Riding the Pandemic Rollercoaster

I want you to take a moment and think back to your first ride on a roller coaster. For some, you shared the experience with a parent, maybe a sibling, or maybe with a close friend. You decided that today was the day, and you bravely stepped into the line; you waited patiently as it snaked its way through the metal barriers. You looked up at the towering metal track, studied the turns, and maybe the loops; you felt the wind as cars passed by, and heard the screams of the riders that had gone ahead of you…you felt your heartbeat quicken the closer you got. Before you knew it, you were standing behind the yellow line, the gate opened, and the ride operator waved you into the seat. You got in, and nervously fumbled for the seat belt or harness; you checked and rechecked it. Your palms began to sweat from excitement, fear, anticipation…you knew this was a HUGE moment in your life. You had made a choice to get on that ride; you didn’t know how it was going to make you feel, or if you were going to like it or not, but you had been in full control of your decision, and that felt awesome. With a lurch of the train, you were on your way!

Now, I want you to think about a different scenario. You are told by a ride operator that you are going on the rollercoaster; you are forcibly grabbed, and dragged through the line. It’s a ridiculously foggy day, so foggy in fact, that you can’t see the roller coaster track, and being that this is your first ride, you have no idea how high, how long, or how twisted this ride will be. Feels a little different, right? No control. It’s scary, terrifying even. May even remind you of our current reality of an uncertain future caused by global pandemic.

Although we represent a wide range of ages, races, and different professions, I feel fairly confident saying that we are going through very similar emotions, experiences, and all of us are dealing with some level of grief. Now that sounds super depressing, and I’m pretty sure not the message expected from someone nicknamed “Cheerleader Stef”, who has a training module titled, ”Leading with Positivity” in her repertoire. And YES, it is true that I try to bring sunshine and rainbows into all of my interactions, but I also strongly believe in the importance of authenticity, vulnerability, and honesty. If I’m being completely honest, the last two months have damn near broken me, and they may have broken a few of you too.

A little backstory. Over the past 20 years, I have worked in education and Human Resources. I have led and coached teams at all levels; helping others achieve their definition of success has always been my passion, and it’s at the core of everything I do. So about 6 months ago, I left my corporate training manager role to create WNY People Development (WNY stands for “why not you”); I had a vision…I wanted to start a company that would allow me to grow and develop the next generation of local leaders, while at the same time, support our non-profit community through a training “give back” model, and things started out AWESOME! For almost four months, I researched, planned, developed content, meticulously designed the brand that best represented me, and the company I was building; I launched on February 29th…LEAP DAY. Get it? I was “taking the leap” into business. Two weeks later, the world shut down due to COVID-19. Overnight, I went from strategic, female entrepreneur, who had a plan for everything, to essentially an unemployed, unshowered, yoga pant wearing homeschool mom and cook. Sound familiar to anyone else?

2020 was NOT going the way I had planned, and that was frustrating, because like Hannibal, for those of you old enough to remember the A-Team, I ALWAYS had a plan…and it ALWAYS came together. But, like the rest of the world, I had to face reality that I was battling an invisible enemy that threatened my physical, emotional, mental, and financial health; for the first time in my life, I felt completely, and utterly defeated. Thank goodness for therapy!

Now I am not ashamed to say that I have a therapist; I have found over the years, that having an unbiased, third party person providing feedback and insight has been extremely helpful. It’s hard for us to look outside of ourselves sometimes because we view situations through our personal lens of life experiences, values, and trauma. So I’m very appreciative for the perspective a therapist provides because I know that I have blindspots… we all do. Therapy inspired this blog actually. Every week, my therapist opens our session with, “So, how are things?”, and every week since the arrival of COVID, my response has been…“this week’s been a roller coaster”.

Over the past 9 weeks, due to a global pandemic that we have absolutely no control over, we have experienced the highest of highs, the lowest of lows, a few “Ok” days, and probably a few days of just absolute numbness… it’s literally been a rollercoaster of emotions.

Think about it, we crept up an initial big hill…we got to the top, and the world was laid out in front of us, and it was beautiful (we’ll call that moment March 13th)! But then the bottom dropped out, and we found ourselves hurtling down a steep hill at an insane speed. Did you close your eyes, scream in horror, clutch the bar in front of you, OR did you throw your hands up in the air and squeal with delight? That was the first phase of COVID quarantine; some days we went to the dark side…isolation, illness, death…no trips to TARGET?! But seriously, we found ourselves curled up in a ball in the corner of the room, paralyzed with the fear of unknowing. Other days, we could barely contain our exuberance! This was the “pause” that we needed; an opportunity to clean out that closet we’d been talking about for months, getting the chance to prove to the boss we CAN be effective working from home, reconnecting with family, getting out into nature. It was the break we knew we needed, but never had time to take.

Now, these descriptions represent opposite extremes that may resonate strongly for some of you; for others, your response may have been somewhere in the middle, and for a few of you, you’ve been too busy to even pause to think about how you felt in the moment the world stopped. So do that now; take a deep breath, and let your mind float back to March 17th…school buildings closed, businesses shuttered, and we were ALL told to stay home. How did you feel? What were you thinking? I promise you, no matter what word or phrase appeared in your mind, someone else has shared that exact same thought at one point or another over the past two months. The point is, although we are physically apart, we are not alone. We are bonded by the fact that we are ALL being impacted by an event that we simply can’t control.

So that brings us back to our roller coaster…we’ll call it, the COVID Chaos.

We’re twisting, turning, and we’ve gone completely upside down through a couple of loops at this point; along the way, we may have lost the change in our pockets, the sunglasses off our head, we may have screamed, even thrown up; we’ve been jerked around so much, that no amount of “Yoga with Adrian” can fix that crick in your neck. It’s been rough, and some weeks, you’ve probably felt stuck in a dark place, when all you want to do is find joy …so why can’t we just feel better? Turns out, it’s not you, it’s human nature! Our brains are actually wired for negativity since the days of the caveman! Back then, we needed to be acutely aware of danger, (AH! There’s a saber tooth tiger in the bush, and he wants to eat me); we quite literally had to focus on the negative in order to survive. Fast forward a few thousand years, now we post a pic on Instagram, receive 100 positive comments, yet we obsess over the one passive aggressive comment left by an ex. Why do we do that? The psychological term for this response is “negativity bias”, we look for the bad, and it’s being intensified by our current conditions. The good news, we have strategies that can help us derail our stroll to the dark side, and I’m going to share a few.

The first strategy is one of my favorites…be present in the “good moments”, and trust me, there’s plenty of them. It’s not about getting the big promotion at work, or winning a prestigious community award — don’t get me wrong, those are great, and definitely make us feel good, but it’s the simple things in our daily lives we need to pay attention to. Watching the sun rise while drinking an amazing cup of coffee, jammin’ out in the car when your favorite song plays (I’m notorious for this one), or laughing hysterically with an old friend on Zoom. Did you know that laughing makes our body release endorphins? They’re our “happy hormones”; they make us feel good and ease anxiety, so don’t forget to laugh! Slow down, and focus on the “good moments”.

The second strategy is to embrace gratitude. I get that there is a lot to grieve right now; we have lost jobs, independence, quiet time (for those with children, you know what I’m talking about), we’ve lost physical contact, and for some, we’ve actually lost love ones to a horrendous virus. It’s easy to put emphasis on what we don’t have, but I encourage you to reframe it; shift to “What am I grateful for?” Now real talk, some days, it may feel difficult to find something. On those days, you can simply say “I’m glad I woke up this morning.” Other days, you may have a million things that jump out, and show you just how lucky you are. Write them down, and read that list back to yourself frequently, especially on the tough days. Take the time to recognize your gifts of family, love, and life, and be grateful. Research has proven that if you practice daily gratitude, it improves mental health and well being.

Now this next strategy is super tough for me, and I think many women struggle with it. If you’re used to juggling multiple tasks, holding down jobs, raising children, taking care of all of the “stuff” for everyone else in your life…STOP, and shut down when you need to. We all have a breaking point, and women especially, often push through, and past it, harming ourselves mentally, and sometimes physically. Repeat after me…”It is ok to take care of ME”. (Seriously, say it! “It is ok to take care of ME.”) If you feel tired, take a nap. If you want to eat something sweet, grab a cookie. If middle school math is making your brain hurt, walk away. Self care is always important, but now more than ever, it is a requirement. We need to disconnect — give yourself a break, and indulge in what your heart and mind needs…a breather.

Final strategy…I need you to get back onto the rollercoaster. As a kid, no matter what you felt during those three minutes on your first ride-whether it was exhilaration, fear, joy, horror- when the train pulled back into the loading area, you probably turned to your co-rider and screamed, “I did it! I survived!”. You probably felt proud, proud of the fact that you were brave, you experienced something new, and you learned whether or not you wanted to get on a roller coaster again. Although our world is still strapped in to the COVID Chaos, and we’re not exactly sure what’s to come, our last, and most important strategy is to remind yourself if you get into a funk… this WILL come to an end. We WILL return to a state of normalcy; our “normal” may look different, but we will get back to hugs, outings with family and friends, shopping, school NOT being at our kitchen tables. It’s all going to come back in some form, and we will celebrate when it does. In the meantime, be patient and kind to yourself, and then, spread that patience and kindness to others.

Our roller coaster continues, but remember, no matter how high, how long, or how twisted it gets, you have control of HOW you ride it. Look for those “good moments”, embrace gratitude, shut down when you need to, and remember, this WILL end.

#whynotyou #peopledevelopmentwithpurpose #rollercoaster #COVID19 #pandemic #coronavirus #inthistogether #blogpost