The Art of Living Virtually-For Now
After three weeks of isolation due to the pandemic, I’ve had to make adjustments. Like you, I’ve had to learn how to live more virtually and in the process, I’ve learned a lot through my professional community, and I’ve learned a lot about myself.
As a student of self-care, I’ve identified what works for me and I’ve integrated it into my daily schedule. After weeks of isolation due to the pandemic, here are four activities that have helped :
- Taking walks
- Developing a daily schedule with set breaks
- Allowing time to experience my emotions
- Connecting with others.
Una McClusky, author of Transference and Countertransference from an Attachment Perspective, stresses the importance for care providers to connect with others. I’ve taken her message to heart, integrating as many moments of connection into my daily routine. Previously, I might have shied away from the ringing phone, hoping to hold onto some silence in the middle of a busy schedule. Now I’m encouraging myself to move forward, pick up the phone, and connect.
Recently, I converted a 2-day workshop into a virtual conference. A resulting benefit was that it opened up ongoing communications with psychiatry residents, psychotherapists, nurses, physicians and students from around the world.
I also taught an online course with psychiatry residents at UC San Diego — the Basics of Affect Phobia Therapy. I felt it was essential not only to demonstrate how these principles can be used with their patients, but also with themselves to experience less anxiety and more connection.
Launching an online community
A few weeks ago, we launched Therapist Affect Phobia Community — a weekly online forum which provides a way for mental health professionals to exchange observations, learn from one another, receive support and connect. Dr. Michael Alpert, a psychiatrist from NYC, joined me as a guest one week. He explained why it can be difficult seeing our faces online, then demonstrated a technique we can use remotely at home. To practice this exercise, you’ll need to look at your reflection in the mirror, or through your phone/computer. As you look at yourself, pay close attention to your eyes and ask yourself these questions:
- What are you noticing as you see yourself?
- Can you accept what you are seeing?
- What could be a barrier to accepting yourself?
- What feelings are you experiencing toward yourself?
- When have you felt like this in the past?
I volunteered to help Dr. Alpert demonstrate this technique then looked at my face on the Zoom video window. Immediately I noted the tiredness in my eyes. I explained that I felt as though I looked older, wiser and concerned.
Dr. Alpert asked me to pay attention to my tiredness. I felt tears come to the surface and I experienced sadness. He asked me if I was feeling more compassionate toward myself, but instead, my sadness deepened. I realized I was experiencing loss. I was missing what was familiar — my offices, my clients, my friends, my colleagues and I was feeling worried — worried about finances, my well-being and not knowing what life will look like post-pandemic.
After our forum ended, I noticed that I was teary at times and experienced discomfort. The next morning, I experienced separation anxiety with my trainees online and felt deeply sad at the loss of our in-person connection.
However, it’s important to note, that while connecting with one another, we were all feeling more alive, less tired.
Letting go of what was
Later on, I joined a live stream yoga class and felt a deep longing for the comfort and warmth of my local studio. When my instructor asked us to name an intention for the class, I became acutely aware of an overwhelming sense of loss inside me. I realized I was far away from many meaningful people in my life.
Tears came to my eyes as I remembered the last time I felt this way. I had just visited my mentor, Harvard Medical School psychologist and researcher, Leigh McCullough in San Diego before she completely lost her capacity to talk due to ALS. I remembered her weeping in my arms, in touch with her sense of loss, loss of what was and the loss of what was coming. Her capacity to experience the depths of her emotions was profoundly touching. I witnessed a ‘letting go’ inside her followed by a sense of relief as she experienced her feelings with me.
As I remembered these memories of Leigh, I felt an old sadness rise to the surface. While that period of my life was difficult, it was also my most constructive. As I worked through the loss of this important person, I learned that the only option in these moments is to master a level of acceptance, acceptance of what is now. Through acceptance, I found the strength to ‘see’ what I was capable of becoming — myself. I realize now that once again, I am explicitly aware of change in motion, not only experiencing it, but also witnessing the end of what was once before.
Controlling what you can
A long time ago, I learned that the only option in these moments is to master a level of acceptance, acceptance of what is now. Structure is the answer because it keeps me accountable, it helps me show up and accept what is happening right now and enables me to work toward my goals.
What’s difficult yet comforting about the pandemic is that we’re all in this free fall together. We have to adapt to our circumstances as they arrive. When you create a structure of self-care, it will eventually turn into a system that facilitates the process of adapting. It’s important to select behaviors that will address the issues that have risen to the surface from our changing lives — like tiredness, exhaustion, anxiety, panic attacks, depression, hypochondria, fear, isolation or guilt for focusing on our personal lives.
Creating your self-care routine
To start developing your self-care routine, you need a daily schedule that includes a variety of breaks. Due to my domestic and international commitments, my work days begin early and end late, but I try to insert a 15-minute break per hour, a two-hour lunch break that may include a yoga class, cooking or relaxing, and an hour break for a quick walk and snack.
Once you commit to a structure that works for you, insert only the behaviors you’ll find rewarding or enjoyable. Some examples of self-care activities that people have shared with me over the past weeks include:
- Playing games (online or with those at home)
- Listening to music
- Exercising (especially long walks)
- Drawing or painting
- Taking extended breaks
- Reaching out to others over phone or video
- Helping others
You’re going to make some mistakes and that’s ok
Despite my self-care structure, I’ve had some misses. I missed two online meetings, was an hour late for another and worked through a few of my breaks. It was no surprise to me that on that night, I woke up to an ‘acting out’ dream where I threw a party in a big house full of people coughing and sneezing. I woke up in a panic, engulfed in free-floating anxiety and I remembered the importance of identifying what I can do now to feel more in control.
I’ve noticed I’m experiencing daily tiredness that momentarily lifts and then settles back down, gently arriving and receding like the fog in San Diego. It’s unsettling, this sudden shift in my life. I’m using everything I have learned about self-care to help me adapt to what is my new normal ‘right now’ — working, teaching, and connecting virtually.
What I’ve learned is that when I connect with others, my tiredness retreats for a while and I’m able to access a healthy sense of activity and joy. I better understand that current feelings of loss are intermingled with feelings of loss from my past. Structure helps me do what is necessary so I can feel more balanced and connected, it allows me to get my walks in, do some yoga, get organized and experience things I enjoy with others.
As we face this pandemic together, I trust that we’ll remember the lessons we’ve learned, the feelings we’ve shared, the bonds we’ve built, as we experience a sense of letting go to accept what is our “right now.”
In parting, I’d like to share a note I had written back when I experienced the loss of my mentor, Leigh McCullough. I’m reapplying it now as I accept the loss of what was my normal life.
“All I can do is get out of my way, leave my ego on the shore, float downstream and be still until more is revealed.”