Flatten the “emotion” curve

It was about the end of the third week of quarantine when I hit emotional rock bottom. It was brought on by my having to cancel my long-scheduled travel plans to see my dad, who is in the last stage of Parkinson’s disease, as well as my brothers, my nieces and nephews and even our youngest son by way of a side trip to Japan. I have been missing all my family and friends like never before. 

The realization that I didn’t know when I would get to see any of them again (or in my dad’s case, if ever again) hit me hard, like being punched in the gut. 

By now we all have heard the phrase “flatten the curve” and know what it means. I think, however, that “flatten the curve” can also apply to our emotions; it is important to understand how our moods are affected by the global pandemic and how to best “flatten” our responses.

While we have lost the privilege of going outside, our emotions are still travelling on a big roller coaster ride. 

I went into lockdown with optimistic thoughts to get things done – things I have been putting off for a while.  Now that outdoor activity was wiped from my calendar, perhaps it was time to perfect my Spanish, master classical guitar, write more blog posts, start new on-line courses, even finally start the book that Jim and I often discuss writing together. 

You know how much I’ve accomplished in this AC (After Covid-19) time since I have been housebound? None. Nada. Nil.

My sense of time and motivation has completely gone out the window.  

I spent the first three weeks doing things that I usually avoided BC (Before Covid-19), like chatting mindlessly on messenger apps, checking news feeds thousands of times per day, and eating more (a lot more) comfort food not known to be healthy. I slept poorly – waking up in the middle of the night just to check on more news that added to my anxiety. I remain perpetually exhausted. I struggle to focus, and everything takes twice as long as usual – even writing this post, which I had started at the end of the third week…two weeks ago.

All this non-effort made me depressed and lethargic. I am trying hard not to feel guilty about my mood or lack of accomplishment. Apparently, all this is normal. It’s part of grief. According to this article, and this

My grief, it turns out, is part of a greater collective grief. We’ve all lost something in this global pandemic. In addition to the obvious losses – jobs, businesses, even loss of family members’ and/or friends’ lives, we also have less obvious, existential losses.  

None of us was prepared for this kind of separation and loss; the loss of normalcy, social and family connections, control, freedom, and the sense of security and safety that comes from taking routines for granted. This is hitting all of us hard and we are all grieving. 

So what to do? According to David Kessler – an expert on grief, understanding the stages of grief is a start. The stages aren’t linear and may not happen in the same order: 

“There’s denial, which we saw a lot of early on: This virus won’t affect us. There’s anger: You’re making me stay home and taking away my activities! There’s bargaining: Okay, if I social distance for two weeks everything will be better, right? There’s sadness: I don’t know when this will end. And finally there’s acceptance. This is happening; I have to figure out how to proceed.

Acceptance, as you might imagine, is where the empowerment and recovery lies. We find control in acceptance. I can wash my hands. I can keep a safe distance. I can save lives by staying home. I can learn how to work virtually. 

I realized I was in the sadness stage right around the end of the third week. I’m an industrial engineer and risk management by training. I tend to analyze where the problems are, figure out how to improve things or manage the risk. But there’s nothing here that can be analyzed and improved. There is nothing to do but to be. Plus I can reduce the risk for myself and others not by doing or analyzing something, but by staying home. I am approaching the acceptance stage but I am also still switching back and forth between sadness and acceptance.

Until we have a Covid-19 vaccine (which experts think will be about 18 months), normal life, or whatever normal life will look like in the future, is not within our grasp.  The next few months will continue to be rough on everyone’s mental health. This is likely the most disruptive global event of our lifetimes.

One thing I have realized is that, just because my calendar looks more open, doesn’t mean I have room to fill my life right now with new tasks, new goals  (learning Russian, anyone?), and new expectations of myself. 

In reality, the things taken away have been replaced by heavy invisible emotional baggage: worry, fear and grief.

I need to recognize that I am going through the grieving process. I need to allow myself time and space to deal with these new invisible burdens, not beat myself up for not taking on new ones on top of them. All grand plans will still be there when it’s the right time to tackle them. 

The basic household functioning – cooking, some light cleaning, light gardening, reading, and walking on my terrace, are the best I can do right now; they give me time for reflection and healing, which is what we all really need to be doing now. 

I’m trying to be okay with that. It’s part of trauma. It’s part of grief. While writing this piece doesn’t take my mind off the pandemic, it helps me process what’s happening. 

So, my advice to myself and everyone – lower the bar, lower your standards for yourself. For me, just getting through the simple tasks of taking care of myself daily takes a lot of mental and emotional energy these days.

Until the big victory is won, look for micro-victories and opportunities – something that will bring joy and be thankful for something not lost. For me, I am thankful to have a great partner like Jim and the companionship of the cats. Together, I found we make great art.   

7 thoughts on “Flatten the “emotion” curve”

  1. Thanks for putting into words what we are grieving and surviving simultaneously in a truly unprecedented way. We are aware of bits and pieces of historical predecessors, but nothing quite like this on a global scale.

  2. Hi: I have read your blog ever since I found out about it on Humble Dollar. I loved your great art – a nice laugh.

    Not speaking specifically to you, Jiab, but to “everyone”, here are a few thoughts (none original, but few ideas are) about getting through this:

    1. Try to have part of your day in a set routine. For me, it is an exercise time, a meditation time, a time to read books and not just news or emails (I usually have two going at a time, one on a kindle I can read in bed, and a physical book from the numerous unread books on my bookshelf.)
    2. Try to do something that helps someone else. Obviously, options can be limited, but I usually transcribe a page for the National Archives or the Library of Congress so that it can be computer searchable. It also feeds my interest in history.
    3. Do something that makes you laugh. That’s where Netflix and You Tube are a big help. I have recently watched Airplane (the jokes just have to make you laugh, they don’t have to be clever or brilliant), the Marx Brothers, Dr. Strangelove (any successful comedy concerning all out nuclear war has to have something going for it), and The Far Side.

    I don’t want to say I have never been bored or ever pondered how long this thing will last, but I will say the above has helped me.

    Thank you so much for your blog. I do enjoy reading it and the articles in Humble Dollar.

    • Mark,
      Thank you. These are good advice. I agree with you in all three recommendations. Thank you for sharing with us and our readers.

  3. Jiab, thank you so much for sharing your journey. Your reflections help me understand that same, nebulous unrest in myself! And your recreated artwork has afforded me precious moments of smiles.

    • Linda,
      Thank you for the note. A lot of us (including Jim) are feeling grief. We will get through this together. I hope you and Jerry are well.

  4. This is exactly how I’ve been feeling! Thanks for putting it into words and giving me permission to lower expectations. –Hilary from Minnesota (we met in Granada on the hill watching the sunset in April 2019 – my husband Collin and I were playing cribbage :))

    • Hillary,
      I remember you and your husband. You are the cute American couples. I miss going to watch the sunset at the Alhambra. It will be a while before Granada open its door to tourists. I’m writing as a way to process my thoughts and feelings and I’m glad if it happens to help someone. It’s a side bonus. Thank you for a nice note. I hope you are adjusted to the new normal and are not too much impacted negatively by the pandemic.


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