Getting COVID Out of Your Head

Lisa Garmezy, Psych Services

In the midst of a global crisis, we strive for gratitude, kindness and hope. Coping without falling apart means directing our attention to what we have instead of what we don’t have (that would be toilet paper). It means cutting each other some slack and watching our tone of voice. It means focusing on the knowledge that the worst of the pandemic is over in China, and that in the U. S. too, it will peak and fade.

Ahh, but how to pull off that series of tiny miracles? Too often, distorted thoughts warp our perceptions, leaving us agitated and depressed. But if our thoughts become more positive, our emotions will follow. With that in mind, let’s take a COVID-specific look at healthy coping.

Mr. Fret and Mr. Chill

When we stress out, our thinking gets twisted in predictable ways. We maximize the bad news and ignore any good stuff. As Daniel Kahneman said, we focus on what is possible, not what is probable. Everyone panicked a bit about the food supply, but at this writing, it’s hiccupping, eccentric and intact.

Relationships tend to bring together one person who maximizes problems and one who minimizes them. It’s a nifty under-the-radar division of labor in many marriages, tight friendships, and patrol partnerships. The calmer person, who we’ll call Mr. Chill, soothes the worrier and keeps the fun in the relationship. The maximizing worrier, Mr. Fret, tracks hazards and makes sure both partners stay prepared. You may see yourself in one of these characters.

Usually, it’s great. Every partnership needs some worry. Without it, we wouldn’t go to the dentist, check the roof, or buy insurance or hand sanitizer. It’s a household chore, like emptying the dishwasher. Someone has to do it.

Now, our world is staggeringly changed. Everyone’s nerves are shot. Mr. Chill thinks Mr. Fret’s habit of picturing the worst-case scenario is unnecessary and depressing. Mr. Fret thinks Mr. Chill has his head stuck in the sand or somewhere in his own anatomy. It doesn’t help that their marriage counselor cancelled.

Consider this: Mr. Fret’s belief that we’re stuck in a deadly nightmare is correct. So is Mr. Chill‘s trust that the great majority of us will come through it okay. They’re both right. As I’ve said time after time in 22 years of couples counseling, whatever the topic, nine times out of 10, the truth lies in the middle. You can skip the argument.

Talk about something more pleasant. Don’t critique each other’s coping style unless it’s blatantly unsafe. We’ve all got to do what we’ve got to do. Create a no-judgment zone.

Alarming Thoughts

Maximizing isn’t the only style of distorted thinking. Avoid all-or-nothing, black-or-white thinking. Every senior citizen who gets COVID isn’t going to die, and for that matter, every young person won’t recover. Nature doesn’t work like that. Life is grey—especially now.

“Shoulds” are plaguing us, from “I should have bought more supplies,” to “I shouldn’t have gotten so close.” Forgive yourself, and then forgive yourself again. We do what we can with the input we have at the time.

Taking responsibility for things you can’t control, as cops are prone to do, puts triple-action fertilizer on your stress. Some of you are anguished because you have no choice but to risk exposure to the coronavirus, endangering the people you love. You wake up with anxiety and you go to bed with anxiety and you try to do your job in between.

But no one’s welfare is entirely in your hands. Wrap yourself in faith, if you can, and focus on the other Hands that hold us.

The Battlefield

Tormented veterans with PTSD have confided in me their heart-breaking certainty that they caused their buddies’ deaths. You can tell them, “It wasn’t your fault,” all day long, but they won’t believe you. If, shockingly, you agree—“You screwed up”—the taut muscles unwind and the listening starts.

After that grim acknowledgment, the veteran can ponder other causes. If he figures out for himself that he actually bears closer to 50 or 75 or 20 percent of the blame, he lets himself partially off the hook and his burden eases.

You could get the virus. Still, there’s no guarantee that you will. Try to dilute your full-strength fear. Instead of telling yourself constantly, “I’m going to get this damn thing,” substitute the thought, “I’m at increased risk, but I’m being as careful as I possibly can.” Next, switch your thoughts to a soothing image or quote. Have one ready for bad moments.

Self-Care

Follow the usual advice, of course. Exercise and spend time outdoors every day. Eat and sleep and connect with others in a way that strengthens your immune system. Take time to be thankful.

Focus on what you can do that’s positive. Get going on crafts and household projects; tune your old band instrument; work on your Spanish or your garden. Call a friend to show off, and perhaps to hold him or her accountable for how freed-up time is spent.

Off-duty, limit your news exposure, if your job allows it. Don’t constantly bombard yourself with footage from the disaster movie we’re all living in. Research shows statistics-stalkers are more anxious.

Bonds

Practice social distancing, although like chemo, it hurts while it helps. We have no choice but to live with the known sorrow and stress of isolation. Recognize that you are a role model, in uniform and out of it. The dignitaries tightly bunched around press conference microphones drive me nuts.

The best part of being a cop right now—maybe?—is the camaraderie. Lean on each other, metaphorically. Keep an eye on each other. If someone’s stress level seems disabling, talk to him or her about it. Don’t be afraid to bring it up to leadership if necessary.

Crises cement bonds while escalating suspicion. Officers’ “us-versus-them” attitude is likely to intensify, perhaps for a very long time. For years I’ve hounded readers and clients about being too cynical. A line from Game of Thrones captures my usual message: “Not every man is what he seems…but go too far down that road, and the mistrust can poison you, make you sour and fearful.”

Forget that. Everyone IS a threat. For now.

I can only hope that as citizens stay home, your shifts will be easier. May the sick be healed and the looters be few. Please take good care of yourselves. Wash.

I can be reached at lisagarmezy@gmail.com.