Times are strange in this global pandemic. You know this. Everything that has been taken for granted – interpersonal connectedness, routines, rule of law, cultural norms – is changing at a rapid clip to contend with a global threat unlike any most of us have ever seen. Many of us are doing everything we can to keep up with the whiplash of changing policies and expectations. And many of us, struggling to accommodate the sense of growing threat, are hanging on to ourselves by a thread, if at all.
As Americans, it’s becoming clear that we’ve been woefully underprepared to handle the magnitude of these events, not just on a practical and scientific level, but on an emotional one.
For those trying to absorb and understand what is unfolding around us, the losses keep piling up. We are contending with touch deprivation, video chat fatigue, grief over the loss of “normal life,” grief over the loss of real people, hopelessness about what future months or years might look like, helplessness about how to move through this, anger that our needs are being wildly sidelined, fear for our health and the health of loved ones, overwhelm, sadness, the list goes on.
And then it seems like there is a whole group of people for whom this pandemic is not happening at all. People congregating at beaches. Pushing park rangers regulating mask-wearing into lakes. Protesting in state capitols because they believe the threat is overblown and they’d like to get back to their normal lives now, please. A group for which denial of a monumental threat is much preferred to dealing with a potential reality that looks as distressing as this one seems to be.
I keep hearing a chorus of crisis-absorbers asking the crisis-deniers, “Why? When you’ll get sick, why? When you’ll force an extension of the stay-at-home orders, why? When science says it’s real, why?”
Because denial is a wonderfully adaptive distress-tolerance technique.
And culturally, as a general rule, we are not very good at tolerating distress. We tend to blame our feelings for communicating about our environment instead of trying to use the feelings to understand the environment that caused the distress. A real case of shooting the messenger. We trot out slogans like, “Just be happy!” and “Don’t be sad, be glad!” and “Don’t cry, it’s okay!” and “It’s for the best!” at every turn. We have rampant levels of addiction to substances that numb our emotional turmoil. One of our primary exports is “entertainment.”
We are experts at denial.
We are global purveyors of a salve to push the negative emotions to the side and pretend they don’t exist.
We see “emotional” people (those feeling the distress) as vulnerable and crazy and “too sensitive.”
We see vulnerability and mental health struggles as weak.
The sad truth is that, as a population, we are probably much more distraught overall because we are taught to lock big feelings down or push them away instead of letting them offer insight into our experience. We have nowhere for the distress to go.
We are trained from a very young age to treat distress as problematic, even dangerous, and to diminish it at any cost, especially if there is a product we can buy to help us do it or someone to whom we can pin the blame. And when denial happens on a systemic, community level, it is virtually impossible not to get swept up in its siren song. How relieving would it be to believe the leaders who are touting that we’ve over-prepared and the threat was never as great as we feared? That 2020, so far, was just a blip in human history that has come and will soon be gone? Denial lets you do that, only you don’t have to wait to be told you’re safe. You just ignore any external (or internal) messaging to the contrary. Fear, grief, overwhelm, anger, sadness – it can all be softened into comfort and safety (and blame and numbing) instead.
Denial is a universal human process intended to pause our absorption of a shocking, distressing event so that the mental and emotional whiplash isn’t catastrophic. It is a normal and expected component of most grief processes. As with all coping strategies, it is borne of necessity and intended to protect our internal resources from complete depletion. If it unfolds as intended, we can drip-feed ourselves little bits of overwhelm at at time, and eventually integrate the emotional magnitude of an event to learn from it, adapt to our new learning, and move forward through our lives.
When initially encountering a distressing event, most of us ask ourselves, “Is this even real?” We have an option, then, to decide that it is real, and consequently move into the accompanying negative emotions associated with it. We can also choose to tell ourselves that it is not real, that we must be misinterpreting the cognitive, emotional or sensory information we are encountering, and turn away from the distress.
Where were you when the magnitude of the pandemic started to sink in? What did you initially decide about whether it was real? Did you change your mind?
If an event is small and quick enough, denial will buy us some time and space to get beyond it relatively unscathed, emotionally speaking. At that point, we can take the time to process, feel, and understand what we’ve been through. It still might be uncomfortable, but we’ll be more resourced and ready to tolerate the negative emotions. Denial works wonders for sudden shocks and short-term distress.
But as the Mayo Clinic’s primer on denial explains, “It’s important to realize that denial should only be a temporary measure — it won’t change the reality of the situation.” With long-lasting, pervasive traumas, denial becomes a debt that builds to massive proportions. Every day spent numbing out or ignoring reality accumulates in lost time, lost meaning, lost connectedness, and potentially, lost learning about how to continue surviving, all of which can create a secondary injury. Further, as time goes on, it becomes a bigger and harder job to ignore information that undermines denial’s happy vacation from reality. Any reminder that the avoidance may be in vain becomes threatening. With this, aggressive acts increase and the benchmark for provocation falls. Ignoring our distress can have violent, lasting consequences when it leaks out sideways anyway.
And that brings us to this moment in American history, where a politically divided country is in disagreement about whether or not our current trauma is real. On one hand, one group is trying to absorb the magnitude and overwhelm of a lethal virus that defies scientific advances, and often feeling quite lacking in strategies to process the distress. On the other, a group of not just American caricatures, but real, intelligent people, has chosen to hope that the reality of the threat is just a ruse, and that we should all carry on as usual. If “as usual” means feeling triggered to the point of aggression and violence by those just trying to understand and contain the threat.
Neither group, it seems, is very adept at processing the distress of the situation. Which makes sense, because very few of us have had opportunities to contend with negative emotions without feeling threatened by the embarrassment and vulnerability they bring. And few of us have been tested in our lifetimes with quite so pervasive and personal a challenge. Distress tolerance is one of those skills that is believed to be partly genetic and largely environmentally learned. When we are raised in a family where caregivers aren’t comfortable with their own negative emotions, in a society that diminishes the necessity of learning how to hold and move through them, we just don’t get the chance to hone our skills.
That leaves us with two ill-equipped choices: 1) Bumble through, feel overwhelmed, and hope we survive or 2) Pretend it’s not happening, numb out, and blame others.
My guess is you’ll probably choose the one your community has already chosen.
If you are wondering about what other option there might be, I do think there is a way forward that doesn’t require feeling completely overwhelmed or pretending something is not happening when it is.
In a nutshell, we need to get more comfortable feeling our feelings. All of them. If that sounds sappy to you, my point has been made.
To do this on a national level, we would need to engage in distress tolerance exercises and personal skill-building in huge numbers. Breaking the cycle of teaching each other to fear our emotions is not an easy task. But if enough of us refuse to believe that sadness, anger, loneliness, hopelessness, and anxiety are personal failures, we could start to dismantle systemic pressures that convince us it’s better to “Be happy!” than to feel the full breadth of our experience. The good news is that you don’t need to buy anything or pay anyone to start down a path of reacquainting yourself with your emotional system. It’s already wired to communicate and waiting to be understood. It’s a little messy, though. Quite vulnerable. And not at all weak.
Give this a shot and see what you learn about the feelings you’re already holding:
- Get comfortable and safe. Close your eyes if it feels okay.
- Check your internal landscape to find the feelings that are lurking. They might be hiding. They might be at the edges. Move toward them.
- Listen to them and feel them. What are they saying? What are you feeling? Find as many words as you can to understand your internal experience. Write them down if you can.
- Look at your list of words, and think about the complexity of what you just felt. Brainstorm a safe activity that could act as a physiological way to validate that felt experience. If you are noticing mostly sadness, stand in the shower and let yourself cry. If you are feeling angry, engage in some sort of exercise that matches the heat of that anger. If you are feeling lost and helpless, bury yourself under the covers on your bed. If you’re feeling relief and spaciousness, stand outside in the breeze and sunshine and let it wash over you. This activity can be anything you’d like.
- Do the activity and feel the feelings. Notice how they come and go in waves that last only about a minute at most. Ask them what they’re trying to communicate. Trust them. Understand them. Believe them.
I’ve seen lots of hopeful messaging about what we might learn from this giant pandemic disruption, most aimed at “finding the silver lining” in scary, sad times – a strategy that wades awfully close to trying to quiet the distress by forcing happiness instead. I’m hoping we can do both – feel the pain and the relief, the heartbreak and the hope, the fear and the gratefulness. I hope we might come out of this with more clarity about what hard emotions offer us, less fear of our own distress, and more trust and compassion for our emotions, ourselves, and each other.