Tears and Time: Being Mindful of Your Emotional Response to the COVID-19 Pandemic

Woman with her back to the camera looking out the window with a cup of tea
By Karrie Osborn

Sometimes the feeling quietly creeps up on you. Sometimes it hits you square on the jaw.

No matter how stoic, optimistic, or hopeful we might be in the face of this global pandemic, we are all subject to the onslaught of emotions it brings: Overwhelming sadness. Crisis exhaustion. Unrecognized grief. My moment came two weeks ago when the tears seemed to flow all day. An onslaught of “we’re all in this together” television commercials did me in. I began to hear the same stories from friends and colleagues who were reaching their own breaking points and discovering their own triggers during isolation. And, unfortunately, those moments may not stop for a while. But know this—those tears are an important part of making it through to the other side.

COVID-19, and how it’s affecting us, is scary and exhausting, even if we haven’t been exposed to the actual virus. Isolation and financial and safety concerns bring another layer of tension, as does the unknown about what tomorrow holds. But we cannot let those feelings overwhelm us. Now is the time to control what we can, recognize when we need help, and practice patience, forgiveness, and kindness toward ourselves and others.

It’s Trauma …

Experts say we’re collectively dealing with trauma right now; some even warn of an impending trauma pandemic if we’re not careful. Lost jobs and incomes, upheaval of reassuring daily routines, stresses from the uncertainties, and for some, physically dealing with the virus itself easily invites anxiety, fear, and grief. Understanding when these normal human experiences become subjects of concern is important; we will all be anxious and we will all grieve, but when these things start to impede our ability to function in our daily life is when we need to reach out to our health-care providers or counselors. For those already diagnosed with posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), or anxiety, mood, or obsessive-compulsive disorders, a crisis of this magnitude has a very good chance of exacerbating the symptoms. Now is the time to be diligent with your self-care, utilize your active coping skills and support networks, maintain your medications, and seek help immediately if you’re struggling.

… And It’s Grief

Grief is another part of this process we’re all going through. In addition to grieving for a lost practice, many massage therapists and bodyworkers who’ve closed their doors are also grieving the loss of their clients specifically. “I miss them,” one MT wrote only a few days into the shutdown. These people are a part of your life, so it only makes sense you would grieve the fact you can’t see or help them. The healing nature of who you are makes that grief inevitable. As you begin to process your grief, remember the seven stages you will likely go through: shock, denial, anger, bargaining, depression, testing, and acceptance. Understanding these stages will help you recognize the rollercoaster of emotions grief brings as you navigate through it.

Stay at Home, But Stay Connected

For your emotional wellness, don’t socially isolate yourself from others while you’re in physical isolation. Make sure you’ve got people in your circle you can reach out to when you need to vent, or laugh, or cry. Be there for them in the same way, and help each other banish away negative self-talk. And don’t just assume that your most “got-it-together” friend or colleague is doing OK. As you check in on your loved ones, be extra mindful and present in your conversations with single family and friends who might be feeling especially isolated and lonely right now.

Today’s circumstances are stressful for anyone, but they certainly look to challenge the resolve of people maintaining their sobriety, or working through recovery. For those in alcohol or drug recovery, meetings are taking place online, and access to virtual support groups and counseling resources are being added daily. Following your program and maintaining your connections to the outside world while in isolation are more important than ever. (See the "Support Services" section below.) 

Staying connected can become a community affair as people take to their balconies and backyards each evening. Here in Colorado, we howl at 8:00 p.m. each night for the health-care workers on the front lines of this pandemic. In my little community, you can hear the support bounce from one side of the canyon to the other. In New York, they begin a round of applause at 7:00 p.m. to show their appreciation. In Italy, they sang. Communities everywhere are trying to find the voice to both express and share their appreciation, the endless gratitude for those who are fighting for us. In doing so, we feel connected to each other in a powerful, healing way.

Helping Others Can Also Be Healing Salve

During times of national tragedy and hardship, massage therapists and bodyworkers have always risen to the occasion, being some of the first to step up to lend a hand. But this time, you can’t respond the way you’ve always done. You can’t offer hands-on work to the traumatized or the frontline workers, but that doesn’t mean you can’t help. There are lots of ways you can still support your community.

  • Check in with your neighbors; see if you can help anyone get groceries or pet goods, or help walk dogs.
  • Help distribute meals to children still picking up necessary food stocks from their local schools. Connect with your school district for opportunities to help.
  • Donate time at a local food bank. Many of the volunteers who normally staff these nonprofits are over 65 and fall in the high-risk category for contracting COVID-19. With increased demands on these facilities across the country, help is needed.
  • Donate blood if you are healthy. The Red Cross is asking for donors; go to redcrossblood.org for info.
  • If you are fortunate to have a multi-income family and you are able to help support small businesses, consider pre-buying your next few massage sessions to help out a colleague who is struggling.

Practice Forgiveness

If there was ever a time to be forgiving toward yourself and others, it’s right now. One of the best bits of advice I’ve come across lately was directed at parents. The message was simple—give yourself some slack. It’s absolutely acceptable to be a “good enough” parent right now. This is not the time to beat yourself up about the excess amount of screen time the kids (or you) got today, or that you let your teenager bake a cake for lunch, or that you’ve grown quite happy in sweat pants and have no idea where your bra is.

In that same vein of forgiveness, don’t feel you have to apologize for your emotions—they are going to come, some at less opportune times than others. Find a quiet place to let it go, or share your tears with your partner, but don’t feel guilty about having the emotions. Let the feeling come and let it pass. And then move on.

Forgiveness is also important as we deal with social media conflicts, grocery store bullies, or loved ones who don’t share our point of view. People can act poorly when faced with fear, but that doesn’t mean you need to engage with that energy. Avoid social media fights and remember we each have our own story. We have not walked in each other’s shoes, so we may not know or understand the experiences that have shaped the person yelling at us on Facebook. Breathe and move on. Save your energy for more important things.

All of It Is Self-Care

As massage therapists and bodyworkers, you understand the importance of self-care better than most. You know what it means when the internal alarm is ringing. You know about stress and the importance of keeping the inflammation it produces at bay. You understand the value of body and mind practices, so now is the time you must follow your own best advice. Embrace all the tools you have always tried to impart to your clients and make sure to hold yourself accountable to practicing them mindfully. 

If your normal social media groups are becoming too toxic, take a break. If the news is becoming too much, change the channel. Theo Tsaousides, clinical assistant professor at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, says it’s OK to tune out when you find yourself getting inundated with coronavirus information. He suggests pulling out a coloring book, reading a novel, or taking a walk just to reset and replenish the batteries.

Here are a few other self-care tools to try:

You Are Not Alone

It can’t be said enough. You are not alone in this crisis. We’re not sure how long it’s going to take to get things back to a “normal” place, and the emotional toll could be deep, but you have an advantage in that you understand the importance of self-care. Use that knowledge! When you utilize all your self-care tools, honor your emotions, have patience with yourself and others, and embrace kindness and forgiveness, the turbulent times ahead will be more manageable.

Support Services

US Dept. of Health and Human Services—Disaster Distress Helpline

Crisis counseling and support to people experiencing emotional distress related to natural or human-caused disasters; 24/7, 365-day-a-year support: 800-985-5990

United Way COVID Response

If you need assistance finding food, paying housing bills, or other essential services, this tool will connect you with local resources, or you can speak with someone who can help.

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline

800-273-8255

National Domestic Violence Hotline

800-799-7233 (English) | 800-787-3224 (En Español)

Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration

National Drug and Alcohol Treatment Referral Routing Service
800-662-HELP

Alcoholics Anonymous

Online meetings resource

Tech Together

A variety of online resources for those in drug and alcohol recovery, and their families.

Anxiety and Depression Association of America

Countless, quality mental health resources for individuals, families, and children

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

“Stress and Coping”

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