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Catastrophic Thinking and COVID19



by: Sarah Stroe

I’m going to cut right to the chase- I am not doing well with the pandemic we are facing. A little knowledge is a dangerous thing, as the old adage goes, and it’s hard for me to not picture loved ones on ventilators, as I’ve seen for the past years as a palliative care social worker. The image of someone I love in a hospital bed isn’t a sterilized, televised hospital room. It’s my work place. My patients are replaced by the faces of people in my life, now transformed into medical record numbers as my coworkers determine what is best for them, talk about if they will pull through.

That is the inside of my very anxious brain. When I’m in that state of mind, I describe it as unspooling. It’s like the future winds away, distant from its origin in reality. The end result is the worst case scenario. If I’m being honest, it feels good to go there. It’s like scratching an itch; it’s comfortable, well trodden territory for me to wonder “how bad could this get? Let’s see...”

Therapeutically, we call that catastrophic thinking. It’s common, so much so that there’s a word for it. And I’m not the first person to say they like the way it feels. For me, it feels like I’m controlling the situation, and many others describe it that way too.

I know I am at the beginning of my response to this pandemic. And, I also know, from my work as a palliative care social worker, that as unique as people are, there are standard ways people respond to new diagnoses of illnesses. Patients at the start of treatment are often contemplative, overwhelmed. There is a vocabulary and a universe to learn. There are new identities to take on, or ones to let go of. Illness can be a new landscape with endlessly uncharted territory, both internal and external worlds feeling unfamiliar.

My role on the team, as a social worker, is to normalize those feelings of unfamiliarity, of newness, of overwhelm. And so, my role for myself now is to do the same. To remind myself, my friends, my family, that we are entitled to our feelings of overwhelm, our feelings of fear, of boredom. Here we are, together but apart, in these new spaces.

I would say, universally, we are in the phase of a new diagnosis. In moments when I have access to grace, I can remember this. I take a breath and find a place of kind, forgiving energy, for the person whose hand grazed mine, or the family on the path who came much closer than 6 feet to me. This is new for all of us, I try to think. In moments where I am frazzled, or feeling constrained, I am rageful and worried, a spinning top of useless and unspent energy. My mood swings hour to hour, minute to minute. I have a list of “to dos” and every day, “meditate” goes unchecked. I know how to help myself, it’s the action of helping that feels hard.

So maybe now, I need to be my own social worker. What would I tell a client, a caregiver? Be gentle with yourself, I hear my own voice saying these words. There’s no right or wrong. Are you drinking any water? Can you find just a minute a day to breathe?

Sarah Stroe

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