Midway through the year, many of us are coming to terms with the fact that the difficulties we have been facing will be with us for some time to come. For some perspective on weathering uncertainty and staying steady (as steady as we can) in extremely choppy waters, I invited my friend Andrea Shaw to share her perspective. Her expertise as a leadership and self-development coach who has a PhD in clinical psychology give her a unique window into the difficulties we are all experiencing, and a valuable set of tools for getting through this time. Learn more about Andrea’s expertise and work at the end of this post and on her website.
Metta Solutions: It’s probably fair to say this has been an emotionally difficult few months for many people. Can you shed some light on what’s normal for all of us to be experiencing during this really unusual time, and also any red flags that might indicate someone needs urgent help
Andrea: There is so much unknown. We are experiencing a lot of movement and change. Now there is a sense that we are finding a new normal. There’s abnormality in many aspects of our lives except maybe getting into bed at night or brushing our teeth. First, there has been the unraveling of order due to COVID-19. Compounding that, we are immersed again in an important and challenging reckoning with a raw, direct experience of racial injustice.
It’s normal to feel discomfort. If you’re thinking, “I’m agitated. This is weird. I don’t like this.” — that’s you becoming aware of your feelings. Ideally, that’s not where you stay, and hopefully you have some tools to manage your feelings, but it’s normal to feel anxious with upheaval.
What’s useful is having awareness of how to return to yourself and to recognize the resources you need to build anew to manage all this.
What’s not healthy is getting stuck in the stress of it all. That’s unhealthy even in regular life when there’s no huge disruption like this.
MS: Many of the Metta Solutions community members are clinicians, and some are on the front lines of the pandemic. We know they have been fighting the battle of their lives. What is normal for them to be experiencing right now, and what should be seen as a red flag?
Andrea: Those courageous folks who are following a call to help and facing extreme pressure, unknowns and terrible pain and sadness — while still experiencing many of the same issues as the rest of us, like isolation from friends and family — live the depth of this health crisis directly.
It’s normal to feel like this is too much, and this is very hard. It’s normal to feel that this is like nothing you have ever seen, much is being asked of you, and you don’t know if you can take it. It’s painful. Experiences will vary, but there is heartbreak and challenge in many places.
My work involves turning challenge into opportunity. This doesn’t mean you normalize this experience, but you call on your inner reserves or the resources of people around you to find the stability of now.
Red flags are similar, but would involve extremes of emotion, whether becoming deadened to the whole experience or unconsolably emotional. Do you feel terrified at moments? Seems normal to me. Strong emotions may come, but staying in any strong emotion for so long that you can’t think or can’t pull yourself out is not. That makes it more difficult for you to function the way you need to at work and in private life.
If you’re stuck in thinking negatively about how bad this is or how bad it’s going to be, or you are caught in total pessimism that is a red flag. Significant changes in mood, energy, getting too much or too little sleep, eating too much or too little, that kind of thing — those can also be flags.
MS: As a clinician, what worries you about the mental health consequences of the pandemic?
Andrea: My concern is that more people will feel like they can’t run their own lives and they can’t take care of themselves. For people who are vulnerable, there could be lasting effects of feeling this chaos and feeling so much unknown. That’s what stresses people out, the lack of answers and order while having this risk hanging over them. The idea that if you go to the store, you can get sick. Did you wipe the things off enough? That kind of hyper attention to details can be difficult.
MS: In many and perhaps all professions, work life has gotten really challenging in the past few months, and some people may be thinking about making a big change. As a coach, how do you approach this?
Andrea: After this experience some people may be looking for a change. No matter what the situation, before you make a big decision, it’s prudent to pause. It may be the right thing to move in a new direction. But if you are highly emotional or the demand on you is intense and you are at your wit’s end, I wouldn’t recommend making any big decision then. I would say, unless you just have to stop in your current job because it has become an urgent health issue for you or some other objectively clear reason, pause, think, take some deep breaths, talk to someone — perhaps a professional, but at least people close to you.
No matter what the situation I meet my clients exactly where they are. I don’t come with a fixed idea. My agenda is to listen and really hear what their struggle or aspiration is.
MS: Whichever professional hat you are wearing, leadership coach or psychotherapist, what tools do you recommend people turn to as they manage this time?
Andrea: The most important thing is to stay in some kind of good, nourished connection with oneself. How do you do that? The blanket over everything is understanding and compassion, and these situations provide numerous opportunities to learn about yourself. What are your unique ways to stay sane, to stay steady, to stay nourished? Is it making connections with people on Zoom or sitting six feet apart on a bench in a park? Is it reading a book you love or walking or listening to music or doing both? What feeds you? Without doubt, do that.
And the other crucial help is creating routine that you can rest on. One of the problems with this whole situation is that a jackhammer was taken to the way we are used to everything being. What keeps us steady and sane are good routines, but routine has been blasted. So maybe what that looks like now is someone holding onto their yoga practice once a day, if that grounds them. Or a ritual of talking with a loved one before bed.
MS: We don’t know how this will play out, and what the world will look like when it does. Is there a way to be OK with that kind of uncertainty?
Andrea: You can’t really be OK with a lot of what’s happening. You may feel pushed and pulled by COVID-19 while sickened by the difficult but needed exposure of rampant racial injustice. Whatever the challenge, we have to find ways to steady our own boats and if we can, to help those around us calm their waters. We are entering a new normal. Again, ask yourself, what are a few small things that I need to keep me steady? These things can provide some certainty, reliability and balance amid uncertainty.
And on the spiritual end of things, there is a quote from a Thai teacher, Ajahn Chah that can lend strength and support. He said “If you let go a little, you’ll have a little peace. If you let go a lot, you will have a lot of peace. If you let go completely, you will have complete peace.” Now that’s a big ask, but we can move in that direction. I take his teaching to mean to progressively let go of suffering. Then from a place of greater calm, consider what you can do to protect your physical health and order.
Letting go doesn’t mean to tolerate things that are wrong, but to let go of the ways of thinking that don’t serve us, and that don’t make us better, stronger or happier. And that is always the work, whether there’s a crisis or not.
MS: You mentioned the idea of turning challenges into opportunity. How can we do that now?
Andrea: Like anything else, how do we deal with what’s presented to us? If you feel knocked down, how do you get up? What helps you be stronger or develop a new outlook or a better outlook? We have this reality. But the degree to which it is a challenge, limiting life or causing sadness and negativity is different for everyone. Finding your way through it is again about looking to yourself and figuring out what resource you need to tap. Maybe you need to sit quietly and breathe, or maybe you need to have a party on Zoom with 10 friends. We each need to discover and activate the unique ways that bring us strength; there’s no one right thing to do.
The opportunity, then, is partly in learning and getting to know oneself better. Ask yourself, “How can I be kinder and more compassionate with myself and others? What can I learn? How can I be better?”
The mother of happiness is gratitude, so it can also help to consider what we have that we can be grateful for and focus on that. Grow that feeling and use the strength of it to balance the challenges of this time. We human beings are resilient.
Andrea Shaw, PhD, MCC, is a leadership and self-development coach with extensive expertise in executive and health coaching. She works locally and internationally with clients up through the C-suite, physicians and professionals. Her doctorate is in clinical psychology, and she is a Master Certified Coach, the highest designation awarded by the International Coach Federation. Additionally, she is an instructor of coaching, mentors new as well as experienced coaches and designs coach training courses. In 2002, Andrea joined the Health Coaching team at Duke Integrative Medicine where she has been an instructor and mentor in Duke’s Integrative Health Coach Professional Training Program since its inception. Learn more at her website.
Last updated July 28, 2020