How Are You Doing?
Ideas for answering this question (and understanding your feelings).
COVID-19 hit us fast and furiously. It seems one day we were talking about the coronavirus as something far-off and intangible, and before we knew it, it became a global pandemic. We watched as the security many of us felt in our worlds slip away, like sand sifting through our fingers, replaced with uncertainty and surrealism. A gigantic carpet was pulled out from underneath all of us, leaving us scrambling to pick up the pieces.
But alas, pieces get picked up and a new normal develops. An analogy that comes to mind is that of a tablecloth being pulled out from under a fully set table. All the dishes and utensils dislocate and then land in new spots.
This is what it seems has been happening with our adjustment to the coronavirus. Over the last several weeks everything was thrown into the air, and now the pieces are settling back down into a new, albeit temporary, routine. It takes time for our brains to process and adapt to these quickly unfolding events.
In the set table analogy, the moments when the dinnerware is in the air before it settles, parallel our felt anxiety. This is the time-frame when fight or flight is engaged and we are gearing up to face the threat. There has been an abundance of anxiety over the last several weeks as we dealt with the novelty and unknown of the coronavirus and the daily readjustments that took place.
As things settle down though, it seems anxiety has expanded into a more complex buffet of feelings. You may notice conflicting emotional experiences: feelings of sadness, loneliness, loss, and confusion alongside feelings of relief, contentment, and gratitude.
I believe this evolution in our emotional experience has its roots in at least two principles. One is that as we hold stress and uncertainty for extended periods of time, the weight of chronic physiological arousal involved in sustained anxiety can often elicit secondary feelings of depression, fatigue, and hopelessness.
Second, as we come to terms with the reality that the coronavirus will change life as we know it for an extended and indefinite period of time, many feel as if they have lost hold of their longer-term pursuits and visions. It is difficult, if not impossible, to plan and goal set when we are in a holding pattern of unknown time.
You may be feeling as if you lost your footing, so to speak, and wonder how you can still pursue that which is of value in the face of such uncertainty. This can lead to feelings of emptiness and confusion.
A client described her experience as vacillating between anxiety, grief, anger, and a sense of knowing she will be okay and this will pass. In our conversation, she emphasized how so many things she was counting on were suddenly taken away from her. Events she was looking forward to, milestones to celebrate, and goals she had been working on. Many of them evaporated overnight. As she described her losses, it felt like grief, the loss of her life as she knew it and expected it to be.
Grief and loss are not experienced only in death. So many of us are experiencing loss in finances, stability, travel, autonomy, perceived predictability and the pursuit of goals.
My client’s experience made me think of Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’s five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. In our (virtual) session, we discussed Kubler-Ross’s theory and how in grief, individuals bounce between the stages as opposed to going through them linearly.
We discussed how she could learn to notice and accept whatever feelings are coming up for her. Legitimize all that she was feeling and remind herself of her emotion’s transience and their valuable feedback about how she is responding to the world. We discussed how she may begin to offer herself reassurance that there will be an end and that she will reconnect to much of what feels lost right now. Legitimizing the range of emotional experience was helpful for her in moving towards acceptance, both for what is happening in the world and in her unfolding personal experience.
How to respond to the question, “How you are doing?” Several of us may be catching ourselves asking and being asked the familiar question, how are you? Many ask this habitually at the beginning of our conversations. These days these words seem to take on a new significance.
They don’t feel like the routine utterances of a month ago. Even when unintended, the question feels more intimate and emotional and relatable. The undertone is that there is something wrong. I know that, and I get it because I am feeling it, too.
Being asked this question, though, can bring up the emotional confusion you may be feeling inside. You may be thinking, I don’t know how to answer this question because quite frankly, I don’t know how I am.
It is difficult to answer a question we don’t have the answer to.
How can we sift through our emotions to gain more clarity on what we are feeling?
When you have a moment, you may want to try finding some quiet, undistracted time to sit with your feelings. Write them down and say them out loud if you can. Nod to them, acknowledge them ,and welcome them in. Try labeling them by saying, this is sadness, this is loss, or this is gratitude.
Pay attention to where the feeling lives in your body. If you notice you feel sadness, ask yourself how your body knows that you are sad. Do you notice a heaviness in your chest, watering in your eyes? All our feelings take up residence in our bodies, and noticing the physical sensation linked to our feelings can be a powerful piece of acceptance.
If you have been going on walks, you may want to use some of this time as an emotional check-in. Ask yourself how you’ve been feeling, just as you would a friend, and then notice what comes up. Try identifying what feelings you have had over the day, and what you feel in this very moment. Moving from past to present can be helpful in grasping the transience of our emotions and our ability to move in and out of them.
After we recognize what feelings are coming up, acceptance is the next step. Tell yourself it’s okay and it makes sense that you are having these feelings. Legitimize your emotions, both the ones that make sense to you because you have a direct cause for them, and the ones that feel more ambiguous. Our feelings are valid because they are present, not because we have a known explanation for them.
Next time someone asks you how you are doing, as you gain more emotional awareness, you may feel clearer in your response. How you choose to answer the question is of course up to you, and may be dependent on the relationship you have with the asker. You can try describing your feeling. You can say it’s been a mix of feelings. Whatever feels accurate for you. Affirm that it’s okay to feel a range of big confusing feelings all at the same time. No matter how you choose to answer this question, having a firmer grasp on what you are feeling is a gift to yourself in these trying times, as this insight will hopefully lead you to adaptive coping.