When Gov. Phil Scott announced a prohibition on meeting up with anyone outside your household for basically anything other than allowable essential activities like work or school or socially-distant, masked outdoor exercise, it added a deeper level of confusion, concern, sadness and anxiety for many Vermonters.
For some people, the new mandate may have come as a relief, as cases rise across the state. But it's still a hardship for many, particularly at a time when people want to gather for Thanksgiving and other upcoming holidays or to find help with child care and schooling, or to date and find intimacy, or to find solace in the presence of a friend.
Our guest is:
- Emily Pichler, PhD, clinical psychologist at the University of Vermont Medical Center and in private practice
VPR’s Jane Lindholm spoke with UVM PhD clinical psychologist Emily Pichler about tips for how to address increased anxiety or stress, and ways to find joy and gratitude by helping others. Listen to the full conversation, here.
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Jane Lindholm: Are you noticing in yourself: stress, anxiety – different feelings than maybe you had been in the summertime, because of COVID-19 and because of the increase in cases right now?
Emily Pichler: Oh, yeah. Like all of us, I am definitely noticing the changes and I feel how it's affecting our community, too, especially after Vermont has done such a good job of following the rules and doing our part to social distance. And then here we are, still faced with this other wave like we thought would happen again. So I feel it.
What advice do you have for people? First of all, to just acknowledge what we're feeling – you know; that for each of us, the feelings may be different and complicated by what's happening in our own lives and by our own past experiences and by how we've been living through the pandemic to begin with.
Sometimes, I think there's a rush to say, ‘Oh, it's not that bad,’ or ‘I need to get over it.’ And, you know, maybe acknowledging how hard this is, is actually healthy in some ways – like having a good cry once in a while, or whatever it is that helps you feel the feelings, before you try to get beyond the feelings. Emily, do you have some suggestions for that, before we try to sort of fix our way out of what we're feeling?
Right, I'm so glad you brought that up! I think there are so many feelings, that each of us is going to have similar reactions and we're going to have our own unique reactions to [the pandemic].
One of the things that I was thinking about is: just … how it's difficult to have these rules and we want to break them.
And, you know, it's disappointing. It's frustrating. We might feel sad. Some of us might feel hopeless about it. But I think being able to acknowledge, like, ‘I want to break these rules, and the fact that I'm following them? Like, good for me – that’s self-control.’
[I think it’s good to] acknowledge that, and that we're so not alone in that. You know, maybe there are people who we can talk to and sort of vent, or just have a shared experience with, with all of those feelings.
For me, there's certain music where I know, if I'm in the right mood, it will definitely trigger tears. Luckily for me, I still have a commute to an office, and part of that commute is by myself with no kids in the car. So I can either do it then, or I can go for a run, and that's when you have some really ugly crying because it's mixed with, you know, the panting from the running.
But if you can find a place to sort of let those feelings out … I'm not sure it makes me feel better, exactly, but it gives me a release that I otherwise wouldn't have.
Yeah, that's an interesting point … Especially if there's a feeling that we're not giving ourselves permission to feel, then having music or something else playing, that really helps our body be like, ‘No, it is OK to feel this. There's nothing wrong with me for feeling this way,’ could be really helpful. Maybe we'd want to watch out for it, if that's all we're doing, if we’re wallowing and not doing something else, but that's not what I'm hearing. I think it's so skillful.
And also, I think, you know, the tears and all the sadness around this, it makes me just think about how social connection is so important and we are social beings, social animals. And our pain in this situation points to something that we value; it points to something about … our fundamental humanity, that we can't really get rid of.
So how good it is to know that you do want to be closer to people – I don't want to assume, Jane, that you want to be closer to people – or that you're missing traditions that you might be able to otherwise do this year.
I would say, for me, I worry about others. I have sort of a global worry. I worry about people who are not as fortunate as I am. I worry about all of our kids who are struggling through school. I worry about the high-schoolers and college students who are trying to experience these momentous times in their lives where, you know, your whole life is full of drama and now it's all changed. I feel for people who live alone and for seniors. Some of that grief comes from a feeling of empathy for others.
Emily, you mentioned … that many people want to stay more connected. And that's often difficult for a lot of Vermonters because of cold weather and isolation in the wintertime. That’s made harder right now because we're not allowed to gather together.
But there's also this sort of tech exhaustion that many people are feeling. Video conferencing can make you feel together, but it can also make you feel exhausted. Do you have advice for people who are feeling a need for connection but who are just exhausted at the very idea of doing yet another video conference?
I understand that, for sure. I think one of the things that I thought about, as I contemplate some of these questions for myself, too, is that there's something about telephone and even video chat, where it's just very verbal. Sometimes we're in a place where we can offer that kind of verbal connection, and sometimes we really aren't. And when I think about holidays and just connection in general, there's so much that isn't about talking, that's about smelling the home or watching kids play or a particular tradition or hearing the same story told at the same time in the dinner.
I think that it's important to acknowledge those differences. And then, maybe if we know: ‘OK. This really isn't going to be the same. We're just going to have to make the best of the technologies that we do have,’ maybe then the expectations are a little bit more managed, and it's worth it to do the phone calls or the video chats.
But maybe there are new traditions that could be come up with. Maybe it's time to go back to writing letters or sending photographs. I'd be so curious to hear what listeners have to say to you about ways that they've been able to connect and make new traditions during this time.
“My mother just turned 96-years-young. She still strives to take a walk outside each day, tries to find things to do with her long days. As the weeks go on, I see her declining; her sharp memory fading, her zest for life and anticipation of what the next day will bring dulling. I call her every day, just to check in, and also to break up my aloneness.
Everyone needs to open their silo doors just a bit and include in some safe way those not fortunate enough to be with friends and family during these crazy times. Make a call to someone. Make it as important as finding that shelf with toilet paper was, when this whole COVID business started. The call you make today, this week, can make a difference to someone whose only companion right now might be their TV.” – Andy, West Wardsboro
Jane Lindholm: Good advice, I think.
Emily Pichler: I think so, too, and so beautifully written.
Yeah, absolutely. I want to mention one carve-out in Gov. Scott's executive order from Friday about prohibiting all gatherings from multiple households. There is a carve-out that if you live alone, you are allowed to join with another household. You are allowed to visit family members in a different household.
There’s no specificity on what family means in the executive order, but I think that's an essential one for people who do live alone, to acknowledge that this is a really difficult time, that isolation may be made worse.
Emily, what should you do if aloneness is starting to feel not just sad and not just temporary, but something that you're really struggling to cope with? What should you do if you’re feeling you might need to reach out to someone? I think there are a lot of people who are going through more than just some sadness about being alone, who really may need some professional help.
Yeah, I think that's such an important point. I mean, loneliness can be can be a trigger for so many mental and physical conditions that we might have.
So a couple of things I think about: One is that there may be there may be room for noticing how we're thinking about being alone and feeling lonely. I think that being separated from family or even from friends can feel like being excluded, and a part of us might feel like ‘I'm excluded and I'm ashamed,’ even though it actually isn't about that; it's about following these rules, and being separated because of that.
That's one place that I think about starting, is: how can we think differently? But I think it's really important to reach out for professional help.
I know that there are, unfortunately, long wait lists across the state – probably across the country – for therapy. There are crisis lines throughout Vermont.
There's a website … that has crisis lines for every place in Vermont.
And then there are there hotlines, there are ‘warmlines,’ where people can call in to just talk about what they're going through.
I think for many people, the holidays – even without a pandemic –would feel triggering of grief or of loss or of trauma that may have happened over the holidays, or that just may be reminiscent when the holidays are around.
If that's something that you find to be true for yourself, I think it can be really important now to start thinking:
- What does happen for me around this time?
- What is the pattern that I notice? Can I cope ahead?
- Are there people that I can be with?
- Are there are there practices like being more active or getting involved in a new hobby or a familiar hobby that tend to buoy my mood?
There are lots of degrees of needing something – needing help, needing assistance, needing togetherness. And some of it may be: ‘I need to call a crisis hotline right now,’ and some of it, as you mentioned, may just be: ‘I need to connect with someone. I need I need to talk to someone.’
And, you know, that might be the time to reach out with a phone call or a text to somebody that you know, or it may be, if you're in the opposite position, sending a text to somebody who you haven't talked with in a while just to say, hey, I'm thinking about you, happy to check in when you're ready.
Are you seeing and hearing about more people reaching out for their own needs and reaching out to try to help others who may have some isolation or some concerns?
I do think that that even those little texts – much like that listener had written – can be so meaningful to people.
If we're feeling lonely, we can feel so alone with that loneliness, and we're not, you know? All of us right now, I think, are facing something related to the separation. And then, on an existential level, we've all got loneliness; every one of us. And so, especially during this time, any of those little connections can have a really powerful ripple effect.
We’ve heard from listeners that gratitude and finding ways to give back has been a gift at this time.
“This past year has been a challenge for me with the pandemic and my mom’s sudden death in June. At the same time, my fermentation business has continued to grow, and the joy that I feel when connecting with folks from a safe distance at farmers’ markets or in stores is powerful. As a result, I worked with my retail partners to create a sauerkraut for the holidays to be sold at a discount. I call it gratitude sauerkraut. I want to share something beautiful, delicious and healthful with the community and hope the discount will make it available to more people.” - Becky, listener
How do you think about this?
What strikes me about what Becky shared, is she thought about her strengths and what she has to offer and she enhanced that and amplified it. I think that's such a powerful way to give back.
We can start with wherever we see the most pain. And then we also have to think about, ‘What I do I have to offer and what is it that I can really give right now?’
When we have times of personal pain, that can be a time in our life when we later we realize, like, ‘Wow, I really connected more to a greater humanity.’
Maybe it's suddenly that we're able to have a different kind of empathy than for particular struggles than we were before. If so, if we can allow ourselves to stay with that pain and think, ‘Well, gosh, what is it like for other people who are experiencing this on a more regular basis?’ or ‘How have other people coped with that?’
Maybe then we might feel like we're more connected and that it's easier to give back in a way that feels true.
I think for some, it may not feel like a relief to compare one's own hardships with the hardships of others. Does it sort of depend on what your mindset is, Emily, whether that's something that helps you? It sounds like there may be different ways that people cope.
Absolutely. It is so powerful to expand how we're thinking about others and expand the kinds of things we're willing to contemplate in the world.
And sometimes we can – even though it doesn't feel good to worry – sometimes we can worry because it distracts us from our own pain in the moment.
So if we notice that happening like, ‘Oh, here I go again, worrying about the future of the country,’ maybe that would be a moment to be mindful and to focus on something that's more present and that's more connected to something that we care about in this very moment that we have some control over.
And essentially, I get these incoming calls and I get connected to someone elsewhere in the world who's also signed up for this app. And we just have a random conversation about what our life experience is, right now with quarantine.
And it's just added an element of novelty and at times joy. And also, I actually often feel like I'm giving something to someone else because often, it's someone who's lonely on the other end of the line, who's just looking for someone else to chat with.
One of the things I miss about this time, are incidental, random conversations that we have, living in a small community. They're just mostly absent. And this is not the same thing, but it sort of scratches some of the same itch for me.” - John, Montpelier
Jane Lindholm: So you don't know these people at all. How many times have you had these connections and talked with folks?
You know, I've probably had 30 or 40 conversations over the course of the last six or eight months, and some have been international – others all over the United States. And it's just a real, real random mix of people, mostly, really kind of sweet and heartfelt.
Some are quick 10-minute conversations and some are longer than that.
But we are going through something as a globe; everybody on the planet is facing this. So in a way, we have a way to start a common conversation that I have found really powerful.
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