I can’t count the number of calls and emails I’ve gotten over the past year, in addition to the many times I’ve been asked to speak (virtually, of course), on the same topic: How can we help people cope during the pandemic? In fact, I recently spoke on this topic to one group for the second time in the past year.
Who could have known this pandemic would go on for so long and how our lives would be disrupted? We are all fatigued. Not only do I have to help my clients manage their fatigue, but I am also focused on the needs of my clinicians and supervisees. No one is immune.
There is no single answer to the best way to cope. As is the case with almost any issue in mental health, we encourage our clients to eat right, sleep right and exercise. This is what I call Moffatt’s Mantra. The treatments for depression, anxiety, grief and a host of other common diagnoses must include these three common components.
But beyond that, coping is idiosyncratic. Things that bring me peace might bring you stress, and vice versa. For example, I just finished a five-day business trip to the Gulf Coast. I stayed in a luxury estate, had a private chef for suppers and ate catered meals otherwise. All of the refrigerators were stocked with just about anything you could imagine. I was paid very well, my workload was light, and I had plenty of time for sailing, deep-sea fishing and the beach.
But I don’t like the beach. I’d rather be in the mountains. I also find it very hard to relax when I’m working, even in luxury accommodations like the ones I experienced. I’m happiest sleeping in my own bed. I may be the only person who wouldn’t find this consulting trip relaxing, but I am intensely introverted. Social events leave me feeling drained, and I’m always “on” when I’m in environments like that.
As odd as I am, I’m not alone in my idiosyncrasies. Some of you reading this might list coping strategies that perhaps nobody else would find helpful. In other words, we shouldn’t assume what would be a healthy coping strategy or stress relief technique for our clients. Our clients need to teach us those facts.
So, here is the physics lesson. The individual spokes on a bicycle are quite weak. Even a child could easily bend one. A bike with only one spoke wouldn’t go very far. In fact, the weight of the bicycle alone would crush that single spoke. But when you put multiple spokes around the rim — with several dozen of them sharing the load — the bicycle sustains its own weight and that of the rider. And the pliability of those spokes — the ones a child could bend — helps the repair person true the rim so that it doesn’t wobble.
This brief foray into physics teaches us something about coping. If you were to ask the bicycle specialist which spoke was most important, they would laugh. All of the spokes are important, and they all have to work together. Our ability to cope with stress, frustrations, anger, relationship problems and grief — all magnified by the pandemic — is based on multiple strategies working together. The more the load is shared, the better.
Even though one strategy — exercise, let’s say — may usually work, it might not always work. Healthy coping involves many skills from which one can draw.
A minimum of three clear strategies, tailored to the individual, is a starting point. We might think of these strategies as legs of a stool. With at least three legs in place, a stool will remain standing, and the more legs on the stool — like the spokes of a bicycle — the harder it will be for something to break it.
So, my response to all those media questions about how we can help people cope during the pandemic is the same. Examine your own life. What tools, skills and strategies have you found helpful in the past? The longer your list, the more spokes you have to sustain you when you feel you are reaching the point of fatigue.
I exercise religiously — almost every day, rain or shine — because I know it helps me avoid fatigue and depression. I nurture relationships — especially my family relationships. I know they are important spokes in my wheel. I need solitude, quiet, predictability and routine. These are some of my spokes, and I might even add my own pillow and my own bed as two others. So, even though a lucrative consulting gig on the Gulf might sound good, I limit them because limiting that kind of work is a spoke for me too.
Know your own spokes and help your clients brainstorm their personal lists. We can’t do that for them. With overt tools to lean on, we will see our way through these very challenging days.
Gregory K. Moffatt is a veteran counselor of more than 30 years and the dean of the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences at Point University. His monthly Voice of Experience column for CT Online seeks to share theory, ethics and practice lessons learned from his diverse career, as well as inspiration for today’s counseling professionals, whether they are just starting out or have been practicing for many years. His experience includes three decades of work with children, trauma and abuse, as well as a variety of other experiences, including work with schools, businesses and law enforcement. Contact him at Greg.Moffatt@point.edu.
Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.