COPING during a pandemic

  • Joan Milnes of Greenfield walks in her neighborhood. Staff Photo/PAUL FRANZ—Paul Franz

  • Joan Milnes of Greenfield walks in her neighborhood. Staff Photo/PAUL FRANZ—Paul Franz

  • Joan Milnes of Greenfield crosses Silver Street near her home on a daily walk. Staff Photo/PAUL FRANZ

Staff Writer
Published: 4/4/2020 11:50:29 PM

In a few short weeks (although it’s felt like a lot longer), the COVID-19 pandemic has upended every facet of normality, slowing the cogs of Franklin County’s economy, cutting off vital face-to-face connection and forcing everyone to adapt to a world lived almost entirely remotely — whether they like it or not.

Mentally, the toll is exhausting.

“It’s rare to be able to say that all of us are experiencing something new, but we are. We are all in the same sea right now, in the same boat, and that sea is very uncertain. We’re experiencing a tremendous amount of not knowing — of uncertainty — which causes varying degrees of anxiety,” said Jackie Humphreys, a South Deerfield-based licensed clinical social worker and a mental health consultant for Franklin County and North Quabbin Children’s Advocacy Center in Greenfield.

There’s a word for what the global community is experiencing right now: Trauma, which is defined by Humphreys as “an event or series of events that overwhelms a person’s capacity to cope. It leaves one feeling powerless and afraid for our own and or others’ well being,” she said. “I keep thinking of these metaphors — a sea — a bath of trauma — we are saturated right now with not knowing what’s going to happen next.”

In this challenging time, technology can be a double-edged sword, according to Jennifer West, a Shelburne Falls-based licensed clinical social worker. On the one hand, it’s necessary to create connections from afar; on the other, sometimes it’s just too much — especially for those suddenly finding themselves working entirely from home.

“Finding ways to stay connected online is critical, and people are being so creative,” West said, highlighting online dinner groups, digital game nights and remote family time, among other activities. “Along with that, I’m seeing a lot of exhaustion.”

When this happens, West encourages her clients to step back, remember the basics — like waking up at a reasonable hour, personal hygene, proper hydration, healthy nutrition, mindful alcohol intake, physical activity and upkeep of social connections — and take it one step at a time.

“Focus on the day in front of you. When we find our brains jumping ahead to anxious imaginings, bring it back. On the whole, it’s too much to take in,” she said. “Some days, it’s just (about) getting through the day. Meeting your family’s basic needs is impressive during a pandemic.”

Humphreys stressed that maintaining structure is also important.

“Routines not only give us structure and some continuity in the midst of all these familiar things being gone, but routines also anchor us in the moment,” Humphreys said. “I think we’re all feeling unmoored. Routines can help us feel less lost at sea.”

To that end, Humphreys suggested following a schedule that, among other things, solidifies regular eating habits. From the start of the day, she recommended cutting back on news consumption — and throughout the day limiting the sources of information to perhaps one or two outlets — and blocking out intentional time for self-care.

“Part of establishing routines may include time to be by yourself; time to put some earbuds in, listen to your favorite music, close your eyes, reduce all the stimulation and remind yourself of the things you enjoy,” Humphreys said, also noting the use of external markers such as “Changing clothes when it’s work time; lighting a particular candle when it’s rest time.”

In place of news overload, West said she’s been actively seeking out positive and uplifting content.

“I just watched Florence Foster Jenkins with Meryl Streep three times because it was so wonderfully funny and beautiful,” she said.

For Joan Milnes, 66, who moved to Greenfield from Millers Falls two years ago and is retired, that structure looks like twice-daily walks — once in the morning to maintain her physical health, a second time in the afternoon to decompress mentally. During these outings, she finds purpose by keeping her quaint corner of Greenfield litter-free.

“It’s spring. The snow is melting, and it’s revealing the annual trove of trash,” Milnes said, noting, “Since I’ve lived here, I’ve made a few trips to (a particular) section of Silver Street with bags of trash. This is the time of year when I tend to do that the most.”

There’s backing to Milnes’ daily routine of throwing away litter.

Having a purpose and fostering intention amid hardship can be a powerful tool to overcome adversity, according to Serena Torrey, a Greenfield-based licensed clinical social worker.

“When you look at any traumatic event, research shows that if you can find meaning (and ways to grow) through that event you’re much less likely to feel traumatized later,” she said. From making homemade masks to calling friends to “putting a sign out on the lawn that says ‘hang in there, neighbors’” or picking up litter, “anything you can do that makes you feel like you’re helping people can make you feel less of a victim. That’s a way to feel a position of power in this situation, as opposed to feeling powerless.”

To that end, West suggested, “Try to fast-forward and think, ‘when this is all over, (will) I wish I had used this time to learn the ukulele or followed some Bob Ross videos online to see what that’s like, or learned a new language, or read a genre of book that you usually avoid?’”

Looking on the bright side is also important — not all the change is bad.

“The opportunity to have this kind of time with family doesn’t come along all that often,” said Mike Smith, 50, of Heath. He previously served as the town’s highway superintendent and fire chief for nearly 20 years and now works in the transportation department at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. As a rural community, Smith highlighted Franklin County’s large swaths of open space, which affords residents the ability to get outside without being too close together.

“Life in Heath isn’t all that different,” Smith said. “We’re blessed. ... Social distancing is something we practice just about every day just because of the nature of the town.”

Before the pandemic, Smith says he worked remotely a few days a week. Because of that, he’s already overcome many of the challenges that come with remote work, such as time management and distinguishing personal space from work space, which his colleagues are now confronting for the first time.

“I’ve managed to work through those problems by setting up quite an elaborate home office,” Smith said. Working entirely remotely, while difficult at times (he has to schedule “internet time” with his daughter, a senior at UMass currently studying at home), affords flexibility. His workplace holds “core hours” from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. daily. Outside of that time, employees can log on or off any time they’d like as long as the work gets done.

“If you’re more productive at 6 a.m. and take a break at 9. As long as you’re available, they do not place a restriction on you,” Smith said.

And with that flexibility comes the ability to engage in stress-relieving activities like hanging out with his dogs, “Daisy,” a pure-bred yellow lab and “Whiskey,” a rescue from Tennessee. Smith is also a maple sugar farmer, managing around 100 taps each year (give or take a few dozen).

Working from home and social isolation has given him more time in the trees — his happy place.

Last weekend, for example, Smith said he spent the majority of the time immersed in sugaring: “We didn’t feel the stress of needing to go anywhere because we didn’t need to go anywhere,” he said. “It was a great weekend.”

Despite the hardships, West says she’s been impressed by the ways that people are coming together in positive ways that could create lasting change after this pandemic has passed.

“I am noticing an incredible amount of strength, courage and resilience in people. There is a fine-tuned focus that pinpoints managing everything in this moment,” West said. “People are finding real clarity about what is of importance to them. I think there will be a shift in our understanding about what we want to put our time into (at the end of this).”

Until then, Humphreys said to focus on the basics, like putting on an outfit other than pajamas and having compassion toward yourself and others.

It’s equally important, Humphreys said, “Not to judge ourselves and also not to be judging other people. Having compassion for yourself and for others — compassion and understanding — will really, really help all of us get through this.”

Andy Castillo can be reached at acastillo@recorder.com.

How to connect

For those who wish to connect with Humphreys, she can be reached by emailing jhumphreystherapy@gmail.com. Likewise, West can be reached at jenniferwestlicsw@gmail.com. Torrey can be contacted at 413-314-2546.


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