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One Year Into The Pandemic, Therapist Says The Search For Peace And Balance Starts Within

Julia Reihs
Jacqueline Fabian (left), an Instacart shopper for Costco, makes a water and grocery delivery to Kristin Rash (right) during February's winter storm. Neither had water in their home but Fabian was doing her job anyway, and Rash offered to buy supplies for her family. Central Texas neuropsychotherapist Junice Rockman says it's OK to enjoy connections and small joys even during intense events like the pandemic or horrible winter weather.

We have been dealing with the disruption, uncertainty and grief around the COVID-19 pandemic for just about a year now. The pandemic alone can often feel like too much to manage.

Then, add onto that any of the intense events of the past year, like the insurrectionat the U.S. Capitol, the murder of George Floydand subsequent protests over racism, or the recent deadly winter stormsin Texas.

Junice Rockman, a neuropsychotherapist in Central Texas, says there are ways to maintain balance in the midst of so much turmoil.

"One of the surest ways to become at peace with the world," she says, "is to become at peace with one's self."

Rockman admits "that's a tall order." But she suggests seven ways for securing some inner peace:

  • recognize thought distortions or "all-or-nothing thinking"
  • challenge those thoughts
  • take a break from those thoughts
  • release judgment
  • recognize what's going well
  • focus on your strengths
  • reach out for support

Rockman acknowledges the past year has been filled with trauma for many, but she says that doesn't have to permanently define you.

"You can recover from trauma," Rockman says. "And more importantly than the trauma itself, research shows us, is how it's immediately responded to after that determines your outcomes."

Listen to the interview above or read the transcript below to hear more about moving forward from the past year and letting some joy in along the way.

This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity:

KUT: How can people stay grounded when there has been so much turmoil and still so much uncertainty ahead?

Junice Rockman: One of the surest ways to become at peace with the world is to become at peace with one's self. And I know that's a tall order, and I think that's why we call mindfulness — living in the here and the now — a “practice,” because it is something you have to return to over and over again.

And leaning in to see, where can I become the change that I want to see in the world within myself, within my own home, within my own family, within my own community [and] within my own workspace, so that you do feel that, is within your lotus of control because we have to ride the waves.

The tide is going to come in. It's going to regress out. And just learning how to go with that flow on some level and practicing nonresistance and practicing mindfulness in the here and now is at least a great stepping stone to weathering whatever comes our way.

How can people learn to find that peace within themselves? You mentioned mindfulness. What are some things that people can do to try to bring that into their lives?

There are seven things for sure — seven ways to deal with difficult thoughts or negative thoughts. For one, recognize when you're having thought distortions, when you're seeing things as all black or white, all-or-nothing thinking. Secondly, challenge those thoughts. Thirdly, acknowledge them. Know when to take a break. Sometimes the resistance of the thought patterns that we have, it causes those emotions, that energy in motion, to come on with even more intensity. So letting those thoughts flow through us.

The fourth one I really love is releasing judgment. We're all going to have preferences, right? We’ll have preferences for things, we have opinions for things, but releasing the judgment of ourselves and of what's happening around us, it helps to reduce the suffering. And the judgment part of it that reduces the suffering is releasing the need to bring condemnation or shame. It doesn't mean that you don't disagree or that you don't have an opinion or a moral value. But the tension is caused when that shame is there.

And then finally, the last few: Practice gratitude. Recognize what's going well, even in challenging times. Number six, focus on your strengths. And then finally reaching out for support is a seventh one. Again, reaching out for some sort of support.

Can you just help us put the past year or so in context so that we do understand that it has been a very difficult time?

Trauma in loose terms is defined as any time we feel stuck in a situation that we feel that we cannot get out of. And then after that situation, we feel forever changed. We've seen that in so many instances over this last year, in the economic landscape, in the political landscape, in the health care sector. When we experience trauma, it changes our brain. It changes our chemistry. It changes our responses.

We also get into a space where we're oftentimes exhibiting post-traumatic stress symptoms, where we feel hyper-vigilant, where we feel agitated, where we have trouble sleeping, where we lose interest in activities that we would have liked before, where we feel a sense of numbness.

So, this last year has not only been an individual trauma, but it's been a collective trauma and a global trauma. And I think that it's going to take some time for us to see the full impact of that, the domino effect. But it's also going to take some time to heal and to recover. So, if you're struggling with those kinds of things that I just named and listed off, I also want to encourage you on some level that you are normal. It's been a lot.

The wonderfully made brain has neuroplasticity. So you can retrain your brain, you can recover from trauma and more importantly than the trauma itself, research shows us, is how it's immediately responded to after that determines your outcomes.

There are times that I've noticed in the past 10 or 11 months or so, when something really joyful or fun or happy happens, I almost feel not quite right about enjoying it. Or I almost feel guilty that with everything that's been going on, it somehow doesn't feel right or appropriate to be happy or joyful or celebrating. Can you talk about that and help us reconcile experiencing intense joy or fun while there's still a lot going on?

Our reptilian brain, that amygdala, boy, I tell you, it knows how to do its job. The amygdala is what regulates a lot of that fight, flight, or freeze or fawn response. And one of the things that the brain will do is tap you on the shoulder and be like, "Hey, Jennifer, wait a minute, wait a minute. We've been through a lot here collectively. Wait, before we celebrate, let's make sure we stay safe. Wait, let's be alert. OK. Let's focus. OK, all right. The survivor's guilt. Let's think about the tribe. How's everyone else doing? What have other people experienced or weathered or what losses have they experienced of family members or jobs?"

So, you have a little bit of that survivor's guilt that comes in there when you have made it through something. And it doesn't mean you have made it through unscathed, but where you may be having some personal wins or some moments of joy. And I think we just have to really remind ourselves that it's OK to experience joy. It's OK to experience moments of peace. It gives us a bit of a break in the midst of this marathon. We need to look at it as a marathon, not a sprint.

So, if you have that chuckle or you have that laugh or you have that moment or you have that good Zoom call or that good text buddy group, you are allowed to experience both. It can be both. And it doesn't have to be either or.

Got a tip? Email Jennifer Stayton at Follow her on Twitter @jenstayton.

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Jennifer Stayton is the local host for NPR's "Morning Edition" on KUT. Got a tip? Email her at Follow her on X @jenstayton.
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