By Dawn Harris Sherling, M.D., F.A.C.P.
Traditionally, marine life pets have not done well in our home. We have prematurely lost a hermit crab and several fish. However, this past year, we have been uncharacteristically successful in keeping alive our unfortunately named beta fish, Karen.
Though we hadn’t been in the market for a beta fish, given our prior pathetic history, Karen was an unexpected bar mitzvah favor. And after a year, her hastily purchased bowl, diving head ornament, and rocks were looking a little, well, gross. An upgrade had been long overdue.
We carefully selected a new tank, Sponge Bob ornament, and gravel for Karen’s new environment. After a rinse and water treatment, we plopped Karen in and threw out her green-hewed, slightly slimy, old home.
And then Karen froze. She stopped swimming. She stopped eating. Every few hours I would check to see if she had died. I got the kids mentally prepared for yet another fish funeral. But after two days of fish catatonia, like a fish phoenix rising from the purple pebbles at the bottom of her tank, Karen began to explore her new environment, darting in and out of her Sponge Bob Pineapple and eating her fish food again.
We had only one explanation for Karen’s miraculous recovery—initially she must have been too overwhelmed and stressed out by her new environment to function. Her lifelong routine had been upended suddenly and without warning.
Many of us have been wondering why we haven’t been more productive these past few months. Even when the kids don’t seem to need our attention, instead of working or finally organizing our closets, we binge watch mediocre television or mindlessly scroll through social media. Sometimes it feels like we are letting ourselves or our families down. But really, we are just stunned to be plopped into a new environment without warning. Most people thrive on routine or are used to it such that it provided a stable backbone to their day. Now we float around stunned at the changes that just appeared in our lives a few months ago—our so-called “new normal.”
Dr. Jennifer Goldin, a clinical psychologist based in the COVID-19 hotspot of South Florida, agrees. But some more advanced work than what Karen did may be necessary.
“I think we are in a moment of cultural shock and adaptation is required,” she says. “People have to identify that what they may have done before may not work here. People are going to have to learn new coping strategies.”
Dr. Goldin thinks that our previous behaviors may be detrimental to dealing with the current atmosphere of social isolation. She cites social media as an example.
“Social media, ideally, was meant to bring people together and enhance connection. (However), right now, it is incredibly polarizing. It’s become either an echo chamber or an opportunity for alienation.” She adds, “You need to check in with yourself—are you clenching your fists or your jaw when reading something? You may need to dial it back a little now.”
Dr. Goldin suggests that when we are engaged in an activity that may have brought us joy or at least a little diversion pre-pandemic, we now pause and ask ourselves if we are feeling better or worse than we did a few minutes ago. Becoming aware of our negative emotions is the first step in overcoming stagnation.
“We can’t always control our environment, but we can control our choices,” she says. “Our thoughts can be like being on a sit and spin and we’re just moving too fast and circling around on the same thought. So, we have to disrupt that thought process.”
To do so, Dr. Goldin advises becoming more engaged with our immediate environment. (Karen, by exploring her pineapple, was doing this even without psychological advice—she might be a very smart fish.)
Just “wiggling your toes into the ground and feeling the carpet beneath your feet” can be helpful. Alternatively, Dr. Goldin suggests counting backwards from ten and possibly pairing that with deep breathing exercises. Then, do another check in. Are you feeling better? Do you have more focus? If not, it may be time for a break and getting out into nature can be incredibly restorative. Though Dr. Goldin emphasizes that not everyone responds to the same things. She suggests making a list of the things that bring you joy and doing those things when feeling negative emotions, even if it is as simple as watching a “feel-good” movie or looking at old pictures.
“We can make choices that affect our mood in a positive way,” she says. “We just need to accommodate a new reality.”
And just as Karen was able to look around and realize that she was okay in her new space, so will we. A beta fish may not have all the answers, or any really, except to point out that change is hard, but coping with it is possible.