COVID-19 Life: Brain Change Takes Time

Anne Rulo - COVID-19 Life: Brain Change Takes Time

Earlier this week I looked at my son doing work on the iPad, my daughter playing in the living room and overheard my husband on a Zoom meeting and noticed that it felt almost…familiar. Not normal yet, but certainly familiar. I have to admit, the sensation was refreshing.

Since all these changes happened in our lives, I have felt a little “off”. Simply the process of waking up or reading the news was like a weird dream and our family rhythm has been out of sync. Common, everyday tasks seem to require more energy than usual. And, no matter how hard I try to adjust, I just can’t seem to get this new normal figured out as quickly as I would like. I was starting to get kind of frustrated with myself for not adapting as quickly as I thought I “should”, that is, until high school biology came rushing back to me.

Remember high school biology? That’s where we learned about homeostasis.

Yep, homeostasis. This concept is at least part of the very normal reason why so many of us have been experiencing a delay or disorientation in our adjustment to COVID-19 life. In fact, it’s part of the reason why, in general, we often have a hard time with change. You see, the basic design of our body is to keep us in homeostasis. Every system is designed to keep us at a set point; temperature, chemistry, balance, etc. And, our brains operate in a similar way. So, those neural pathways we previously had in place for our daily routines, work, and family patterns? They were well established, and we can’t change them instantly. Kinda’ like wearing a new path in your yard, it takes a while for the routes we were taking to “grow over” and for the new one to wear in. In fact, depending on which studies you read, it takes about 10,000 repetitions or a couple of months to form a new neural pathway for thought, routine or behavior. In short, we cannot force our brains to change faster than they are designed to.

So, what does all this have to do with our current situation? It means we can relax a bit and be patient. Rather than trying to force ourselves to feel comfortable in this new reality, we can chill out for a second and trust that our brains, our emotions, our behaviors, and even our family dynamics will get there eventually, as they are designed to. We need to remind ourselves that even if we aren’t actively trying every moment to adjust to COVID-19 life, the very nature of our different circumstances will continue to “encourage” our brains and bodies to adapt. Rather than being frustrated when we aren’t seeing measurable progress, we can be kind to ourselves and remember that our brains and our bodies are trying the best they know how and they will get us there eventually.

Try not to push too hard friends. Honor your design and take it easy on yourself. We really are getting there and we are going to notice it more and more as the days go on.

*For anyone who is looking for a more in-depth (and exceptional might I add) read on how our brains respond to crisis please check out Aundi Kolber’s recent release “Try Softer”. Her words are a timely, well-researched and helpful resource right now.

Photo by Alina Grubnyak on Unsplash

COVID-19: Groundhog Day

Anne Rulo COVID 19 - Groundhog Day

It was bedtime, about forty-eight hours into quarantine when my husband asked, “So, what’s the plan for tomorrow?” I laughed so I wouldn’t cry. What an interesting question to ask in the midst of this bizarre, sad, profound situation.

“This is it, brother. Settle in. We are living Groundhog Day.”

Later I thought, “Right! Groundhog Day, I wonder if I can find that old movie anywhere?” Turns out, yes. Thank you, Netflix.

Groundhog Day is the tale of Phil Connors (Bill Murray), a self-important weatherman who is less than thrilled to cover the annual Groundhog Day celebration in Punxsutawney, PA. After half-heartedly performing his job, he tries to get out of town quickly only to be stopped by a massive blizzard. Forced to spend the night, he wakes the next morning to discover he is living the previous day over again. And again. And again.

While intended as satire, Phil’s life “on repeat” offers us lessons during COVID-19. And, as art imitates life, the themes from his journey can help to validate and comfort us as we go through these very strange, repetitive days.

Denial: Phil spends the majority of the first day seeking information. He asks people what day it is. He refuses to believe the facts. The reality is too overwhelming to accept so he looks for other options. Please hear me on this. If you were someone who did not understand how serious this situation was and now you feel bad about it? Let. That. Go. We do the best we can with what we have and sometimes, our defense mechanisms kick in to try to keep us psychologically safe. When we know better we do better, and we can do better now.

Connection: Phil eventually realizes that he is, in fact, repeating the same day. Not wanting to be alone in his experience, he starts trying to collect sympathizers and make a plan. This is us, people. When we launched into this strange reality several weeks ago, we reached out. We made Facebook groups and passed along memes that validated our emotions. We learned how to use Zoom and Google Meet. We collaborated and created plans. We made our best efforts to manage this sudden new life and we did it together.

Withdrawal: After a little while, Phil gets distant. He stops communicating with his news team, not telling them where he is or what he is doing. There may be times when you need to disconnect from the news, social media feeds, even the people around you. Take comfort, this is a very normal way our bodies sometimes try to shore up resources that are depleted during stress. Just remember that extended isolation isn’t good for you. So, please, take some time but then, find ways to reengage with healthy support.

Anger: Eventually, Phil loses it. After a few days of stress, failed plans and people not understanding him, he gets mad. He is callous with people. He punches poor ol’ Ned Ryerson right in the nose and figures how he treats people matters less than the pain he’s in. Hopefully, we won’t go to these extremes, but feeling angry toward the virus, other people, or decisions that are beyond our control are very normal. Remember, emotions are information. And anger is a secondary emotion. It never shows up first. Instead, it is a response to sadness, embarrassment, worry, feeling out of control, etc. Try to track down what emotion got you there in the first place and you may be able to head anger off at the pass.

Desperation: While we all will have good days and bad days, there will be people who encounter a mental health crisis. In the movie, Phil does get to the point where he is so desperate for a way out of his circumstances that he attempts to end his life. But here in real life? There is always hope. Most people who feel suicidal do not want to die, they just don’t want to live. Those are very different things. Many people feel better if they are given the chance to talk, connect, get access to missing basic resources, and potentially, professional care. Your local doctor remains a resource as well as several options listed here: Disaster Distress Helpline, National Domestic Violence Helpline, National Alliance on Mental Illness.

Acceptance: After fighting every way to change his circumstances, Phil eventually settles into his new reality. He recognizes he is in control of very little other than his response to the situation. He shifts his perspective from scarcity to abundance and, in doing so, begins to see opportunities. He uses his days, and his resources, to better himself and others and eventually learns how to be more in sync with his very strange situation.

Phil is all of us. In many ways, it feels like we just woke up one day to this weird, repetitive reality — and we don’t know when it is going to end. Two steps forward, one step back, doing the best we can with what we have until we sync up with this new normal.

Phil’s Groundhog Day ended eventually, and ours will too. Be safe, be gentle and love one another as best you can until that day comes.

Image by Franzi Jl on Pixabay


COVID-19: Existing on “Information Manna”

Anne Rulo: Existing on Information Manna

A little less than five years ago, I spent Mother’s Day in the hospital. Across the room from me, our beautiful baby girl lay quiet, gravely ill. The whole journey to this point had been a big jumble of questions and unknown. I couldn’t articulate to the doctors what made me bring her in, “She just didn’t look right.” And, they couldn’t articulate what was wrong. But, everyone was in agreement, this was one very sick little girl.

In an effort to get answers, the doctors ran every test they could think of. No one knew exactly what was going on, and no one could say when, or if, she was going to get better. During that time, we just had to sit there, clinging to what tiny bits of information we could gather each day and simply…wait.

This current experience with COVID-19 has drawn me back to that place. As I did then, I spend a portion of each day researching, looking on my phone, searching for anything that might help me feel a bit more informed and grounded. Similarly, I am relying on the experts to do their jobs, give me what information they can, and offer data and test results as we go along. But sadly, just as it was then, no one can really say when this is going to get better.

As humans, anytime we face the unknown, we also seek out answers. I need you to know that’s normal. Seeking answers is part of the way our brains try to protect us. If we know the answers then we can prepare, and if we can prepare, then we can shore up the mental/emotional/physical resources for what’s coming. Except…

we don’t know what’s coming.

Are our children going to return to school? I don’t know.
How long is this isolation going to last? I don’t know.
When/how hard is our community going to get hit? I don’t know.
Can I plan for summer, for fall, take a vacation? I don’t know.
How many people are we going to lose? We just don’t know.

As a person of faith, I am beginning to view the data, decisions, and guidance we have access to as “information manna”. In the Bible, manna is the name of the little honey-flavored flakes of food that God provided for the Israelites as they wandered in the desert. They had grown grumpy in their experience and started to demand to know where their provision was going to come from. Mercifully, even in their “grumbling”, God provided for them each morning with the manna they needed to get through that day.

Catch that. No more. No less. Just what they needed for the day.

Because of the unknown trajectory of this disease, we all just have to wait to see how it develops. And then, as the data comes in, the experts, officials, government, and schools will have the information they need to know how to proceed. As much as we want to prepare for the future, we simply cannot gather more information than there is. It is going to come to us as God wills, in His time, and according to the provision He knows we need.

So to that end, I am going to start trying to be satisfied on my daily “information manna”. If tomorrow I still don’t know if my kids are going back to school, that’s okay. I’ll find out when I’m supposed to. When I find out that isolation is being extended, or lifted, that will be the perfect time to find out. When tests come back positive and our local health experts are able to advise us further, I will respond accordingly. When we get to the point that I can discern if we should cancel our AirBnb for this summer, I’ll do it then. And when, probably not if, I know someone who is lost to this terrible disease, the God of all love and mercy will provide what I need for that day too. He always has, and as He always will.

Hang in there, folks. Please know that you are not alone in your desire to know more, but also that we cannot forcefully gather more than there is to take in right now. It is not a lack of faith to want answers, it is only a lack of faith to believe that you must have them to move forward. Be satisfied learning just what we need for today, and trust that He will send more information manna tomorrow as needed. After many long days of waiting for the information I needed, the day did come when I got to walk out of isolation and into the sunshine with my little girl. And He will let us know when we can go out again too.

Photo by Ümit Bulut on Unsplash



To the Buildingless Faithful – Thank You

Anne Rulo To the Buildingless Faithful - Thank You

“Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us” (Hebrews 12:1, NIV)

Last Sunday I stood in church a little overwhelmed. As we worshiped I had the thought, “I wonder if this is the last time I will be able to come here?” As a couple of tears slipped down I felt a little silly thinking it might get that severe. And now, I feel a little silly thinking it wouldn’t.

The moment was poignant. I thought about how much I love my church. I thought about the people there and what it means to be able to come, each week, into that space to worship Jesus — and what it would be like if I couldn’t.

And that’s when they showed up.

As my physical eyes brimmed with tears, my mind’s eye filled with faces. Beautiful dark African faces and lighter Indian faces. Shrouded Middle Eastern faces and gaunt imprisoned faces. Shadowed Asian faces staring up from a basement church and missionary faces who are spreading the Gospel in places where their lives are, quite literally, at risk if they get caught.

They were faces I didn’t recognize and yet, I knew exactly who they were.

They were the faces of the buildingless faithful.

For many of us, this is the first Sunday of our entire lives when we do not have the option to enter a church building. To be extremely clear, it is not appropriate or responsible to compare our situation to places where you take your life in your hands to claim the name of Christ. We have the Internet. Many of us will attend church online. We are welcomed and even encouraged to practice our faith in the midst of these very different circumstances. And yet…

I am so grateful for them. As we face this strange little hiccup in our regularly scheduled faith practices, I am strengthened and encouraged by the “cloud of witness” who have come before us. The faithful who have lived in generations past and those who live now in places where they cannot freely gather. These incredible people, all around the world, who stand as examples to us. They are our “witnesses” of what it means to continue to worship, to learn, and to grow in faith even when our usual methods have been disrupted.

So as trite or inadequate as it may sound, I just want to say thank you. Thank you to the countless men and women who have worshiped faithfully throughout time without structure, convenience or ease. Thank you for your mighty example that encourages us in our momentary troubles. Thank you for your faithful practice and presence as the church when we can’t meet in a church. We are so very grateful.

Photo by Denny Müller on Unsplash

Kids & COVID-19: The Adjustment Period

Anne Rulo Kids & COVID-19: The Adjustment Period

This week has felt like whiplash. Our lives have changed so quickly that it is surreal to think about what it was like only a short while ago. But, as predicted, people have rallied. We have found solutions for our schools, our families, and our children. Truly, I am impressed. We have set the stage beautifully for this tenure into the unknown.

But now, please, let’s be very gentle as we give ourselves time to adjust.

No matter how effectively we have managed to rearrange our lives, it is not possible to fully “hustle along” the time human brains need to adjust. As adults, I suspect many of you are feeling as mentally “foggy” as I am. Our higher-order thinking is gonna’ take a while to catch up and our emotional brains are going to be trying to run the show for a while. All of this is a very normal part of the process that takes place when our brains have moved into survival mode as we face the threats (real and anticipated) that are part of our existence right now.

As you can imagine, if our fully-developed adult brains need this space for adjustment, the far less-developed brains of our children are going to need even more. In my own home, my worrier is attempting to elect himself the CEO of All Things, seeking control wherever he can. My free spirit is decidedly less free, prone to tears, and needing more assurance and snuggles than usual. And this Mama? I’m succeeding sometimes but I’ve also chosen hollering over hugs a few times too. We’re all just muddling through.

To some degree, we can all expect a period of physical and/or emotional regression as we move through this time. It is going to be very common, especially in these early stages, to see our children return to old or exaggerated patterns that you may have thought were long gone. Elimination issues (goin’ pee-pee and poo-poo in the potty), bed-wetting, sleep concerns, and physical acting out/tantrums may all be part of the transition, especially for younger children. Kids are more likely to be irritable, prone to tears, resistant to things that are normally not a big deal, and more worrisome than is common for their personality. They are working out, in their little kid way, how to make sense of these changes and where they can place their footing as it comes.

Here are a few things that may be especially important to consider as we all move gently into this new normal.

Control. Let go of the things you can let go of. Our kids are seeking ways to feel control in of this strange new experience. To the level that it is developmentally appropriate, give them creative license. I cannot let my 8 and 4-year-olds determine the schedule for the entire day, but I can definitely let them decide Mondays are pajama days, what shape their pancakes are, and where we are going to walk outside. Cash in as much appropriate control to them as you can because this situation will have us making withdrawals we usually don’t have to make.

Play. Pay attention to what your kids are playing. Following the changes this week, the themes of play in our home have become markedly louder, more panicked, and more driven by “calamity”. My kids have always played natural disasters (so many floods and tornadoes) but the intensity has increased exponentially. Children’s play is often how they deal with their real-life situations. It is essential that they have unstructured creative time to work things out in their imaginations. Observe, notice changes, and offer as much routine and comfort as possible as they heal themselves through play.

Touch. This is such a weird category as we are dealing with social distancing. But, so long as we have health in our home I am not social distancing from my children. We have to remember that prior to these changes, our tiny humans were not only getting touch from us, they were also getting high fives and hugs from their teachers and social touch from all their little buddies at school. Be aware that they may be touch deficient right now. Consider reading that extra book together, giving an extra cuddle, or taking on an additional round of living-room-wrestle-mania to fill this space.

Compassion. For yourself. For your kids. For the times when you tear up and you didn’t see it coming or your anger bubbles up because yet another option has been taken away. Tell your kids these changes are hard for everyone but you are so grateful for the opportunity to go through it together. Teach them what it means to embrace the waves of change so they will be able to ride them well later in life. Be patient with however long it takes you, and takes them, to find a way in this strange new experience.

We are adjusting folks, but we can’t be perfectionists about it. It takes as long as it takes, let’s love ourselves in the meantime.

*For an incredible resource during this time I wholly recommend looking into Aundi Kolber’s recent release, “Try Softer“. She speaks the language of self-compassion better than anyone I have heard in a long time.

Photo by Reign Abarintos on Unsplash

Coronavirus & Mental Wellness

Anne Rulo Coronavirus & Mental Wellness

This week has been a strange one. I watched, in one evening, as the US closed its borders to all European flights, the NCAA barred spectators from attending games, and the NBA canceled its season. Then, on the same day, the mental health conference where I was scheduled to speak was canceled. And with that, the impact of the Coronavirus finally reached my doorstep — and it isn’t done.

There are so many opinions on how we are responding. And frankly, I’m not a medical expert so I’m not going to pretend to know. But I am a therapist. And I do know mental health. So, as we face the unknown of attending to our physical health, I wanted to offer a couple of thoughts that may also help support our mental health during this unusual time.

A large part of mental wellness is navigating control and perspective. That is, recognizing what we can control and choosing perspectives about the things we can’t. This particular situation pushes strongly against our sense of control and asks us to consider what perspectives we will choose. Below are thoughts on some of the things we are facing. I offer them with the hope that something in them may help comfort your heart, mind, and spirit during this time.

Isolation. While we may not end up being fully “quarantined”, we will have our routines altered. Some of it is going to be inconvenient (or downright awful) but we also have the chance to see it as an opportunity. We are often such busy people. When things get canceled it creates space. Space that can potentially be filled with rest, quality time, or simply, choice. This may be the moment where you get the chance to finish the sentence, “If I only had a little more time to…” Of course, not everyone will have this opportunity but if you do, fill the space well.

Information. I am typically a pretty low key individual. But, if I spend too much time pouring over articles about the people and potentialities involved, I will become overwhelmed. If you are sensitive to what you read and watch then you need to portion your intake. You can stay tuned in without being glued in. Find your balance.

Gratitude. This situation has led to some really powerful conversations about privilege. If you have a phone or a computer with the Internet to read this you are living through it with more than some. Focusing on what we are losing cues our minds to act in survival mode. Focusing on what we have helps us cultivate joy and have more to offer those around us.

What Ifs. As sure as the media sounds, no one really knows how this is all going to turn out. There are simply too many unknowns. Very little might happen or, sickness and loss of people we love is a possibility. Many of us will spend at least some time worrying, but we can also practice moving that worry into a space of appreciation for the people in our lives. That’s how we want to exist anyway, this just helps us get there.

Kindness. Folks are gonna’ be tapped out right now. Healthcare workers who haven’t seen a single case yet are already drained from endless meetings and preparation. The clerk at the grocery store has had to answer for the state of toilet paper on their shelves all day. And your average human just gets drained either absorbing or fighting off the fear that is simply hanging in our midst. Be patient. Be kind. Be the one who connects, offers empathy, or simply stands out for not being demanding. People are doing the best they can. Believe that.

Connection. Humans are made for relationship. Extended isolation is correlated with negative health impacts. And while this won’t be that long, the “usual” ways we connect will be affected for a bit. This is an opportunity for us to think creatively about the “who” and “how” of connection. Consider those long phone calls you have wanted to make, the letters of encouragement you could write, the social media groups you could cultivate or the ways you could spend time with your family that you normally can not. The uncommon moments you experience with others during this time could be a great gift.

Compassion. People don’t enjoy living in fear. Someone who may have managed calmly in this situation a couple years ago may not now because they recently lost a parent, are immunocompromised, or for other personal reasons. The way people respond to situations is complex. It is tied to their personality, upbringing, circumstances and available resources. If you find yourself thinking someone else is “more” or “less” of how you think they “should” be during this time, consider there may be more to it than what you see.

Helpers. Man that Fred Rogers, what a gem. There is a beautiful video where he talked about members of humanity who always show up in difficulty. And they will show up now too. They will be your neighbors, your community members, and the stories of exceptional human kindness that will inevitably find their way to us. They always show up and they give us hope and we will smile when they arrive again this time.

My fellow humanity, I have no idea what is ahead. But I know I trust you. And if you go out in the world today to pick up some toilet paper, make sure you smile at the cashier and pick up some stationary as well. The letters you may end up writing to one another are going to be beautiful.