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Coping With Grief During COVID-19

For the past few years, it hasn’t been “business as usual” for many fitness professionals. Three experts in mental and physical wellness share how to not just “go” through grief but “grow” through it—and help others do the same.

Person covering face and coping with grief

After 2 years of dealing with pandemic-driven hurdles in delivering their services, pros across the fitness industry are more than simply tired. People say that they’re feeling muddled when making decisions, aimless about their overall direction and frustrated with the uncertainty in what was once a pretty-secure job. Does any of this sound familiar? There’s a good chance that you are coping with grief.

In this article, three experts weigh in on grief in the context of COVID-19, including what’s different about it and how to help yourself and others move through it and begin healthy healing.

The Many Faces of Coping With Grief

Let’s begin by breaking down a common misconception about grief. While many people equate grief with the loss of a person, it can extend to other types of loss, too. In fact, what many of us are experiencing while coping with grief is the loss of our pre-COVID routines.

Grief can manifest itself in a variety of ways. Michael Mantell, PhD, a San Diego–based behavioral science expert, describes four types of responses people have to grief:

  • physical: when we can’t eat, can’t sleep and/or feel tired
  • emotional: when we feel anxiety, loneliness, anger and/or sadness
  • behavioral: when we withdraw socially and/or have difficulty connecting with others
  • cognitive: when we experience confusion, racing thoughts and/or preoccupation

While grief is a universal human emotion, there’s no uniform path or timeline for processing these feelings. Peter Twist, MSc, an exercise physiologist who has coached more than 700 professional athletes, has observed the varying impact of pandemic grief in both himself and his clients. “We’re all in different situations, different boats,” he says. “But it could be the person in the worst boat that’s the most resilient and the person who’s in the best boat that’s struggling the most.”

See also: How to Help Someone Who Is Grieving

What Makes This Grief Different

In the first few months of the pandemic, you may have found yourself in a fight-or-flight response, where your body was flooded with adrenaline and cortisol to deal with a stressful situation. In a physical fight-or-flight situation, your stressful trigger would have been dealt with, your stress hormone levels would drop, and your body would stop being “on alert.” However, in our long-term battle with the pandemic, our bodies have felt threatened by one attack after another.

For some, that results in a mixture of strong emotions, while others feel like they are detached from their bodies. Tracy Markley, 2021 IDEA Personal Trainer of the Year and author of Your Brain: The Engine of Your Body. A Fitness Trainer’s Guide to Brain Health (2020), describes her personal reaction to the stress due to the pandemic as “the sense of [being] emotionally paralyzed. You’re just kind of stuck . . . but you don’t want to be.”

Individuals who had their livelihood taken away or restrained during the lockdown had an extra sense of loss, according to Markley. “It is very true what we experience in our work—whether it’s losing our business or losing our clients or having a shift in our business—I believe it causes grief, post-traumatic stress or some kind of [sense of] loss.”

Another thing that makes our current situation a bit tricky is that many of us are facing what Mantell calls disenfranchised grief—that is, coping with grief that is not usually openly acknowledged, socially accepted or publicly expressed. Think of the missed opportunities to see your clients in person or share a comforting hug with loved ones. Mantell explains, “People are living with grief but unable to express it in the usual outlets. We’ve been disconnected from in-person events and human touch.”

Whether you’re losing longtime clients to virtual fitness, are endlessly pivoting due to repeated lockdowns or are being forced to close your business, it’s common to feel a swell of emotions. Recognizing that you might have a range of feelings—sadness, lethargy, anger or even emotional numbness—and accepting those feelings is the first step in moving forward.

Observe and Accept Your Grief

Some leaders feel that they need to “tough it out”—to be strong for those who report to them or turn to them for guidance. While it may be tempting to keep your head down or stay busy to downplay your own feelings, suppressing grief will lead to bigger problems for you in the end.

Mantell gives an example of the consequences of delayed grief: “Imagine you’re cutting tomatoes, you slice your thumb and you just ignore it. What could have been a simple fix can become a big problem. COVID grief is a normal response to an abnormal situation. Not dealing with steps of grieving lengthens the grieving process and does more harm than good.”

Twist observes that the key to his own healing and that of his clients “is understanding that your feelings are valid and giving yourself permission to feel that struggle—stressed, overwhelmed, anxious, sad, grieving—and honor it and reflect on it, and be proud that you’re still here and you’re trying to find your way through.” (For more tips on helping clients heal, see “How to Create a Supportive Space for Your Community,” below).

Coping With Grief By Moving Through It

The pandemic has caused many of us to feel a loss of normalcy, which presents itself in various ways with physical, emotional, behavioral and cognitive impacts. Recognizing the loss and accepting its effects is the only way to move through grief. There’s nothing “weak” about feeling grief. “Grief is a natural reaction to loss. You cannot control what happens externally, you can only control your response to it,” says Mantell.

When given this challenge of controlling your response and coping with grief, ask yourself: How can I grow through this, not just go through this?

Ultimately, you get to define what “moving through grief” looks like for you. There is no prescribed plan. For Twist, moving forward includes daily solo walks in the forest. This time allows him to reflect and feel his emotions.

See also: Coping Through Stress to Flourish

Begin the Healthy Healing

It’s important to note that you can feel an emotion without letting it define you. Twist observes, “These real emotions, they aren’t me. They’re going to flow by eventually, and I’m going to move forward. So it’s really just [a question of] how long are these going to serve me? And how long does it take to reconcile them? And how long do I want to stay here?”

While the emotional and financial pain of the pandemic has been significant, Twist—-who shuttered his successful 20-year brick-and-mortar operation in Vancouver, British Columbia, due to untenable government restrictions for the fitness community–—sees it as an opportunity for growth for those who are willing to take it. He predicts, “We’re going to grow as people. We are going to show up and respect each other, and we’re going to learn how to be gracious in difficulty and navigate that. And that’s a gold medal that we can all take away. Once we get a little bit of distance from these feelings, of course, it becomes freeing.”

While a mindset shift is not a magic bullet, it can help you move through the stages of coping with grief, see the opportunity to learn from this experience and allow it to positively impact who you are.

How to Create a Supportive Space for Your Community

Group of people coping with grief

As the saying goes, it’s important to put on your own oxygen mask before helping someone else, which is why your grief response is the main focus of this article. But, as fitness professionals, many of us enter the industry with the goal of supporting others, so it’s no surprise that we feel drawn to help our clients and staff work through their own feelings of loss.

Michael Mantell, PhD, a San Diego–based behavioral science expert, suggests thinking about opportunities to provide an emotional outlet for your community. “Your role is not to be a grief counselor, but you can play a role in creating an environment that is nonjudgmental,” says Mantell. “There is so much judgment surrounding COVID-19.”

He suggests inviting your staff and clients to “emotional strength rounds,” which he describes as in-person or virtual small group gatherings where participants can have a respectful and supportive interchange about their feelings. While it doesn’t offer a quick fix, this type of opportunity for connection allows people to name their emotions and feel less isolated.

Consider this your opportunity to lead through adversity by tapping into the strong emotional intelligence and agility that has brought you professional success. Also understand your strengths and limitations, and help your clients, colleagues and others seek professional mental health help when appropriate.

“Leaders who bring awareness, compassion and empathy will succeed as leaders through anything,” says Mantell.

Christina Beer

Christina Beer is a management consultant and owner of B.Well Consulting, which helps owners of fitness and wellness businesses make data-driven decisions to propel their work forward. She is a frequent content contributor to industry webinars and blog posts.

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November-December 2020 IDEA Fitness Journal

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