Change is Like an Earthquake: A Therapist’s Perspective on the COVID-19 Pandemic

Growing up in Alaska, earthquakes were as common as a cloudy sky.

We learned how to do earthquake drills as soon as we entered grade school. A light flashes, siren blare, and the drill starts.

The protocol goes like this: Get under a desk, table, or chair. Cover your head and neck with your arms. No table? Get in a doorway. Brace yourself between two sturdy beams if you can’t find cover.  

Then, hold on. Just wait.

When the shaking stops, stay still. There will be aftershocks that you might not feel coming. Wait some more. 

I’m struck by how similar these childhood drills are to current events.  

With the COVID-19 Pandemic, our life was rattled and shaken. We braced ourselves, wondering, asking “Is there more?”. Every day, there was more. There is more.  Even by the time you read this, yesterday’s news will feel archaic.

We don’t know what else is coming, but we know more is coming.

The uncertainty  — coupled with stay-at-home life — is overwhelming for many.

No Such Thing as a “Tiny” Earthquake

The term tiny earthquake is an unconscious oxymoron used by Alaskans. Even a “smaller” earthquake requires a tremendous amount of force and activity beneath the surface.

As a child, it was normal to feel a small tremor sweep the house in the middle of the night. Sister and I were shaken awake in our bunk beds. My mom emerged from her bedroom, robe askew.

She fumbles with her glasses. “Did you feel that?”

Only a disturbed picture frame and shifted trinkets left evidence of a smaller, midnight tremble. Was is a tiny earthquake? The arctic wind? A collective dream?

Prior to the internet, we wouldn’t know until the following day.

The pandemic is like an earthquake.

The small tremors were felt by few in the beginning. Cases popped up. A hum started in the news.  Not everyone felt it, but activity churned beneath.

Then the Earth shook.

Exponential increases. Stay-at-home orders. Empty shelves.

Our entire foundation has been rattled.

Our infrastructure has been shaken.

Our shelves barren. Our roads deserted.

Our skies emptied.

Here we are.

As a psychotherapist, I am humbled by my work right now. I see the courage every day, in the face of massive uncertainty.

I’m grateful for virtual platforms to allow me to stay connected to my family, clients, and colleagues.  I hear from clients experiencing various levels of shock and change. There are common themes, with each person facing unique struggles, too.

We worry about isolation. Being on the front lines.  Our elderly or at-risk loved ones. Our jobs.  Our health. Our future.

The fears are real.  They are valid. There are here and now.

Much like an earthquake, when it comes to COVID-19, your location determines the level of impact.  Depending on your geographic and socioeconomic position, you may feel the stressors of the pandemic more than others. However, no one is immune to some level of anxiety in this massive, global crisis.

Not to mention, if you’re a Highly Sensitive Person or Empath, this time may feel especially difficult.  Like the world is on full volume, blaring loudly, with no “off” switch in sight.

More Earthquake Wisdom: It’s Not Over

Earthquakes are not a one and done event. In fact, it’s the aftershocks — the eruptions that come after the initial event — that can be even more deceptive and deadly.

Are we still experiencing the quake? Or is this the aftershock?

We don’t know. But we can brace ourselves. We can prepare. And we can use the stillness to stay connected.

What’s been lost? What can we gain? 

If you go inside a home after a strong earthquake, it looks like it’s been flattened, tipped upside down and then shaken out. 

There’s stuff everywhere.  All over the floor. Broken bottles. Bent shelves.  Papers scattered.

After the earthquake, we assess the damage. Some items are broken beyond repair. Some are fixable – with nails, adhesive or tape. Some items survived the rattle; we appreciate their sturdiness and put them back on the shelf.

We see where the structure is weakened. We repair it. 

We notice the areas that need more support for the next quake. (Because, in Alaska, there is always another quake.)

As your life has been turned upside-down, I ask you:

  • What has been broken open?  What tender spaces have been revealed?
  • Which pieces will you pick up that have fallen? Who or what matters most to you?
  • Is there anything you need to discard that you no longer want to carry?
  • Is there a way this crisis can allow you to shed what’s no longer serving you?

Earthquakes, pandemics – any crisis – rattle us to our core.

They are scary, but allow us to look inside the places that are hidden. They reveal where our foundations need extra work. They expose the areas of our life that matter.

Like the Earth shifts her skin and liberates eons of stagnant energy in an earthquake; you might begin to release the neglected, ignored, or buried parts of you–so they can finally be seen.

It might not be feasible.  Your life might be 24/7 child care-work-handwashing madness. If this is the case, just try to acknowledge the feelings for a moment. Even a half-second. Before you return to the chaos and exhaustion. I see how hard you’re working.

It might not be pretty.  When these old wounds emerge, they may be desperate for attention and expression. We have to hold and honor the feelings.  We have to welcome their messages.  We have to allow ourselves to cry, to scream, to be angry, to be still.

Sometimes we need help to process the pain.  That’s where a therapist can help. And there are so many available right now to guide you through this.

Change does not come from comfort. It comes when our world is flipped upside down.

Change is like an earthquake: a large shock, many smaller ones, with periods of stillness in between.

What You Can Do

In the face of helplessness or fear, there are still things you can do to alleviate your pain while helping prevent the suffering of others. (These tips are more detailed here.)

1. Stay home. Seriously.

If you can, stay home. This is the best thing you can do right now to slow the spread.  Even if your community doesn’t have a shelter-in-place order, please limit your activities outside your home.

2. Limit exposure to news and social media. 

I recommend turning off all notifications on your phone. (Don’t worry, the emergency alerts from your city still come through.) Scheduling news/social media time or set time limits. I encourage one day a week that’s completely news free.

3. Learn how you can help.

Donate blood. Volunteer. Give money to relief funds. Be a listening ear. Start a garden. Helping others can alleviate a sense of powerlessness.

4. Allow all feelings and reactions.

Give yourself permission to feel whatever is coming up.  When you give space to your emotions, they can move through you, and you don’t have to stay ‘stuck’ in them.

5. Embrace a both/and mindset. 

Life is not black and white. Good and struggle can coexist right now.  Anger and fear are allowed, as are any feelings of hope, joy, or gratitude.

6. Get creative.

Creativity is an outlet, an expression, a resource, and a way to connection. Don’t think to be creative right now is composing a symphony or writing the next bestseller.  Find small, supportive outlets for your creative self, such as journaling, art, singing, cooking, or even playing.

7. Get support.

If you’re finding that COVID-19 is greatly impacting you, or bringing up old stuff you’re ready to process, reach out to a therapist or mental health provider for an online or phone session. (Yes, in most cases, online therapy is just as effective as in-person.) There are countless online support groups that have popped up all over the globe.

A final note

However you’re coping, I know that you’re doing the best you can.

It’s okay to not be okay.

Do not beat yourself up if you’re not your “perfect” self right now.

It’s okay to do the bare minimum.  It’s okay to rest.

I see you, I’m here for you, and I support you.


If you need help during the COVID-19 Pandemic, please inquire about phone or video sessions.
Schedule your free consult call now.

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