A few days ago, I was listening to the On Being podcast by Krista Tippett in conversation with clinical psychologist Christine Runyan. They were talking about the physiological impact of the pandemic and the stress response of the nervous system. In the wake of the heartbreak of the past few months, it was comforting to listen to them, for the acknowledgement of what this time has done and is doing—the deep anxiety, uncertainty, fractured productivity and grief.
I found myself thinking about mid April when so many of those I love were desperately searching for oxygen, blood donors, medicine and reeling from the lack of access to a hugely overwhelmed health care system. Every morning, I’d dread looking at my phone in fear of what new emergency might have unfolded in the night. Whatsapp groups and social media feeds were flooded with urgent calls for help and the anxiety and dread in the air was palpable. It was close to home, personal, and I found the fear lodging itself in my body in how I was holding it. Friends and family in different parts of the country mirrored similar states of anxiety, in various states of disassociation and numbness.
Runyan speaks to this, saying how important the process of “naming” is to even begin to understand our experience rather than punishing ourselves: “This process of naming and “allowing,” I think is the term that I would say — seeing it as a human response to the conditions that are, rather than something wrong with me — so many of us humans are prone to even ask that question, “What’s wrong with me?” […] what happens when you name something, is that you send a message. You can send a message to your nervous system, like, “Oh, OK, I see what this is. I got you; it’s OK.” In naming, allowing and then choosing how to respond, there’s space to be witness to whatever is present in that moment without pushing it away.
As Dr. Vikram Patel from the Department of Global Health and Social Medicine at Harvard Medical School says, ‘Even before the pandemic, there was significant, robust data that showed worsening mental health, especially in young people, around the world, and in the US suicide mortality has increased 50% in last decade in this demographic. The pandemic with its uncertainties and the economic recessions will likely cause this burden of mental health problems to worsen.’
Even as the pandemic has shone the spotlight on mental health after fear gripped the world last year, the pressure to ‘return to normal’ or ‘pre pandemic levels of productivity’ remains rife. What it often doesn’t allow for it the space to acknowledge the collective grief we are experiencing as a species. At the peak of the worst of my anxiety, when my day would pass trying to provide long distance support to family affected by the virus, I remember standing in my sisters’ balcony in her home in Goa, studying the web a spider had woven. Every day, I’d see adaptations in the pattern of the silken strands of her web. Sometimes tethered between branches of a bush, other times to the wall, making repairs to her construction after a particularly windy day. There was something reassuring about her tenacity, her continuing to weave. Watching her, I’d find myself slowing down to breathe, to pause.
Runyan references this quote attributed to Viktor Frankl in her conversation, “Between stimulus and response, there is a space. And in that space lies our power to choose. And in our choice lies our growth and our freedom.” As we find our feet again at TCC post the second wave and everything it has brought in its wake, we hope to hold space for everything that has come up between stimulus and response and to bear witness to what your moments of pause have led to. We’d love to hear from you so do write into us. Stay well.