Learning to Surf: Understanding and Riding the Waves of Emotion During COVID-19

Tips for riding out these big waves of emotion and tools to help manage this huge experience.

Tips for riding out these big waves of emotion and tools to help manage this huge experience. - By Jody Thomas, PhD

If I had a dollar for every time I’ve heard that in the last several weeks in my practice, well, I’d have a lot of dollars.  Whether or not we are talking about it, we are all experiencing those waves of emotions (or spending a lot of effort trying to shove them down). Let me cut right to the chase: this is grief. 

Grief, you might be thinking, isn’t grief for death?  No, grief isn’t just about death.  It’s about loss. And we are all experiencing huge loss right now. The loss of normal. The loss of connection.  The loss of physical contact. The loss of knowing you can depend on what you want being in the grocery store.  Being in the classroom. Graduations. Financial security. Countless missed milestones. And perhaps most significant, the loss of certainty of what is going to happen next.  A million losses, big and little, all with the capacity to bring us to our knees. 

Still not convinced?  Let’s metaphorically try it on for size using the Kubler-Ross stages of grief you’ve probably heard about somewhere in your life. 

Denial: “It’s happening there, not here.”  “It doesn’t affect me.” “People are freaking out over nothing.”

Anger:  “Why are people freaking out over this? It’s ridiculous!”  “Those jerks are taking all the toilet paper!” “WHY AREN’T THOSE TERRIBLE PEOPLE WEARING MASKS?!?”

Bargaining:  “If I can wash my hands enough/buy enough toilet paper/read enough articles then I can keep my family safe/keep this from disrupting my life/keep things “normal”

Depression: “I’m so overwhelmed by the sadness of all this.”

Acceptance: “This is really hard, but it’s manageable. We can do all we can to keep ourselves safe, and ride this thing out. It’s going to have challenges, but we can figure it out.” 

Yep, it seems to fit. It’s also worth noting that although these grief stages are often portrayed in the common culture as linear (as in you go through each stage in order and one at a time) that is actually NOT what the research and theory itself says, or what we actually experience. What really happens with grief is that we bounce around between all the stages.  This explains why sometimes you may feel “okay…we got this…we can do the things to ride this out” when the next day (or hour) crawling under the table in the fetal position seems like a very attractive option.  

So why is this even important?  Why am I even talking about grief? Does it matter? Well, yes, it does, and not just because I’m a psychologist who is fascinated by this type of thing. It’s important because it gives us a framework for understanding the messiness of all the emotion and big feelings.  It gives us (and those around us) a way to structure this really difficult and chaotic experience we are all having. 

It also gives us a chance to DO something that can help. First and foremost: Recognizing our emotions (and helping our kids recognize and name theirs), creates a path for those emotions to move through us, instead of feeling stuck and trapped in them. By doing that, we also create a space to respond intentionally and not just reactively. We find a place to have even a small sense of control, which is pretty valuable these days. We give ourselves the chance to surf that emotion wave, instead of just getting our butt kicked by it. As famed grief expert Dr. David Kessler so wisely points out, emotion needs motion. That’s important.  Really, really important. Especially in this time of ongoing grief, where the losses keep coming, and we are tasked with moving forward despite it all. 

Feeling isn’t Failing

Thinking about this as grief also invites compassion…for ourselves and for others. If we look through the lens of “they are hurting too” it creates a bit more space for kindness and understanding for our child’s meltdown or our colleague’s missed deadline or our partner’s less-than-kind snarky comment…or our own less-than-spectacular moments. And instead of asking ourselves the shame-inducing questions of “why aren’t I handling this better?” or “Why do I feel so emotional and overwhelmed?”, we can say to ourselves (and to that often trouble-making inner voice) “It’s because I’m normal…because I’m human.  Because this is what it is like to be human in face of great tragedy.  Because this is the painful, unavoidable, but ultimately productive process of grief.” 

Those waves of emotion are like waves in the ocean. -
Those waves of emotion are like waves in the ocean.

What I want you to hear loud and clear is that this isn’t you (or me, or your kids) failing. Feeling isn’t failing, no matter what dysfunctional messages we might have gotten in our past or be getting in our present. We have this myth in our culture that emotions like sadness and grief are “bad”. They are to be avoided at all costs. To be “strong,” we must run away from them or deny their existence. Well, if there was ever a time where the shortcomings of that persistent and unhelpful myth were apparent, it’s now. Holding on to that myth holds people back. To move from feeling paralyzed and overwhelmed, we have to shift to seeing those big and hard feelings as being productive, and helping us move through a ridiculously painful and stressful time. 

The metaphor I often use is this: those waves of emotion are like the ones in ocean. Anyone who’s ever spent time playing in the surf knows that you can’t fight the waves with brute strength.  No matter how strong you are or far you dig your heels in the sand, you are still going to get your butt kicked when that big wave comes. And you know it won’t go well if you choose to turn your back to the waves and pretend they aren’t there.  Do that, then you just get your bell rung and feet swept out from under you when you least expect it. You learn you have to face the waves, and learn to work with them…jump over, dive under, or surf them until them until they peter out on they own.  To learn that, you have to accept the fact that you’re still going to find yourself floundering in the water sometimes, but each time you face a wave head on, you get better at knowing how to keep your head above water. 

Hey, I didn’t say this was easy. No matter how we wish it different or twist ourselves into knots, it can’t be easy. Grief never is. But we can make it a path forward by embracing the hard parts as necessary and propelling us onward

How Do We Manage This Huge Experience?

So what helps? How do we manage this huge experience? Really, one of the few things that truly helps is to feed each other…sometimes literally but mostly metaphorically.  Helping someone else helps us. The most powerful way to do this, especially in situations where we have so little control, is to bear witness to each other’s pain: to just be with someone in their hurt so they don’t have to go it alone…and neither do you. 

In the middle of all the hard, it’s pretty incredible to experience for yourself the healing power of just really, truly being with someone in their pain. Not fixing. Not changing. Definitely not judging.  Just being. Try it out for yourself. The next time your child is losing it, just sit when them. Hug them. Say things like “I’m sorry this is so hard. It’s hard to for me too. It’s normal to feel like this.” And the all-powerful, always useful “I love you, and I’m here.” I’d be willing to bet you’ll be pretty amazed at how powerful it is to for helping you, and the person you are with, feel better.  

Finally, do your best to step away from judgment. Good luck staying away from it all together (we ARE human), but knowing it’s there helps us move away more quickly when we see it. We need to remember that we all deal with things differently.  Your teen might be extremely irritable and seem irrational, your formerly independent 9-year-old may be very clingy, or your partner hyper focused on work or obsessive about sanitizing. On the surface, all of might seem ridiculous and annoying to your way of seeing things, but really all of them are very likely about emotional chaos they might not know how to manage. 

The potential for conflict and feeling disconnected with our nearest and dearest is huge…and really unhelpful right now. It is said that grief can be the loneliest of emotions because of everyone goes through it in their own way.  But let’s remember this: grief doesn’t cause separation…the judgment of grief does. The moment we step away from the judgment, we step toward each other and the comfort of connection. 

Dr. Kessler recently added another stage of grief:  finding meaning. We will get there too.  You might be already playing with idea of how this crazy experience changes life/you/your family/your expectations in positive ways. Sadly, while finding meaning is extremely powerful, none of us can use it to skip over the hard feelings part (believe me, I’ve tried!).  It can just give you some cushion to do that work with a little more ease…a little more grace. It can make is just that little bit easier to surf that next really big wave.

About the Author

Dr. Jody Thomas is a licensed clinical psychologist, and specialist in pediatric medical illness and trauma. A well-known expert in pediatric pain who teaches internationally on the subject, she is also a founder and the former Clinical Director of the Packard Pediatric Pain Rehabilitation Center at Stanford, and a former Assistant Professor at the Stanford University School of Medicine. Though she now lives in Denver, CO, she still serves as Adjunct Faculty for Stanford, providing supervision and teaching. As a consultant for the Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital at Stanford, she directs projects on the integration and innovation of pain management using tech-based intervention. Her passion for bringing together the power of medical science, technology and design to transform the way we think about kids and pain led her to her current focus but it’s her role as a mom of two that solidified her path in creating the Meg Foundation.