There’s a road sign in the low mountains of western Massachusetts that used to strike fear in me: “Runaway Truck Ramp.” As I drove by the uphill side lane with its soft, gravel bed, scenes of crashing 18-wheelers with no brakes would careen through my mind.
I passed the sign again last month on my way to retrieve my daughter from her college that, like so many others, closed early due to the coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak. The empty interstate made me feel like I was driving through the zombie apocalypse, and it didn’t help when Ohio’s “limit your travel” signs gave way to New York’s more brash “stay home.”
As we all continue to stay home, the uncertainty, worry and grief about most everything grows. We all seem in danger of becoming runaway trucks in need of emergency off-ramps. Flatten the curve? Yes. But also slow the truck. Social distancing is important, but so is mental distancing, at least some of the time.
Here are three coping strategies to limit your mind’s travel to unproductive places:
1. Remember we’re in this together
Acknowledge that everyone is affected by this crisis, some much more than others. If your family is healthy and your jobs intact, be thankful and try to help others who are not as fortunate. If your children are older (like my two teens), appreciate that parents of young children are especially struggling. In some ways, we’re all stay-at-home working parents now, each in our “little house on the prairie” before the rise of public education. And that life was far from easy.
2. Take control of your clutter
Clean the basement/closets/attic. If you haven’t already, such an exercise in controlling what you still can lead to a re-appreciation of home. It can also unearth treasures from your family’s better times. In our case, we’ve been laughing over old journals. Here’s a sample from my younger daughter in second grade: “Today we did not go to school because today is Sunday and today is basketball but I did not go because I might have head lice.” Ah, the simpler times of head lice (said no one until now).
3. Be good to yourself
Practice self-care, which can look different to each self. This may be especially tricky given all the challenges, but remember that few pleasures are guilty during this time. To my surprise, my daughters, ages 17 and 19, and I started watching dark movies like Contagion and 28 Weeks Later to relieve stress. In between, I read dystopian novels like Lord of the Flies (which I rediscovered while cleaning the basement) and The Handmaid’s Tale. To top it all off, we played Cards Against Humanity as a family for the first time, which is a long way from Uno. But I insisted we remove cards with sexual innuendos — some things still have to wait.
Your coping strategies may vary
Granted, other families might gravitate to lighter mental off-ramps, and all strategies should be age-appropriate. But my family’s unexpected stress-relievers reminded me of “turning into a skid,” the advice I received as a teen driver back in snowy Buffalo, N.Y. While it may seem counterintuitive to turn your car in the same direction that you are skidding, that is the way to straighten the car most effectively.
Whatever coping strategies and runaway truck ramps help your family recalibrate and survive this period in history, model how to use them. Despite it all, try to keep perspective. Don’t let chaos overwhelm order. Don’t let the present overcome the past (and the future). In addition to re-appreciating the history in your basement, help your family reflect on the history of pandemics that have been survived before. Whatever it takes to slow the truck.