When the act of seeking comfort in the face of dire threats is risky business: What now?

Last month, the air was terrible: the West Coast wildfires happening hundreds of miles away were affecting us. I couldn’t see through a curtain of grey haze the trees that are about 20 feet from my house .

We humans are a particular, peculiar kind of animal: we tend not to prepare for the future dangers that we can readily. In fact, we prefer to deny them. BUT – we DO respond to specific, immediate dangers that are in front of our faces.

I do believe in climate change, but when I couldn’t see the trees, it felt very concrete to me. This formerly abstract issue hits you, and you realize that we’re all sitting on a time bomb hoping that it’s not going to go off – and it’s already going off! This kind of in-your-face, visceral impact spurs us into action.


You might have witnessed a loved one or acquaintance grappling with COVID-19. You’ve probably no doubt in your mind about the fear and worry you feel.

Even if you don’t contract COVID or know someone who has, what is visceral and concrete about the pandemic that makes the threat tangible and real? Wearing masks, perhaps? Lockdowns? Rising case counts?

But no matter what makes the pandemic “real” for you, we all feel the paradox of

huge uncertainty triggering and intensifying our wired-in need to feel close with others

and

the fear of close contact.

Distance from others is the signature feature of this pandemic, and, in itself, it’s one that our nervous system understands as a sign of danger. We as therapists and adherents to attachment theory have said over and over throughout the course of this pandemic that, while necessary, physical distancing simply doesn’t “go with” increased chronic fear and stress.

There are so many negative things going on right now, at all levels of society. With COVID-19 and confronting racism on a large scale, issues that were systemically obscured suddenly became clear, particularly for the privileged. It makes you wonder about all the violence and suffering that happened before that no one shared pictures or videos of.

On an individual scale, there are greater levels of chronic stress and anxiety. You may be unable to go to work, as much as you would like and/or need to, in order to be a caretaker/teacher/homemaker. This is the case for many women. And many of us:

  • Are drawing on fewer or depleting resources to deal with stress
  • Are unable to see and bond with friends, family, or even acquaintances as much as we used to
  • Have come to the realization that this situation could go on for much longer, depending on where you are in the world.

My colleagues and I are trying to get a large outcome study about Emotionally Focused Individual Therapy (EFIT) off the ground. We got so excited about the research that we’d nearly forgotten that we’re trying to find results “in the time of Corona” – and the people we’re getting for these studies are exponentially more depressed and more anxious than usual therapy clients.

There are so many things they do not have control over, and more is coming: the U.S. election, more climate change issues, and more economic fallout. In light of the mounting stress and a crackdown on the greatest safe haven we have – closeness with others –  we can expect mental health problems to go through the roof.


A year ago, it was a different world. Even at the beginning of the pandemic, there were all these lovely videos with people standing and singing on balconies, and orchestras playing together on Zoom. I myself shared these videos and wrote how heartening it was to see people uniting. But there’s a limit to sentiment.

The other day, a guy gave me the finger when I was pulling a perfectly legal u-turn. How un-Victorian (as in Victoria, British Columbia, the laidback city where I’ve been living for a couple of years now)! Even here, in a generally caring community, things are fraying.

I know that people have to deal with much worse, more in-your-face problems. Not a day goes by when I don’t see a video of a public freakout or a headline that is incredibly frustrating. And my clients are more distressed than I’ve ever seen them before.

 

Our main defences – our sense of belonging to a group and the feeling that we can do something together – are rapidly eroding. Now, when people need each other more, suddenly the people in our communities that we thought were fine and safe feel dangerous to us.

Some people can’t stand the combination of anxiety and aloneness, so they deny it. One way is by going to a party or a gathering where there may be more people than are allowed by local regulations, or where they flout physical distancing guidelines. It’s happening with both young people and their sense of invulnerability, and with authority figures that should know better.

People are basically saying “F*ck it!” unless they are held to account.

The Canadian Mental Health Association put out an assessment this summer, where it pointed out the growing need for mental health support nationwide. In short, the study says that people are really losing their balance and losing their sense of predictability. People are losing any sense of reliability, and it’s having a lasting, devastating effect on mental health.


I always advise that if you have strong bonds, turn to the people you love more. Maybe we get better at turning, reaching, supporting, and investing in the social ties we do have in a better way. But what about the people who don’t have family near them, or people who don’t have a partner to stay with?

What do we need to do for people that this usual advice excludes?

If you are someone for whom the most visceral sense of threat from COVID is coming from your aloneness and lack of comfort from connection with others, and this is spurring you to act but there seems no way to do this, I would like to suggest something from our EFIT interventions.

    1. Sit in a quiet place and take some deep breaths.
    2. When you are ready see if you can pinpoint a moment when your anxiety and the need for connection and comfort peaked in the last few days. One client told me that she wakes up from bad dreams and hears herself say, “No one is here. No one sees me. I am invisible,” and she feels small.
    3. Now see if you can find a person in your life from the present or the past who triggers a sense of safety and comfort in you. Even if we have had traumatic pasts ,there is nearly always someone who reached for us or seemed to care about our pain. Focus on seeing their face. They are looking right at you.
    4. Tell them – like a child would tell them – as simply as possible what your anxiety feels like in your body and how lonely you feel with this fear. Keep it to a couple of sentences.
    5. Then listen to what they reply and try to take it in.

We are bonding creatures. The wonderful thing about the human brain is that our nervous systems hold onto and store key bonding moments.

This means that you can actually use a sense of emotional connection from your past to soothe your nervous system now.

For years, when dismayed by a challenge, I have tuned into my father’s voice in my head in this way. It always strengthens me.

Stay safe, everyone. We can learn and find ways to come out of this dark time with grace.

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