By Steven Ross LCSW RSW NASM
One morning in mid-March, I woke up in my bedroom in NYC, and thought, well, this isn’t looking very good. I had just flown into the city about five days prior from Toronto for a weekend of work and theatre. I’ve been traveling back and forth from NYC to Toronto on a weekly basis since the beginning of the year, striving to build a private psychotherapy practice in Toronto while also maintaining my office in Manhattan. It had been going pretty well so far, getting new patients and filling my schedule out in both, but that particular trip to NYC was turning out to be quite a different adventure, and it was also destined to be the beginning of a whole new one, far removed from than the one I had been expecting. Adaptability and resilience are the words that sat on the tip of my tongue that day, and pretty much every day since.
I’ve been a personal trainer and a private practice psychotherapist for years in NYC, but the chaos that we were all about to have to navigate was beginning to materialize before our eyes. No longer was I going to have the option and the freedom to fly back and forth seeing patients in both city’s offices, nor was it safe to do so even if I could. The whole world was shifting, and I had no idea what this new situation was going to look like for me, and for everyone in my life, both professionally and personally. This new order was going to affect us all in ways that we could not foresee, so finding our resilience and our ability to navigate anxiety was turning out to be one of the first structures we would all need to find.
So on Monday, March 16th, with rumors of the Canadian border closings, I altered all of my plans and quickly booked a flight to Toronto for that same afternoon. The flight was cheap and packed to the brim with nervous Canadians. Every cough was greeted with scared stares and whispers, with hand sanitizer being distributed by upset passengers to all those around them with an anxious air that I had rarely experienced en masse. I felt like I was in a scene from a movie, or a flashback episode from “The Handmaid’s Tale,” with all of us trying to escape a nation altering its place in the world. And as it turns out, maybe that was more the truth than not.
Once back in Toronto, I felt pretty safe and sound. I self-isolated in a condo high up in the clouds looking over the pristine lake and the closed-down Island Airport that I had flown into just days earlier. I focused on getting my two-citied psychotherapy practice up and running on Zoom and FaceTime. I filled the days with work, YouTube exercise classes, and yoga (many thanks, yogawithadriene), as well as FaceTime chats with quarantined friends and concerned family members. I had food delivered to my door, cooked healthy meals, allowed myself one (or maybe two) bourbon drinks a night, and searched out theatrical events, which is my out-of-work passion.
I worked, watched, wrote, worked out, and waited for the 20 days I had booked to end. My hobby of writing theatre reviews for my blog (frontmezzjunkies.com) was enhancing my days, and filling up the space with daily commentary on streamed productions and special events from theatre companies around the world, such as National Theatre in London and the Stratford Festival here in Ontario. After my days in isolation, I moved back to my friend’s house in a nice residential neighborhood just north of St. Clair West. From that point, I self-isolate and try to maintain strong social distancing whenever I go running and exercising in the nearby park. But honestly, I generally liked to stay in the backyard. I felt and still feel nervous outside, but very fortunate and lucky, I think. I am surrounded by good people, have lovely dinners with my friend roommates, and feed my passions every day. It’s not perfect, but it’s pretty damn good. I can not complain.
In essence, that is what resilience is all about. It means learning how to cope in spite of all the setbacks and barriers that get in the way. It is a measure of how much you want something and are willing and able to overcome the obstacles set out. COVID-19 has set forth more obstacles, setbacks, and barriers than we could ever have imagined in our lifetime. It’s an unsettling time for all of us, for a myriad of different reasons. We are all, it has been said, basically in the same storm, swirling around and wondering when it will end, but we are certainly not in the same boat. Your boat may be more structurally sound, or more crowded. You might be finding loneliness or financial ruin in your boat, or you might feel that it is quickly sinking. Or maybe, it’s something else entirely. It’s all perspective, and it’s all very personal.
Our individual reaction to this unprecedented time is as personal as it can get. Some of us are forging out into the stormy waters feeling very much on our own or surrounded by a few friends. Some are separated from their loved ones, and some are trapped inside with others that bring tension to our already complicated lives. Some of us have loved ones who are first responders, and some have to deal with elderly parents or grandparents who are more susceptible to this deadly virus. Your scenario is unlike anyone else’s. And must be looked at through that very private lens and with a whole lot of compassion.
Fear is living underneath everyone’s covers, peeking out and grabbing hold when we least expect it. We all have an evolutionary bias towards expecting the worst, noticing and responding to the negative in order to survive. It is there to keep us alive, for the most part, but there are so many avenues of thought that could take us down some pretty terribly dark rabbit holes out there. With help, we can find the path forward that isn’t as tight a fit or as poorly lit. Modifying and training ourselves to gain some control in the appraisal of threat is key to enhancing our sense of self-efficacy and improving our adaptive coping mechanisms to face the challenges ahead. This is all within our reach if we can stop and take a look at where we are, and understand our personal triggers of anxiety.
The main idea is finding our window of tolerance, and in that space, we discover our resilience. If our anxiety is too high, or even if it is too low, we won’t be able to find the ability to respond adaptively to what is swirling around us. Finding space to breathe, release tension and stress through exercise, practice mindfulness and meditation, engage in self-compassion, and discover compassion within ourselves towards others will all help to establish our safe place, both physically and mentally, and find internal peace.
This period of time can not be seen as anything but trauma. Depending on your situation, it might not be capital-T trauma, but this is most assuredly trauma nonetheless, and it is most assuredly linked to our resilience. This kind of experience is what teaches us just how resilient we actually are and also helps us to learn and develop the areas of our personas that struggle to stay stable and secure. Not dwelling in the anxiety of what lies ahead, but finding the constructive compassion within to deal with our today, tomorrow, and the week ahead is what will make a world of difference. Trying not to beam ourselves into the unknown uncertainty of the future will help validate our concerns, normalize our horizons, and give room to experience a type of positivity that will help us stay safe and sane. It comes down to competency, connection, and the concept of creativity.
They say knowledge is power and competency is one of the qualities of resilience that will make us feel safer and more prepared for what lies ahead. We must find productive actions that give a sense of control and accomplishment. Learning and engaging in the challenges ahead will produce a sense of calm, as long as we try to operate in that window of tolerance. We must find ways to engage and connect with our friends and family, as well as with our inner passions. Connection is one of the main avenues forward through these complicated times, as is creativity. That component will be key as we explore what makes us happy and what makes us feel a part of something bigger than just ourselves. If we can try to practice slow and steady breathing exercises, relax into some meditational practices, or find that exercise program that makes you feel more alive and engaged, we will grow in ways that will help us beyond just the present. These all are ways to creatively reflect back and form a deeper connection to our mind, body, and soul, and discover our own brand of competency and resilience.
And this is just the beginning. To navigate all that is going on within ourselves, we need to be kind and patient with ourselves in almost every conceivable way. We must find a way to give ourselves the room and space to feel all those pesky emotions that will be stirred up, and hopefully, find someone to talk them out with. There is no way we can just “hold it together” all day, every day going forward. Many of the people I talk to every week are finding that even within the monotony of isolation, their responses fluctuate, sometimes for no obvious or apparent reason. It makes sense, as these are unprecedented times, with never-before-experienced problems that have no predictable end dates. It is unclear when we will return to something normal, or a place that resembles something we knew only a few months ago. The “New Normal” is impossible to understand or see presently, but it’s also something that we don’t necessarily have to look at with dread and discomfort. Good things can come out of this. We might find strengths that we never knew we had or aspects of ourselves that grew more focused or functional during this timeframe. It’s all in the way we look into ourselves and how we try to respond to our today, tomorrow, and the week ahead.
I have found a place in my new world that I am truly grateful for, a passion to be of use to my clients, my family, my friends, and myself. That’s the main thing and the most important. Being a psychotherapist feels like such a blessing right now. It gives me strength when I need some for myself and for those I am in session with. There is a focus and a point to my day, which is a blessing. I am trying to be as mindful and cognizant to all that is going on, and I talk a fair bit with others, giving support, care, and camaraderie to one another during these trying times. It’s a lot to absorb, but my community gives me strength. I read a piece about people born in the early 1900s, and all that they went through. I compare and contrast, wondering how they survived numerous devastating wars, a number of plagues, and the Great Depression. It’s impressive, daunting, and inspiring. And I think, at least my WiFi works.
The first thing I will do when this time of isolation is over is to meet up with my friends, give them a good hug, and tell them how much they mean to me. I will go to the theatre. I will have intimate dinners with the people I care about. I’ll plan a trip, to London to see theatre with my best bud, or spend an intimate week on a beach in Cabo or Tulum. I will kiss my friends and the ground I am able to walk on with them. I will make sure everyone knows just how grateful I am that they are still around, and I will mourn the loved ones lost to COVID-19, including one of my best friends. I will grieve, and I will love all that we have together.
One can hope that this pandemic will change people’s priorities, from wanting things to needing people. To care for our environment and one another, rather than worrying only about what they have or what they can buy. I’m not completely convinced as I watch the news. People protesting the shutdown makes me feel sad and scared about our future. But I can’t go too deep down that hole. I’ll cross my fingers, and hold on to hope. Today, tomorrow, and this week, that’s what matters, and that conceptual way of thinking is what will get me to the finishing line. That and the world I create, through creativity, competency, and most of all connection.
The only thing I feel I should add is that I worry a lot about what the future will look like. I know I have no power to control any of it, and I need to focus on today, tomorrow, and the week ahead, but I can’t stop thinking about all the businesses that will struggle to return. Naturally, I first think about the things I love, theatre, bars, restaurants, and all those industries that surround them. I worry about the artists, the performers, the designers, the employees, the press representatives that I’ve had the honor to work with, the bar owners, the restaurateurs, and their employees. I worry about my family, my friends, my colleagues, and their lives. What will our world look like? How many businesses and organizations that we love will be able to survive the shuttering? I want them all to come back. So I do what I can in the moment, because that is all we have. I write about their needs and my hopes. I try to get the word out as much as possible, and I donate where and to who I can. I hope you are doing the same for the industries and the people you care about. This is my list. What is yours?
Steven Ross LCSW NASM is a Registered Licensed Clinical Social Worker with a private psychotherapy practice in both Toronto, Canada and New York City, NY. For information on online or in-person therapy, feel free to send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.