Community voices: Pivoting from fear to hope

Community voices: Pivoting from fear to hope

Dr Tara Feil.jpg

Dr. Tara Feil

As a clinical psychologist reflecting on the past few weeks, I find it overwhelming to put into words how the changes that have occurred have been impacting my clients, friends, family, community and me.

I’ve been present with clients and loved ones struggling with significant depression, anxiety, loneliness, anger and grief and have felt the heavy weight that the coronavirus pandemic has brought to so many of our lives. I’ve also been moved to tears of joy and have felt inspired listening to clients and loved ones highlight the ways that this pandemic has challenged them to reevaluate what matters most in life and pivot to prioritize profoundly meaningful projects and relationships. The only constant throughout these conversations has been the consensus that this whirlwind of change has led to peaks and valleys of emotion for us all.

So, what now? This pandemic has an unknown end date, and the peaks and valleys and urges to practice social distancing may continue for weeks to come. Throughout the past week, I’ve been asked multiple times each day to offer recommendations to combat symptoms of depression during this challenging time where most of us are experiencing more intense peaks and valleys of emotion while having less contact with others in our support networks than ever before.

I could offer a myriad of “typical” recommendations that I think most psychologists would agree with, including making sure to find alternate ways to connect with others, maintaining a healthy routine, continuing to exercise, etc. I do believe these daily habits are critically important, and I’m guessing most of us know that already and are trying as hard as we can to foster them. Instead, I’d like to offer a different type of recommendation, a simpler yet more challenging recommendation: Don’t stop driving. Let me explain.

There’s a metaphor that comes from a type of psychotherapy called Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) developed by psychologist Dr. Steven Hayes. It goes like this: Imagine that you’re a bus driver, heading down the road in a direction that deeply matters to you. Perhaps you’re headed toward being a compassionate person, a creative entrepreneur, a happy, healthy parent, or (fill in the blank).

As you continue driving, you’ll inevitably need to pull over to pick up a variety of passengers on your journey. Some passengers may be desired (a good friend, feelings of joy, a new skill). Other passengers may not be (negative emotions, failures, difficult people … a global pandemic).

When these less than desired passengers come onto your bus, there are three different ways to handle them. Option 1: PANIC. Pull over, bury your head in your hands, and allow them to overwhelm you. I think we’ll all agree this is a terrible option. Option 2: FIGHT. Yell, scream, kick and try endless solutions to get these passengers off the bus. This seems more effective than Option 1, but with many passengers, we could end up on the side of the road forever fighting and getting not even an inch closer to what really matters. This leaves our last option. Option 3: WELCOME them all and keep driving. Yes – welcome them. Say “Hi pandemic. Hurry on up and take a seat back there by anger, fear, my boss, my spouse, and my dreams for this year because I’m driving now.”

This virus and whatever awful passengers come with it only win with Options 1 and 2. It cannot win with Option 3. I challenge you to take time right now to reflect on what direction you want to be heading in and urge you to keep driving no matter what passengers are on your bus. The coronavirus pandemic will change our world and so will we. What this world looks like on the other side depends not on how we feel or how much we struggle but on where we drive and that we simply keep going.

Dr. Tara Feil is a clinical psychologist with CHI St. Alexius Health.

Editor's note: Community voices is a new occasional column to highlight how community members are coping with impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic.

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