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Worse than a marathon

Retreat specialists offer insight on coping with the mental toll of a pandemic and an indeterminate (and unending) state of emergency

BRATTLEBORO—Brattleboro Retreat psychologist Dr. Jilisa Snyder is used to counseling Vermonters on how to cope with personal upheaval ranging from anxiety and depression to illness and death.

She has been surprised to see coronavirus squeeze all those challenges together into a particularly dizzying punch.

“We’re living in the midst of an unprecedented situation of uncertainty,” she says. “People can feel fearful, terrified, insecure, worried, stressed, conflicted.”

“This is like a major social psychological experiment, except it’s real,” she adds.

As a clinical director of outpatient psychotherapy at Vermont’s largest mental health facility, Snyder had heard many a neighbor liken the lengthening pandemic to a marathon. She knows it’s an entirely different type of endurance test.

“A marathon is 26-plus miles — there’s a start and a finish,” she says. “If we knew when this is going to end, that would bring us a great deal of structure. But we don’t have that right now, which is very hard for the human psyche.”

Amid such sudden, sweeping change, Snyder and her peers are explaining not only the psychology behind the crisis but also skillful ways to respond, ranging from making small scheduling shifts to mulling over life’s big questions.

“The situation is like a moving target, but the human capacity for creativity and adaptability under extreme circumstances is really quite remarkable,” she says. “People might really surprise themselves.”

Everything in moderation

A psychologist for 35 years, Snyder counseled people after the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks rocked the nation and Tropical Storm Irene ravaged the state in 2011. But for all the shock, those reverberations had limits.

“This pandemic is a global phenomenon that is affecting everybody,” Snyder says. “When something throws us off, we try to problem-solve so we can get back into some type of regulation.”

“But what’s happening here is the need for a reasonable level of predictability has really been threatened,” she continues. “There isn’t a definitive model that can lead us to know exactly how this is all going to play out.”

Vermonters are reacting in different ways.

“Some people feel a level of acceptance and calm that this is what is — it doesn’t mean they like it, but they realize they’re going to need to be in a state of fluidity and a high level of adaptability and accommodation,” Snyder says. “On the other extreme, some people are panicking and having very dark, almost apocalyptic kind of images and fears — they’re terrified.”

Most people are in the middle with fluctuating thoughts and emotions.

“One hour they may feel calm,” Snyder says, “and the next they may feel fearful.”

Whatever their experience, humans yearn for safety and will grope for a sense of control in a multiplicity of ways.

“Some people find security in information, others find security in buying more dry-goods products,” Snyder says. “Unfortunately, if people take those actions to the extreme and become overwhelmed, they might unwittingly be participating in raising the collective anxiety level.”

When people see others stockpiling pantry items and personal-care products, for example, they often do the same, emptying shelves and creating shortages that can stoke more fear. Seizing every breaking news headline can be equally problematic.

“The information is so intense,” Snyder says, “it can be overstimulating.”

Occasional stress is natural and normal, but chronic levels can excessively tense muscles and raise heart and breathing rates, blood pressure, and metabolism. Over time, that can compromise the body’s immune system and contribute to anxiety, depression, diabetes, heart disease, hypertension, gastrointestinal disorders, insomnia, irritability, memory loss, stroke, and weight gain.

“Most stress-related conditions do not arise because people are experiencing high levels,” Snyder says, “but because people are not getting sufficient time to rest, regulate, and restore.”

Because of that, the psychologist recommends pursuing everything in moderation. She also suggests taking time to pause and explore within.

‘Where do I have choices?’

“Clearly, there’s a lot we don’t have control over, but we can ponder upon what you do have control over,” Snyder says. “Ask yourself, ‘Where do I have choices about how I want to be during this crisis?’ When one asks that question, it taps into their sense of self-agency and values in the midst of uncertainty.”

Other practices to restore well-being include meditation, yoga, exercise, artistic expression, or simply being mindful of one’s schedule, especially around healthy eating, sleep, and work-life balance.

“If this were just a couple of snow days you could just wing it, but this isn’t,” Snyder says. “One way you can take care of yourself is by creating structure.”

Before parents hand their children a calendar, they need to pencil in some time for themselves, adds Laura Kelloway, the Retreat’s manager of outpatient child, adolescent, and family services who has published a “Helping Kids Cope” fact sheet available at brattlebororetreat.org.

“Put your own oxygen mask on first,” says Kelloway, echoing flight attendants who know people can take care of others only if they take care of themselves. “Make sure your fears are in check and that you get the help you need to cope.”

In addition to mental health services, the Retreat also treats people with alcohol dependence and drug addiction who may be challenged by the isolation of such coronavirus prevention practices as social distancing and sheltering in place.

“A lot of people are in pain already,” Snyder says, “and this situation is very, very psychologically challenging.”

On the flip side, the pandemic holds transformative possibilities.

“There’s a wide opening here for increased positive family cohesion,” Kelloway says. “And this is the first time I’ve been able to encourage a teenager to use social media.”

Snyder says adults need connection, too.

“We’re being deprived of our main sources of social nourishment,” she says, “so we need to be creative in how we reach out.”

The psychologist, offering “Tips to Survive Uncertain Times” on the Retreat website, suggests chronicling the first signs of spring or contacting friends and family often thought of only during birthdays and holidays.

“From a social psychological perspective, how often do we have a threatening situation that cuts across gender, race, political affiliation, and all other categories?” Snyder says.

“We’re all in this together. At the end of the day, love and heart and connection and relationship are the core of humanity,” she continues.

“This is a time for people to pause and really think about those things,” Snyder says. “This is a time for the best of people to come out.”

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Originally published in The Commons issue #560 (Wednesday, May 6, 2020). This story appeared on page undef.

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