You Tube channel Everyday Astronaut to learn more about how this tiny capsule gets back to earth once it has been in space and docked for a while. I would encourage you to check it out.

 

Spoiler alert: this last mission resulted in the first successful water splashdown since 1976. That being said, what were some of the most interesting facts about the timeline and process of bringing this little capsule and its human cargo home safely to earth? First of all, once the Crew Dragon backed away from its home away from home, it had anywhere from six to thirty hours until possible splashdown. That’s quite a range! As it entered  the atmosphere of our planet, its heat shield was turned to face forward in the direction of travel, having to withstand temperatures of 1900 degrees Celsius, and G forces of three to four times earth’s for the crew inside. The air that rushes towards the speeding capsule has little time to get out of the way, is superheated to half the temperature of the surface of the sun, and is compressed into what is called plasma, all of which puts tremendous pressure on the capsule and its contents.

 

Once the capsule did make it past the blistering heat of the atmosphere and was free falling towards the water, it had to be further slowed down, first with two small parachutes that oriented it for its final descent. Then, four main parachutes partially opened, then fully opened to help the capsule gently settle onto the surface of the water. The exact timing and manner of deployment of these chutes is critical. Too fast and they simply won’t open, too slow and they will not slow the craft enough to prevent a hard landing on the water. It was picked up, placed in a “nest” on the recovery ship, and saw the extrication of astronauts who had been in space so long that they could barely negotiate one atmosphere of pressure and could barely stand without support. As the host of the Everyday Astronaut video stated, “The entire system makes reentry safe.”

 

Now, think about where we are today in this pandemic cycle, which officially started in March of last year. We are battered, bruised, tired, grieving, and so ready to re-enter our prepandemic lives. We would like to think that we can just magically return to what we did, how we acted and talked and functioned in January 2020. The truth is, just like Crew Dragon, we have been docked for over a year, in one way or another, stuck in our homes, working out of closets and bedrooms, teaching kids at the dining room table, talking to coworkers, friends and family by Zoom, emotionally weightless. Now, we are ready to suit up, get back into the capsule, back away from being forcibly tethered to pandemic life, and head for freedom. What will it take to do this? What will it cost us to get back on the ground?

 

First, just like the crew leaving the space station, we must be protected. We cannot do this alone. We must orient ourselves in the proper way so that we can face the onslaught of heat that will be coming our way in the form of social gatherings, parties, dinners, school activities, sporting events, church gatherings, and family outings. It is going to be wonderful and brutal all at the same time. Is your calendar already filling up like mine? We need a heat shield. This may come in the form of a good support system, good self care and good habits like exercise and getting enough sleep. The events and obligations, like the air that cannot get out of the way of the capsule and is compressed into super hot plasma, will rush at us so fast that all we think we can do is say yes and hang on for the ride. I would counter with the fact that if we have learned only one thing in this time of pandemic, it is that we can say no.

 

What are your parachutes? What will gently place some directional drag on your descent back into the helter skelter that was your pre-pandemic life? What will slow you just enough so that you can take your time, pick and choose your commitments and activities and interactions so that they will make you stronger, not dash you against life in a rush? Think about that now as you get vaccinated, as your mask comes off in more and more places, as you begin to hug friends and family again, and as you feel more comfortable in your own skin outside your own home.

 

Like the Crew Dragon astronauts, we will miraculously come through the fiery descent, get ourselves oriented in the right direction, gently slow things down to a manageable speed, and come out of our confinement a bit unsteady, but ready to accept the support that will get us back to our best selves for the years to come.

 

Happy reentry!

Cast Off

It happened too many years ago to remember now, but I still do. It was a time when we who labored in mental health could be more real, could actually connect with our patients in meaningful ways and even let our hair down from time to time and have some fun. A group of staff members were playing a group of patients in a friendly softball game in Aiken, a few miles from the mental health center. I was old enough to know better but still young enough to think that the teen athlete still lived in me, and you know how that always turns out.

 

I was taking my turn at bat, connected with the ball and drilled what should have been a solid single to right field. I should have been more than satisfied with that, but of course I wasn’t. I rounded first, saw that the outfielder was fumbling with the transfer from glove to throwing hand, and made a split second decision to stretch a sure single into a maybe double. Getting to second was easy. I was still moderately fast in those days. The next decision I made was not a good one, however. Without a clear need to do so, I decided to slide into second in a blaze of dusty glory. Bad move.

 

I knew that I had really screwed up when my left leg made contact with the base, which felt at that moment like a concrete block. The snap was audible, the pain immediate and the shame followed close behind. When I tried to get up, I saw an acute angle between leg and foot that was not at all natural. Not good. A short ride and check in at the emergency room later, I was not at all comforted by the well meaning nurse who told me that “only really active people get injuries like these”. You know the drill. Ortho tech, clean it up, put it in a cast to the knee, get fitted for crutches, see ya in a few weeks.

 

The hardest part about being in a cast for those long weeks, besides not being able to take a real shower without wrapping my leg in plastic bags? I couldn’t walk with crutches and carry a coffee cup at the same time. This, my friends, is the definition of crisis. But, of course, like many weekend warriors, I made it through.

 

Fast forward to the doc’s office on the day that the cast was coming off. I had lost about half the muscle mass in my leg, and I was more than a little worried about taking away the plaster exoskeleton that had held me up for those weeks. Would I fall down? Rebreak the leg? Be able to do the things that I could before the injury? Getting the cast off felt so good in one way, with cool air on skin and mobility that I had missed terribly. But the worry about reinjury or weakness or worse still gave me fits for a few days, until I knew things would be okay again.

 

Now, forward to March 13, 2021. The CDC decides that after more than a year, those who are fully vaccinated against COVID-19 can shed their masks indoors and out, around people who are also fully vaccinated and those who are not. This seems to come so suddenly that it catches us off guard.  After being so careful for so long to avoid exposure, protect ourselves against infection and illness, we are now told that all is clear and safe! To me, it almost instantly brought back memories of taking my cast off, something that I was more than happy to shed, but with the anxiety of what my health would be like after it was gone.

 

Protections, even if restrictive and painful in the short term, often make us feel safer in the long run. Removal of these restrictions is exhilarating but can be frightening at the same time.

 

When I was recovering from my broken leg, just as we are now seeing the beginning of the end of the COVID-19 pandemic in the United States, letting protections fall away was the only sure way to test ourselves and our safety going forward.

 

The second half of that lesson is also clear: testing ourselves is the only way to grow.

Languishing

How have you felt lately? Really?

Good? I am happy for you. Depressed and hopeless? I sincerely hope that you are seeking help and on the road to recovery. The rest of you? My hunch is that you may be feeling a little flat, not motivated, and “meh”. This is weird, right? Vaccines are here, many of us are back to work, things are opening up a little bit, and the warm sunshine of spring and the promise of summertime should be brightening our days. Why then, do we still feel a lack of motivation, have trouble concentrating and find it challenging to focus on the things that matter to us?

Adam Grant, an organizational psychologist at Wharton, addressed all this in his April 19, 2021 article There’s a Name for the Blah You’re Feeling: It’s Called Languishing. He pointed out that we are not depressed or hopeless. We are not impaired. We are functioning daily. We are not burned out. There is just little joy and we feel aimless at times. We lack anticipation for the good things that we used to look forward to.

According to Grant, languishing is a sense of stagnation and emptiness. We are muddling through, and as some of my patients have said in the past “existing but not really living”. Many of us who have had COVID and recovered or those who have not had the illness at all are struggling not with long COVID syndrome, but with “the emotional long haul of the pandemic”.

Think back to early spring 2020. We were all a bit frightened, unsure of what was happening in the world around us that was heading our way. Back then, according to Grant, our natural threat detection system was “on high alert for fight or flight”. We learned that masks were helpful, but we were still scrubbing surfaces and sanitizing our groceries. We developed crude routines that “helped ease our sense of dread”. The problem is that as time has gone by, our acute state of anguish “has given way to a chronic condition of languish”. As languishing is squarely between depression and flourishing, we don’t feel bad but neither do we feel back to our pre-pandemic good either. Grant says that “you’re not functioning at full capacity. Languishing dulls your motivation, disrupts your ability to focus, and triples the odds that you’ll cut back on work”.

The term was coined by a sociologist named Corey Keyes. According to the article, his research suggests that these who are languishing today are going to be at much higher risk of developing depression and anxiety over the next decade. That second great pandemic wave you’ve heard about? It may be psychological, not purely medical. Grant also says something about languishing that hit me: “You’re indifferent to your indifference.” You may not even realize how slowly you are sliding into the malaise.

So, what do we do with all of this? Grant says that one of the best ways to handle emotions is to name them. In the spring of 2020, we were all obviously experiencing acute grief, from loss of loved ones to loss of freedoms to loss of routine to loss of income. So many losses. Now, we learn that we are languishing, and naming it may be the first step in battling our way out of it. Languishing is “common and shared” and just knowing that may give us the ability to bestow a little grace not only on others but on ourselves.

What next? Focus. Relearn, if you must, how to pay attention to the things that are important to you. I am the worst when it comes to this, so believe me when I say I am not preaching to you. Grant says in his article that “computers are made for parallel processing, but humans are better off serial processing”. Simply put this means do not try to multitask! Again, I have five or ten or fifteen things that I must do, want to do, love to do, and I delude myself into thinking that I can do five of them at a time extremely well, but this is simply not true. Pick something, make it realistic and doable, and put your whole focus into it. You’ll feel much more accomplished and maybe even happy if you do!

Set boundaries and block out time for yourself. A colleague and I were talking about this by email just this morning. We need processing time, thinking time, planning time. I know it is hard to come by when you are working from home, taking care of the kids and responding to emails and Zoom invitations all day, but it is worth aiming for.

Grant tells us to focus on small goals. “Try starting with small wins”, because the pandemic was such a big loss to us all. Don’t be too easy on yourself though. Pick something moderately challenging sometimes. “The most important factor in daily joy an motivation is a sense of progress.” Do things that matter to you.

The article finishes up by acknowledging that “languishing is not merely in our heads-it’s in our circumstances”. “Not depressed doesn’t mean you are not struggling.” As one of my patients told me that other day (I told him I would steal this and he agreed), “Just because I am smart and can articulate what is going on with me does not mean that I can fix it.” Don’t let yourself languish, isolate and fall into the pandemic abyss. Use the tools outlined in this article, use your support systems, and get professional help if you need it. We are so close, and we will get there together.

(Un) Comfortably Numb

“Hello? Is anybody in there?”

“I have become comfortably numb.”

Pink Floyd

We are being bombarded with numbers. Numbingly numerous numbers. Allow me to share some familiar, and maybe not so familiar ones with you.

When I first wrote this piece, there had been one hundred ten million, thirteen thousand eight hundred forty-one cases of COVID-19 across the world. Global deaths were two million, four hundred thirty-two thousand six hundred ninety-five. In the United States, we had twenty-seven million, eight hundred twenty-eight thousand one hundred fifty of these cases, and four hundred ninety thousand, seven hundred eighteen deaths. Of course, the numbers have only grown since that time.

The monster winter storm that engulfed the United States from Texas to the northeast resulted in four million without power in Texas alone, and forty deaths across the land. By Thursday of that week, FEMA had already distributed seven hundred twenty-nine thousand liters of water, fifty thousand cotton blankets and two hundred twenty-five thousand meals.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, forty one percent of adults surveyed in January 2021 had some degree of anxiety and depression, up from 11 per cent in January through June of 2019. Thirty six percent of those questioned related poor sleep, and thirty-two had appetite changes. Up to fifty-six per cent of young adults ages 18-24 had been battling depression and anxiety.

Did you see how I wrote all these numbers out in words? Why? Because it takes you longer to read out each word, to really process what the sheer numbers mean, than if you see another in a long string of mind-blowingly large figures. The numbers do not lie. We see them, day after day after day, but my fear is that we are becoming more and more (un) comfortably numb to them.

It is easy to develop compassion fatigue in times like these. There is so much hurt and fear and pain and need and stress in our world right now that it is easy for us to develop emotional numbness to these massive threats to our daily way of life. Compassion fatigue is that indifference to charitable appeals on behalf of those who are suffering, experienced as a result of the frequency or number of such appeals. It comes in no small part from actually absorbing into ourselves the trauma and emotional stress of others, leading to a vicarious pain and discomfort that become a secondary trauma to the caregiver or helper.

How does it manifest? Physical and emotional exhaustion, depersonalization, irritability (raising my hand here), self-contempt, decreased sleep, weight loss (or gain in some), and headaches are just a few of the signs and symptoms you might find yourself experiencing during these very troubled times.

How might it affect your ability to function at your best daily? You might be trying harder but find yourself helping less. You might give up, feeling that the stresses in the world are so huge right now that there is nothing one person can do. You might find yourself coping by using alcohol, drugs, or food to self soothe. Small, nagging physical symptoms might worsen into actual illness.

How do you decrease emotional numbness?

Reconnect with the world, with your world. Find a way to reach out and connect locally, nationally or internationally as you feel might be most helpful.

Practice good self-care. This is not the time to back off good pandemic hygiene, good patterns of eating and sleeping, or your usual exercise routine. It is time to double down on these things that make us healthy and keep us happy. I have recently started meditating, having never done it and knowing absolutely nothing about it. I have been amazed at how a brief ten-to-twenty-minute meditation practice session can put me back in the game. Learn something new. I recently listened to a chapter in Dr. Sanjay Gupta’s book Keep Sharp that talked about learning a new language or something equally as challenging. I was heartened to hear him say that it is not impossible to learn these difficult new things as we age, though it might take a little longer than when we were younger. Give yourself the grace to try, to do, and to succeed. We are making history just by surviving in this one-hundred-year pandemic!

Take time with family and friends when you can do so safely and practically. We need social interaction, as discussed here before. We just need to realize that continued vigilance is necessary until we can see the true end of the pandemic approaching.

Write in a journal. As you know if you have been reading my columns and blog posts for long, I love to write. I write in small notebooks, large notebooks, software programs, on Post-It notes, and on the back of envelopes. Our thoughts jotted down on paper or converted to ones and zeros in an app somewhere will be the primary sources for someone who one day writes the definitive history of this pandemic. Think about that and contribute.

I’ve borrowed from Mother Teresa before, and I will do it again to close these thoughts for the week.

“We cannot all do great things. But we can do small things with great love.”

Pandemic Pitfalls

I read a good article on the physical effects of the coronavirus pandemic on our physical health recently. Yes, the Pandemic Is Ruining Your Body was written by Amanda Mull and published on January 14, 2021 in the Atlantic. In it, she addressed many of the ways that living in the middle of the worst worldwide health crisis in a century affect us as human beings who are struggling to be brave, squash fear, stay productive, and thrive, all without the help of our usual social institutions and personal interactions.

She acknowledges that for some of us, myself included, sitting at home virtually all the time, even when working hard, is a situation of relative comfort and incredible luck. We have jobs that allow us to use computers, faxes, cell phones, scanners, email, and videoconferencing to meet, greet, schmooze and therapize to our hearts’ content, just not in person. But at what cost? She says that in her own experience of working from home, she began to experience decreased hip mobility, low grade headaches, sore shoulders, a stiff neck, and dry skin. At first, she and her ailments felt isolated, because she was isolated. She could not see that her coworkers were doing the same things, stretching the same tired muscles and “gobbling up ibuprofen” as she was. Many have been sickened or even died from COVID-19. Those who have avoided those fates, says Mull,  are living through an extended disaster that at the least is painful, but at its worst can be catastrophic.

What are doctors and others seeing? Aches and pains come up for seemingly no reason and then stick around. People who work from home found themselves setting up what they thought would be a temporary home workstation that they might need to use for a few weeks at best, a few months at worst. I did this myself. Over the last year, as pandemic reality set in, I have changed my equipment configuration, furniture and workflow more times than I can even remember. Sitting in front of a too short table, shoulders hunched, laptop screen too low, keyboard at the wrong height, and normal implements not easily reached, makes work tough. This, as Mull says, “all while sitting in a chair meant to support a human for the duration of a meal, not a workday”.

We are also working longer hours. How can that be, I asked myself after I read this in multiple articles for the fifth or sixth time. If you must get up, get ready, drive to your workplace and then leave at a prescribed time once you are done, there is an eight or nine hour rhythm to your day. If you subtract some of the prep time and all of the commute time, you find yourself (and again, I can attest to this) working an extra hour or even two. As I wrote this, I finished a “normal” ten hour workday that was jam packed with patients, emails, consults, and reviews. It simply feels that work has been busier, more packed with tasks and with much less down time or break time then pre-pandemic. Let’s be honest. Everyone feels just a little twinge of guilt when they work from home. And Mull says, “expectations of productivity have increased” because you are there. Granted, some may be able to outfit a spare bedroom or home office with nicer and more usable equipment, but “for those living in cramped housing with kids who go to Zoom school and other family members who also need space to work, building a personal mini office simply isn’t an option”.

Does any of this bleed over into our emotional wellbeing and ability to cope with the social and mental stresses that this pandemic has caused? Of course it does. In the past year, many months of which I have worked predominantly at home, there has not been a workday that goes by without me hearing about folks who are anxious and can’t sleep. Not a single day. Much like Amanda Mull discussed in her article about the physical stresses that can lead to physical problems, I have seen the psychological toll that the coronavirus has had on our normal psychological and emotional worlds. While staying home, we have lost out physical connection to others. There is no chatter around the coffee pot or in the parking lot before or after work. We have been forced to use different “equipment” to connect with each other. As my rector opined at a recent annual church business meeting, “Well, Zoom gets the job done I guess, but it’s not the same, is it?” Screens are now our “windows on the soul”. Why? Because any time we are face to face with most people we know outside our immediate family, we are wearing masks. Unless you are extremely close to someone, it is hard to read real emotion from just raised eyebrows or crinkling crows feet. Why is this important?

Because stress, anxiety, depression, loneliness, and hopelessness kill. They are not dangerous in themselves just for the misery they cause, and the potential for catastrophic consequences like suicide. As Mull states in her article, depression and anxiety “are enormous risk factors for heart problems, especially among people over 50. Quarantine itself is also a risk factor. Loneliness and social isolation increase the risk of myocardial infarction and stroke by up to 30 per cent”.

What can you do now, today? Connect with others, however you can, however awkward. Call. Zoom. FaceTime. Text. Reach out to the elderly who have little social support. Spend some non-screen time with a child. Cook dinner, and then leave part of it in a basket for the neighbors next door. I know I keep saying this, but it’s true. This pandemic will end. We will get through this together. We just need to make sure that we come out of this ordeal as physically and mentally healthy as we possibly can.

Fake It Until You Make It

I have been talking with friends, family members, and patients over the last several months about our lives in 2020. We continue to try to describe what it feels like for each of us to live in the middle of the biggest pandemic in the last hundred years. We talk about the things that we have all been feeling: the sense of loss, grief over the changes in our normal lives, the lack of social interactions with others, the inability to participate in things that used to give us joy, and the lack of certainty that pervades every aspect of our lives. We talk about how these stressors have changed the way we work, play and interact with others. We talk of the longing for things to get back to the normal, the predictable, and the reassuring. Almost everyone I know feels less confident, less powerful and less able to influence his environment since the start of this pandemic. We have been shrinking into ourselves, staying at home more and shunning the very social interactions that make us fully human.

There is a phrase that I am sure you’ve heard before. Fake it until you make it. This idea probably goes back to at least Alfred Adler in the 1920s. According to Wikipedia, Adler developed a therapeutic technique that he called “acting as if”, which allowed his clients to practice alternative behaviors that would help them to change dysfunctional patterns. You may know this technique by its more modern name still used today, “role play”.  Fake it until you make it leads us to imitate confidence, competence and a positive optimistic mindset until we can actually achieve these things in our real lives.

Wikipedia offers another way to look at this, attributed to William James:

“Action seems to follow feeling, but really action and feeling go together; and by regulating the action, which is under the more direct control of the will, we can indirectly regulate the feeling, which is not.

Thus the sovereign voluntary path to cheerfulness, if our spontaneous cheerfulness be lost, is to sit up cheerfully, to look round cheerfully, and to act and speak as if cheerfulness were already there. If such conduct does not make you soon feel cheerful, nothing else on that occasion can. So to feel brave, act as if we were brave, use all our will to that end, and a courage-fit will very likely replace the fit of fear.”

— William James, “The Gospel of Relaxation”, On Vital Reserves (1922)

Another place that I have recently found reference to this ability to fake it until we make it is in the 2016 TED talk given by Amy Cuddy. In it, she describes how body language visually telegraphs our mood and state of confidence, and how our nonvisuals impact not only those around us, but ourselves as well.

One of her main points in her talk is that we can fake it until we become it, until we can tell ourselves, “I’m really doing this!” Tiny tweaks in our behaviors can lead to big changes in our lives.

We are living in very stressful times. We are dealing on a daily basis with social upheaval, political unrest and the possibility that we might contract a deadly illness. Even without being told, we have felt ourselves shrink from daily encounters with others, decrease our normal social interactions, and forfeit many activities that give us joy. We may not feel overtly afraid, depressed and defeated, but our body language and our actions may telegraph otherwise, both to others and to ourselves.

Can we fake it until we all make it? Yes, I believe we can. Listen to and act on the recommendations by the CDC. Wash your hands. Wear a mask when you leave your home. Observe social distancing recommendations. Be smart about how and when you interact with others both indoors and out. This pandemic is fueled by the spread of a tiny virus that will stop spreading when it is deprived of new hosts. Our behaviors, coupled with the eventual development of viable, effective, safe and reliable vaccines that we all choose to receive, will stop it in its tracks, and this medical nightmare will finally be history. Until then, even if you feel deprived, depressed and distanced from the people and things that make life worth living, fake it until you make it.

Fatigue

Words are interesting, aren’t they? I love to use words to convey meaning, to educate, to enlighten and to try to persuade. We all use words that we are familiar with, that we understand and that are part of our normal vernacular. We get used to these words as ways to express a familiar thought or idea that we hold dear or that comforts us. The interesting thing about the English language is that many of our words have nuanced definitions and can be used to express many similar or related meanings.
Fatigue is one of the words that comes to mind for me lately. When we look to the Merriam Webster Collegiate Dictionary definition of fatigue, we find several aspects of this word that pertain to our current situation as we struggle with pandemic life.
First, a definition that was certainly not top of mind for me. “Manual or menial work, such as the cleaning up of a camp area, performed by military personnel.” There is also a corollary definition that goes with this, being “the uniform or work clothing worn on fatigue and in the field”. Think about many households now as young families struggle with educating their children at home, cooking and eating many more meals at home than usual, and having one or more adults working from home at the same time. This scenario has created home landscapes akin to domestic camp areas, staging areas for vocational, culinary and educational missions that were often outsourced and performed far away from the home just a few months ago. We are constantly “cleaning up the camp area” while wearing the new uniform of 2020, shorts, tees, sweats, and Allbirds, trying our best to be efficient and productive while staying as comfortable and low key as possible. For the most part, I think we are succeeding admirably in spite of all the odds against us.
The second definition is more the traditional one that we think of when we think of fatigue. “Weariness of exhaustion from labor, exertion, or stress.” We have all felt this in one way or another over the last seven months. We are working hard, sometimes in vastly different ways or in different places than we are used to. We are caring for families, our coworkers, and others at the expense of caring for ourselves. Some of us have fallen ill with COVID-19 and that has given an entirely new meaning to fatigue for us. Physical weariness that precludes meaningful activity and productivity wears on one’s body, mind and soul. Even if you want to get up and actively engage the world, sometimes a physical illness like COVID-19 stops you in your tracks and says, “not today”. This fatigue, unlike the camp that can be tidied and cleaned, must be managed until it has passed. It is insidious, long lasting and debilitating.
The third definition that caught my eye was the one describing “a state or attitude of indifference or apathy brought on by overexposure (as to a repeated series of similar events or appeals)”. Now, this definition encompasses several different aspects of our current lives in the time of COVID-19. Not only are we feeling extremely overwhelmed by the pandemic and how it has disrupted our daily lives for months now, but we have been dealing with racial tensions, economic stresses and political dissent and strife as we approach one of the most contentious presidential elections our country has held in our lifetimes. When there were fifteen cases of COVID-19, the threat felt small. When there were one thousand deaths, we felt that this was something terrible. Fifty thousand deaths were almost unfathomable. One hundred thousand deaths were unbelievable. Now, we have had eight million cases of COVID-19 in our country and well over two hundred thousand deaths. We have been seeing and hearing these numbers for so long now, and in such quantities, that we are numb to them. We are fatigued. It is harder and harder to muster compassion, much less hope that things will eventually get better. On top of the ongoing pandemic and its stresses, add the civil unrest, the political intrigues and countless ads on television and in the news, and we are simply bombarded with negativity that further numbs and chastens us.
What to do?
See things as they are. We have already found that one cannot wish away a viral pandemic. It will run its course, relentlessly, until we either achieve immunity overall or we have a workable vaccine. We cannot make the government attend to our financial needs. We have had to be creative to find work and put food on the table. We cannot fix racial unrest and social inequalities overnight. These changes can come, but it will take much time and much work by all.
Limit negative exposure. Keep up with the news, but only in prescribed amounts and at certain times. Constant exposure to negativity and stress will only increase social, emotional and physical fatigue.
Act. Plan. Work. Vote. Talk. Collaborate.

One final definition of fatigue that Webster’s offers us? “The tendency of a material to break under repeated stress.” We do not want to let ourselves get to that point, do we?