Just over a year ago, a tsunami of change hit our planet. We could not see it with our eyes and most of us could not feel it in any way other than in the all-encompassing changes that made their way into every facet of life. Unbeknownst to us, and quite without or permission, we were thrust into collective grief. You know — the “five stages of grief” — or, is it seven? Let’s just call it the incredibly painful and unpredictable but totally normal states-of-being while in grief for now.
Looking back, you are likely to see signs of grief all around you. I, for one, nearly bit my poor husband’s head off when, during a dinner out in Times Square our last evening there on March 7, 2021, he commented on a news show that was shouting at us about this, “Stupid pandemic thing,” that I was convinced was just media hype — Hello Denial! For weeks after that, utter bewilderment made people snippy and short, irritated and demanding. Some of us really felt bad if we were doing better in any way than those around us. Enter pain and guilt. Then, all the crazy toilet paper buying. “If You just give us enough toilet paper, God, we’ll be okay!” If that’s not bargaining, I’m not sure what is! Once that died down, we entered a year of both pointed and displaced anger in politics, health care, social justice…the list goes on.
Now, I believe, we find ourselves in some level of depression. It will show up differently for different people. Some of us will be lethargic and weepy, unable to envision a future. Others will find themselves drowning in frustration at every little thing. Some may over work, overeat, keep the online markets afloat with shopping, binge-watch everything in sight for days, or drown in apathy and lack motivation for life in general. Even still, others will be plenty motivated, but unable to concentrate, their creative juices essentially drained away.
Whatever the manifestation, few of us will escape this year unscathed. In fact, you can have everything you need, all the people you love around, loads of money and a great, flexible job and you will still be sad right now because you are a member of the human race and the whole dang world is grieving.
Okay. Brace yourselves…Here is something you might not be expecting me to say here — this sadness, this irritating, lonely, aching, unmotivating, distracting sadness most (if not all) of us are experiencing these days is exactly what we need to be feeling.
Yes. I did just say that. You read it right. I meant it, too.
Those of us who live in the United States have grown up hearing all our lives that our greatest pursuit is the often flash-in-the pan experience of happiness. It has been so incredibly engrained in us that we think something is wrong — even wrong with us — if we do not feel it pretty much all the time. I am here to tell you nothing could be further from the truth.
A few years ago, Disney created a wonderful movie called, “Inside Out,” where (spoiler alert), sadness was given its rightful place (find a wonderful companion study guide here) If you saw that movie, bring your attention to the fact that anger, disgust, and even fear were perfectly acceptable. No one was trying to banish these characters. Sadness, though? That was another story entirely.
But why? What is so loathsome about sadness?
As a trauma therapist with PTSD who loves brain science, I can tell you there are two main issues with sadness: Internal & External Perception Distortions. Let’s take each in turn.
Internal Perception Distortions
Emotions begin in the brain and are propagated throughout our bodies electrically across millions of tiny neurons. When we are engaged with life and in good shape, neurotransmitters, such as serotonin, norepinephrine, and dopamine flow well and regularly. Sadness causes a change or lack in these chemicals, which results in symptoms in the body including heaviness, emptiness, joint and muscle aches, tearfulness, and lack of motivation. Mentally, we disengage from the outside world, which may cause thoughts of helplessness, hopelessness, and worthlessness as isolation overtakes us.
External Perception Distortions
As sadness in general is something we dislike, once tears dry up, people outside of you will try (mostly subconsciously) to quell your melancholy. They will quip trite truisms at you. “Time heals all wounds,” or, “It could have been worse,” nonsense. You will be expected to carry on with your everyday tasks forthwith — and in the face of the pandemic, for many of us, that means your daily tasks times ten, all while learning new processes, teaching your kids at home, trying to pay for the same things with less money, and going stir crazy as the sun comes back out. People outside you will sometimes treat you as a sadness contagion and this makes you trapped inside your own head with all of it. Express anger, frustration, or disgust at the world and you’ll gather a coterie of commiserators. Talk about how sad something is and…crickets.
Now, let’s amp all this up to the level of grief, despair, and depression — which are feelings many of us contend with when trying to reboot a life that has crashed. Sadness is helpful, but clinical depression not so much. What do we do?
Here are some ideas to ponder.
Feel It, But Do Not Drown in Sadness
In the early stages of engulfing sadness, it will feel like an enormous wave hitting you full force. When this happens, if we would disconnect our brains and let the biology have its way, the neurochemical wash that bowls us over will reduce on its own in about ninety seconds. It is when we add fuel to the fire with our thinking and actions that the sadness timbers rage to untenable proportions. Therefore, when you are hit with what feels like overwhelming sadness, don’t fight it.
Find a quiet place and sit down. Stop your thoughts by counting your breaths, out loud if you must. Count slowly to ninety. Then, get a drink of water. If the waves are happening repeatedly, then every four or five times, chomp on a cheese stick or a teaspoon of peanut butter to keep yourself strong. This, human family, is just biology. The body is wonderfully and magnificently wired. It will take care of itself. Just feel it and then let it go.
Know YOUR Warning Signs
I am going to say it again. Sadness is necessary. To feel sad is to say, “This meant something to me,” and “There is a hole in my life now.” We need to feel the pain of this in order to know we need to do the work of rebuilding. The fact our world is in the fatigue stage of the pandemic means we are getting closer to being ready to do the hard work of reconstruction and working through. It is not pleasant, but it is also not bad. It is much worse to ignore or medicate our sorrow because to neglect sadness is to numb ourselves to the depths of life, an act that will stagnate us and eventually steal our joy.
That said, the pandemic has brought waves of sadness for most of us all throughout the last year and we cannot sink into despondency with it. Therefore, when the initial waves pass and you find yourself flailing in the aftermath, be it with irritation, sorrow, apathy, or whatever particular flavor of depression you face — know the warning signs that indicate you are slipping from healthy grief into clinical depression.
Examples are as varied as the number of people who experience them, but in essence, watch for the inability to do your daily living activities (get up, hygiene, chores, basic interactions) for longer than two weeks, inability to sleep for more than three days in a row, decrease or increase in appetite that results in a loss or gain of ten pounds within a few weeks, thoughts of self-harm that are beyond the fleeting instances that happen right after a wave, or acting out behavior of any kind that jeopardizes your professional and personal relationships.
If you experience sadness enough, try to include any “red flags” that tell you that you are approaching warning signs. Perhaps you know something is going awry when you stop washing your dishes or brushing your teeth, or maybe it is when you don’t get excited about seeing your niece or buying something new. Whatever your list holds, share it with someone you trust who can help keep an eye on you and motivate you when you lack the ability to do so yourself.
Give Up the New Normal
There is no new normal or every single day is a new normal, take your pick. Whenever we face a monumental change, it is absolutely normal, natural, and perfectly acceptable to want to get back to a place of equilibrium. However, the way we typically do this is to think back to the last point we can remember being level. This is called nostalgia and, though normal and even pleasant, is inaccurate and not a great way to help ourselves. First of all, your memory is colored by a million things and when you tell yourself, “I just want to get back to work like normal!” you do so while forgetting how much you hated the traffic, how often you lamented the new e-mail with extra work, and just how irritated your office mate was when it came to taking your yogurt out of the fridge. When we work hard to return to a former state of being, we will inevitably find problems there and the only outcome is chronic dissatisfaction with life.
So, stop that.
Save your nostalgia for sharing funny stories of Cousin Sam’s graduation or wedding day. For now, look for the elements of everyday life that feed you, make you feel safe, or bring feelings of gratitude. Focus on those each day and understand that “normal” is a fictitious construct and what you are really looking for is safety and balance — and that, you can create for yourself every day, even now.
Check Your Pre-existing Vulnerability Factors
Some of us have trauma or other incidents in our history that make dealing with what is happening in the world today much harder. These experiences are known as pre-existing vulnerability factors (PVFs) because they cause us to react poorly to certain situations. Perhaps we have lost a job before or had a life-altering or life-threatening illness and we just do not want to face that again. PVFs can also occur as same-day issues, such sleep difficulties, financial strain, or isolation. Whether two years or twenty years in the past, or barely twenty minutes ago, PVFs make dealing with life feel like slogging uphill in knee-deep molasses. Do what you can to raise awareness of your of PVFs and learn to accommodate them. Rather than whipping yourself mentally for being so weak, remind yourself of any past difficulties and ask yourself what you need to help you respond the way you want to now. For current day PVFs, remember the acronym HALT, which stands for hungry, angry, lonely, or tired. Tend to these before you try to solve any other of life’s problems.
The moral of this story is: Do not fear sadness. It is here to stop you in your tracks and make you look at life so you can continue (yes, continue) building in a new direction. You will dream again. You will love and hug and laugh again. It will happen, but first, some fatigue and a few precious tears, a whine, a day in bed, and a few extra hugs and kisses from man’s best friend. That’s okay. You are strong enough for this. Look what you have done this year, all you have overcome. Embrace the sadness and it will carry you through to the other side.
Written by book author, blogger, & educational/motivational speaker, Hannah Smith, MA LMHC CGP. Founder and owner of Potential Finders Network, Hannah provides consultation, training, and personal development services. Hannah’s passion is to see people reach their potential and find lasting, positive change. If you have topics you want to suggest, please don’t hesitate to contact her at Hannah@PotentialFinders.com and check out www.PotentialFinders.com or Facebook to learn more.