If we can expand our empathic repertoire to include those on another part of the COVID-19 journey, we may better navigate the coming days of physical distance and vulnerability, hope and horror, guilt and gratitude.

By Nomi C. Levy-Carrick, MD, MPhil

As we brace for what might be the most intensive weeks of the COVID-19 response, we need to ensure that we retain the sense of solidarity that has carried us so far. Living in close quarters will inevitably raise tensions, as will living at a distance from family, friends and colleagues.

In the weeks, months and possibly even years ahead, we can expect to experience asynchronous waves of anxiety and grief. These waves will wash over us at various times, as it will our colleagues, friends and families. They are asynchronous because every person who experiences them will do so at different times, according to their own rhythm. The challenge of navigating interpersonal dynamics during what will feel like an unpredictable, churning sea of emotions will require proactive thought and perspective.

Here are three emotional check-ins that we can use to support ourselves and each other during the upcoming COVID-19 surge:

1. Displaced emotion

It is normal to protect ourselves from extremely painful emotional experiences by gravitating to a form of expression that seems “safe” to express — even if it has an emotional cost.

For example, anger may be easier to express than sadness — and vice versa. So, if you receive a snippy remark, irritable email, or even a rage-filled retort, try to determine whether this is actually an expression of sadness or grief. This knowledge can help you create an emotional buffer to protect your own mental well-being. Similarly, a friend who seems paralyzed by sadness may be suppressing deep rage that they fear will become unwarranted aggression if let out.

2. Active listening

It is often difficult to listen to friends or family members without responding with solutions and suggestions. But we cannot hope to “fix” many of the problems we hear. Instead, take a non-defensive stance and simply offer affirmation — this may be enough. Solutions can come later.

Someone may be reaching out to just share his or her fear or distress — or to be distracted from it. Don’t be afraid at some point to introduce a different subject to disrupt ruminations that seem to be circling the drain.

Likewise, retain some self-awareness when all you want is to vent and you feel frustrated by someone’s well-intentioned effort to offer solutions or perspective. Recognize the objective is catharsis, not resolution.

3. Accept different forms of grief

There is a great risk of “survivor guilt” following tragedies of any scale — from car crashes to genocide and, now, pandemics — and it is corrosive. It can become hard to remember that feeling joy does not diminish the intensity of suffering that can occur alongside it. If we see others laughing at a moment when we are grieving, it helps to remember that this is only a snapshot of their experience, not the totality, and so resist a potential pang of resentment.

Asynchrony in our emotional experiences does not have to be devastating: it can also be understood as an opportunity to help support those who are struggling when we are feeling stronger — and to accept help from those whose grit and humor can balance our moments of fatigue, anxiety, or grief.

It is natural to seek to connect with people who are “on the same wavelength.” But if we can expand our empathic repertoire to include those on another part of the COVID-19 journey, we may better navigate the coming days of physical distance and vulnerability, hope and horror, guilt and gratitude.

Nomi Levy-Carrick, MD, MPhil is the Associate Vice Chair, Ambulatory Services, Department of Psychiatry at Brigham Health in Boston, MA.

Header illustration by wasja / iStock

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