By: Eva van der Ploeg
How much has changed globally in the past month? Mid-March, I wrote a blog about Mindfulness and how it may help when caring for a person with dementia. Barely four weeks later, the editor and I feel we can only write about COVID. It is not specific to people with dementia and those living or caring for them. What I am going to write may be helpful to other people too. I will try to add something to the (social) media stream that we are all exposed to and I’ll definitely end on a positive note!
This is my attempt to look at the current situation from a mindful perspective. What small changes can we make to assist ourselves to be ok. And everything starts with accepting all of it just as it is: COVID, the overwhelming and negative media coverage, the horrible stories and strong opinions on social media, your response to it all.
COVID is a magnifying glass
Mind you, I am not saying, you should ignore or trivialize any of this. We live in unprecedented times. Nothing is the same as one month ago. We have no idea what tomorrow brings, let alone next week, month, year. Everything feels uncertain and it is. Being at home, with too little or too many activities, too little or too many people, will amplify this feeling of insecurity.
But look at the previous paragraph closely; is any of the things I say new? Or is it a magnified version of ‘normal’ life? Are realities revealed that we are normally good at covering up? We never really know what tomorrow brings, but there is a general assumption that it will be similar to today. Unless it is Friday and it is the weekend tomorrow! But we still think we know what we will be doing, namely what is in our diary.
Terror Management Theory (Greenberg, Solomon & Pyszczynski) describes how people have created a way of thinking and behaving that is aimed at (subconsciously) suppressing the knowledge that we will die. The authors stipulate that this knowledge produces feelings of terror (intense fear) “and the terror is then managed by embracing cultural beliefs, or symbolic systems that act to counter biological reality with more durable forms of meaning and value”. COVID has shattered our Terror Management. See Figure 1. for a list of things that you may have experienced as a consequence and that are completely normal!
Try not to overrate your judgments, opinions, thoughts
So now that we have established that our responses, feelings, thoughts, behaviors are nothing out of the ordinary considering this novel, daunting situation, let’s look at what we can do! Here, I will refer to Mindfulness (Kabat-Zinn). Remember the core of Mindfulness is aware-nessing or observing? Especially when strong emotions occur and we experience a tsunami of negative opinions and stories, it is hard not to get caught up in our judgments and thoughts (and emotions, but I’ll address those later).
It may help to evaluate your opinions and thoughts for what they are: opinions and thoughts. They are not necessarily true and they are definitely not you. They are part of you. They do not need to be covered up, but they should also not be allowed to take over. An honest response to the current situation would, for example, be: ‘I am terribly upset by what is happening and I am afraid of what the future might bring, but I do not know what the future will bring and even now good and bad things are happening in the world’. And the accurate answer to most questions is ‘I don’t know’.
Look for other (positive) opinions than your own, google the opposite of what you might fear, always read the positive news stories, about; the people that have recovered; communities that come to life and collectively sing from their balconies; people that connect and deliver groceries to those most at risk; the natural world that seems so keen and so able to recover. Imagine those dolphins in Sardinia, the clear waters of Venice. Observe the animals that come out in your neighborhood. The bluer skies, the starry night. Listen to the newfound silence. Realize there is good and beauty in the world, in people, it was always there and it will always be. And know that whatever you feel has meaning and can contribute to preserving the positives that are revealed.
It’s ok not to be ok
Regarding what you may feel, we are used to emotions being labelled positive or negative. Where ‘joy’ is the only positive emotion and all other things you may experience are labeled as ‘bad’ or even ‘wrong’. We tell young boys that they cannot cry in response to falling over, but being scared, startled or in pain after a fall is a natural response and crying is an excellent expression of these feelings.
Let’s re-evaluate our emotions: they all have important meaning, especially as a means of communication. Fear tells you that you are in danger or are overwhelmed, once you acknowledge this, you can for example limit your (social) media intake in general and especially when you experience a deep fear. Anger draws a line for others, not necessarily because they are doing something wrong, but also because we feel overstimulated. Many people will experience angry outbursts atm, the message is: ‘It is too much for me!’. Lastly, sadness, often frowned upon as weakness, is the courage to show your vulnerability and ask help from others!
See your emotions, opinions and thoughts as they are, communicate honestly about them (‘I am having an off-day’ suffices), but know that you do not have to act on them. Sharing that you feel down, angry, anxious, may well prevent you from lashing out later. And if you do lash out, it’s ok too. You can always reconnect and apologize. This is the time for honesty, kindness and forgiveness! In the first place to yourself!
If you have any specific things you’d like to share with or ask me, please contact me through Stichting Alzheimer Indonesia Nederland.
Dr. Eva van der Ploeg has a PhD in Public Health from the Erasmus Medical Centre in Rotterdam. She has worked and lived in the U.S.A., the Netherlands and Australia. She is now based in Indonesia. She works internationally as a researcher, consultant and trainer of ‘Original Montessori for Dementia’ hoping to improve the life of people with dementia and those caring for them and a mindfulness practitioner.