I’m cooking another dinner — a new turmeric chicken recipe — in the endless stream of dinners that is pandemic life, listening to President Obama promote his new memoir on NPR’s “Fresh Air.”
As Terry Gross questions him about his limitations in dealing with racism head-on, I flash back to the 2015 White House Correspondents’ Dinner, at which comedian Keegan-Michael Key acted as Obama’s anger translator.
A warm feeling washes over me as I reflect on what it was like to have a leader who was willing and able to laugh at himself. But dinner leaves me feeling cold.
As I cut into a stringy, turmeric-yellow chicken leg, my husband takes a bite and makes a face.
“Wow, this is… something,” he says.
My stomach tightens, and it’s not just from the admittedly icky chicken. I feel criticized, dissed.
In the Before Times — when we weren’t worried about our livelihoods, hiding out from a deadly virus, being in each other’s space all day, every day — my husband and I could have had a good laugh about the stringy yellow chicken. But in my pandemic hypersensitivity, I missed the opportunity.
As COVID-19 causes people to lose their senses of taste and smell, pandemic life is having a similar effect on our sense of humor, especially the self-deprecating kind.
Adam Reynolds, PhD, LCSW, a drama therapist in private practice and an adjunct professor at Hunter College, explains, “When we are caught up in a difficult situation [such as the pandemic], we’re being pulled along by the current — our in-the-moment feelings, our worries, our self-consciousness.”
Citing scholars Carol Tosone and Orit Nuttman-Shwartz, Reynolds notes that the pandemic is a culturally shared traumatic event. Caregivers, those who are sick, and those who are not — we’re all suffering from extreme concrete losses: loved ones, jobs, connections, and future plans.
Melissa DeGeso, PsyD, a psychologist in Tampa, Florida, with a caseload of pandemic-inspired divorces, also believes we’re living through collective trauma. On a psychological level, “to laugh, to drop your guard, is dangerous,” she says. “While laughing at oneself can be very cathartic, it isn’t an option when you’ve got to get back on track and keep your mask on to live.”
Zeneida Disla, an integrative therapist on an adult inpatient unit at Bronxcare Health System in New York, says COVID-19 has been most difficult for women in lower-income communities. Many of these women have lost jobs and partners. Many also act as sole caregivers, often to both elderly parents and children, and sometimes lack the proper equipment to help their kids succeed at online school.
“These women are holding everything together,” Disla says. “To be funny or to laugh at yourself in this situation is very hard.”
The current reckoning of racial injustice in America and beyond adds to this collective sense of gravity, further limiting access to humor. Disla’s daughter, Clarissa Thorne-Disla, a sophomore who founded an anti-racism task force at her New York City high school, says that while the Black Lives Matter movement and the death of George Floyd have inspired more conversations about race, these events have decreased her ability to laugh with her friends.
“Everyone is so uptight, there’s little room for humor,” she says, remembering a time when she showed a well-liked social media post that joked “whypipo [white people] know nothing” to her white friend. Instead of the expected shared laugh, “it created an awkward moment.”
Disla, Reynolds, and DeGeso all agree that humor and the ability to laugh at ourselves can help us cope and heal.
“When we can — even for a second — step out of our circumstances and see things differently, we can catch our breath, rest our mental muscles,” Reynolds says. “And if we can laugh in that moment, see the bits of humor threaded in ourselves, then maybe we can even heal a little bit.”
If your mental muscles, like mine, could use a little rest and restoration, having a good laugh at your own expense might bring about the catharsis you’ve been waiting for. Consider some of the following solutions.
Share stories with each other
Reynolds creates humor and perspective around strong emotions through storytelling. Sometimes he repeats a story back to his client with a slightly different tone or pace than they used when they told it, which “invites them to laugh, as they see themselves reflected back with care,” he says.
But storytelling doesn’t have to be limited to therapy. Sharing your daily stories regularly with a spouse or friends (over Zoom) can help too.
If you think your life is too boring for stories, storyteller Matthew Dicks disagrees. His “Homework for Life” strategy suggests taking 5 minutes a day to reflect on and record the seemingly mundane moments of your day. After a few days of “homework,” it becomes easy to see the little stories that infuse your life with humor and meaning..
Schedule joy into your life
Reynolds recommends making a commitment to a few moments or activities for joy each day to balance out the stress.
“[Seek] out people/animals/places/activities that make your heart feel lighter,” he says, even if it’s just a few seconds of looking at a picture of a place that makes you happy. Having something to look forward to, like a hobby or a favorite comfort food, is also useful.
And if you’re often bored all day and don’t know what to do with yourself, creating a routine for mental health can make the days feel less repetitive.
“Structure helps too,” DeGeso says, for the many people who have lost their jobs. “It’s important to have a schedule. When the days become blobs, it’s easier to wallow and focus on the little things.”
Find ways to lend a helping hand
Early on in the pandemic, when the death tolls were rising and my business was receding, I felt shocked and frozen. When I volunteered at a COVID-19 testing site, bonding with my co-workers through our personal protective equipment and our shared experience of tending to worried citizens of Los Angeles helped me thaw. And, yes, laugh.
If you’re not sick or bogged down with caring for others, and you can do so safely, volunteer at an organization or make a few meals for a neighbor who’s sick or grieving. Making a contribution is its own reward.
Get help for your mental health
If your mental health is feeling less resilient these days, talk to a qualified professional. They can help you figure out a treatment plan to ease the stress and give you support to get through this crisis.
Psychotherapy has a reputation for being expensive and inaccessible. But Googling “free therapy near me” should bring up a list of therapy groups and organizations that provide free or low cost individual counseling by therapists in training. You can also try online therapists, whose rates are generally lower than those of traditional therapists, or choose a service from our mental health resource guide.
Accessing therapists has become very convenient, as evidenced by text therapy, which you can take part in via cellphone or Wi-Fi, even if you live in a remote place or have limited time.
Get free therapy when you become a regular volunteer with CORE
Here’s a double-whammy creative solution for a pandemic rut: if you become a regular volunteer (at least 3 times a week) at a CORE COVID-19 testing site, the community trauma response organization GAP-CREATE will offer you 10 free therapy sessions. There are CORE sites in seven U.S. states and many cities.
It’s a great way to feel like you’re contributing while also getting the help and support you need — and working your way back to your sense of humor.
As for my husband and me, we laid off the chicken for a while. Now, when he doesn’t like the meal, instead of criticizing, he simply says in his best chickenese, “Bock bock!”
Blair Glaser is an executive leadership consultant, licensed psychotherapist, and storyteller. She is working on a memoir about living in an ashram in her 20s. You can visit her at blairglaser.com and follow her on Twitter or Instagram.