This essay originally appeared in our monthly newsletter for The Mom Hour podcast. To get our emails, subscribe here. –Meagan
How are you doing? No, how are you REALLY doing?
Do you even know? Does it change from day to day, minute to minute?
I know that for myself, moods seem to turn on a dime these days. I wake up and the sun is shining through my bedroom windows, and I feel a burst of energy. Check the news, and feel anxiety amid climbing numbers and grim projections. Discuss a fun idea with Sarah and feel a momentary burst of energy and focus. Work for a while, find my mind wandering and my attention span fractured, get frustrated. Make a big, late brunch for the kids and feel a sense of warmth and gratitude about the fact that we’re all able to spend time together at noon on a random Monday morning. Look at my social media feeds, see people arguing or sharing bad news, and spiral down into anxiety again. Take a walk, pump some music into my earbuds, momentarily forget what’s happening in the world – ahhh. Get home, realize I’m lower on a few items than I expected to be at this point, and start doing the mental calculations around whether I might need to go the store again soon, and if so, which store would be safest, and whether half and half in my tea or cheese on our tacos are really essential. More mental gymnastics: maybe we should hit the powdered milk and endless pasta stash in the pantry instead. Or maybe we should hold on to that because we don’t know how long this is going to last, and it might be harder to get to the store in the future. More anxiety.
And I’ve gone through all these shifts before 4 PM.
That’s one of the things that is the most jarring to me about what we’re living through right now. Sure, in “regular” life, I have bad days sometimes. But now, every day is a potential roller coaster – there’s no longer such a thing as a “bad day” or a “good day”; now moods seem to change minute-by-minute based on whatever thought I focus on, or whatever piece of data or input makes its way in front of me.
It’s a lot, and I know you’re all right there with me. So I thought I’d share some things I’m trying to do to combat feelings of anxiety and stress spirals. It may be unrealistic to expect us to turn this roller-coaster of emotions into something resembling real life, but I’m already finding that there are definitely ways I can make this “new normal” feel…well, more normal.
Here’s what I’m putting into action right now:
I’m trying to control what I can and let the rest go. Right now it’s easy to feel we’re required to become instant experts in everything from educating our kids to interpreting epidemiological data. I know sometimes, learning and implementing can seem to give us a sense of control. But when I try to control things I can’t, it tends to go south.
For example, there is no such thing as perfect social distancing. Our lives are set up to be dependent on interactions with other people; it’s what makes us human beings living in community. We’ve learned quickly that many of those interactions can be suspended, limited, or done virtually…but not all can. It means we will all need to take some calculated risks; that the risk you deem necessary may look different from a neighbor’s or someone weighing in on social media, and that (just like with everything else) there is ultimately no one way to do this completely “right.”
Maybe by accepting that risk cannot ever be completely eliminated, we can tamp down some of the worry and guilt we feel about the decisions we have to make.
By the way: along these same lines, there is no way to do perfect at-home-schooling, perfect sudden work-at-home-with-kids-around-all-the-time, or perfect virtual-relationship-management either. I like to believe that everyone is doing their best with the information, time, ability and resources they have available to them, and that’s all I can expect of myself too.
I’m trying to recognize my triggers and avoid them. And that requires paying some attention to discover what they are.
Sarah and I were chatting about our stressors last week and discovered that we are triggered by very different things. For Sarah, whose personality is oriented toward gathering information and trying to make sense of it, consuming too many scary headlines is a sure way to start a spiral. I don’t love scary headlines, but find it pretty easy to distance myself emotionally from more general data. On the other hand, as a more relationship-oriented person, watching people argue and criticize each other on social media has a much bigger impact: I start wondering if I’m doing something criticism-worthy, I get uncomfortable with people turning on each other, and it can lead to a feeling akin to panic. Much like I’m able to keep scary data from looming too large in my mind, Sarah doesn’t struggle with perceived judgment or criticism the same way and is able to let it roll off her back.
Having this conversation was a huge ah-ha moment for me: it’s okay for me to be relatively unaffected by some things, and to be very affected by others. It’s also okay for me to protect myself by avoiding the things that trigger me. Nobody NEEDS me on Facebook right now, after all. Whereas, Sarah is dealing with enough in her home right now, as are we all, without being a bad citizen if she takes a “need to know only” approach to consuming news.
These are just two types of triggers; there are plenty more in the grab bag for us all to choose from. But I’m finding it’s worth taking careful stock of how I feel after specific activities – reading the news, chatting with friends and family, getting online, and so on – noticing patterns, and limiting or eliminating the things that cause the most stress. Remember, it’s not selfish to take steps to reduce your stress – it’s what will help you create a calmer home and keep your body’s cortisol levels under control.
I’m trying to double down on the things that give me pleasure or help me feel a sense of normalcy. That means anchoring my days to activities that give me some semblance of control over my life and make me feel good.
Right now, my “big rocks” are getting outside and hanging out in my kitchen. On the days I have my kids, I’m in the kitchen almost all day. Making a big breakfast, then cleaning up, then starting dinner; baking, puttering…something about being able to accomplish small tasks over and over feels both simple and satisfying. On days when I don’t have my kids here, I get outside and walk…sometimes for hours. Seeing the birds, the lake, the trees all looking the same as always gives me a sense of normalcy; waving at neighbors from a distance a sense of community. Even if all I get done in a typical day is making a meal and getting outside, I’ve accomplished something that feels good, and right now that counts for a lot.
I’m trying to give myself All Of The Breaks. When this first started, the achievement-oriented side of my brain said “Now is the time to seize the day!” Three weeks later, the reality-oriented side of my brain says, “Now is the time to accept that this is all very strange, and that expecting myself to excel at everything right now is kind of unfair.”
Instead, I’m trying to look at the benefits of giving myself a break. My work may not be at its highest level of excellence right now; but maybe I can be honest with my partners and colleagues and all of you about that in a totally new way. I’m not exactly killing it in the “school at home mom” department, but maybe that is creating fewer expectations and demands of my kids right during a stressful time, and allows me to be present in a different way. Maybe they’ll even look back later on the months Mom made pancakes in her pajamas every day with a kind of nostalgia.
Silver linings can be a double-edged sword. We need gratitude and hope in our lives; we also deserve to feel our feelings, whatever they are, and admit that this is really hard.
I will say this: for the past hour I’ve spent writing this post, I’ve stayed focused and positive and kept anxiety at bay. Whether or not it’s helped you to read it, it helped me to write it – so thank you for being part of a pleasant morning in my pandemic life.
Now, I’m off to make pancakes in my pajamas, and I hope you will also find something that gives you pleasure, joy, and hope today.