How to Navigate Covid-19 – Let Me Count the Ways

by | Aug 23, 2020 | Anxiety, Health anxiety, Highly Sensitive Person, Transitions - General | 27 comments

Just like there isn’t a right way to “do life”, so there isn’t one right way to navigate covid-19. At the core of my work with anxiety is the recognition that because highly sensitive people have been told their entire lives that they’re “too much” – too sensitive, too dramatic, to emotional, too specific with their needs – they develop a shame layer that says, “I’m broken. I’m wrong. I should be feeling/doing this differently.” This is the layer that I’ve seen arising in spades over the last 5+ months as we continue along the twisty road of the pandemic. It sounds like this:

“Everyone else seems to be finding their way through this pandemic – going camping, going to the grocery store, sending their kids back to school, seeing friends. But I can’t do any of that. I feel paralyzed, and like I’m the only one who’s still struggling to find their way. What’s wrong with me?”

My response: “First off, there’s nothing wrong with you and you’re not the only one. Who are your friends that you’re referring to? If you’re not surrounded by highly sensitive people, you’re going to feel like you’re the only one who’s struggling. I’m surrounded by HSPs so I know that you’re far from alone as I’m hearing the exact words you just said every day.

“Secondly, you may have a different covid boundary than the people around you and that’s okay. Your boundary is your boundary. The work right now is to learn how to accept your boundary and address the shame-and-judgment voices that are arising in response to your boundary to see if you can start to replace those with compassion.”

“What does that sound like?”

“It sounds like: ‘Self, it’s completely okay if you can’t go camping right now. That might feel safe for some people but it doesn’t feel safe for you.’ Remember: as a highly sensitive person you’re wired to scan the horizon for the slightest inkling of danger. You’re going to be more attuned to possible risk than other people. And there is real risk happening right now. Yes, most people who go camping are fine, but the anxious mind is going to latch onto the word “most” and assess that the risk is too much.”

Of course, the situation becomes more challenging when you’re in a couple or family and others are affected by your choice to stay home. You may have a partner who is longing to go camping with you or children who are going stir crazy from loneliness and boredom and need to be around other kids, or possibly in a school environment. Parents face a particular challenge right now because we’re weighing our kids’ social/emotional needs on the one hand against the physical risk of exposing them to covid-19 on the other. I’m right there with you; it’s a wrestling that gnaws at the soul of a parent daily. I’ll share what this looks like with a story from our life.

About halfway through the summer we could see that our older son wasn’t doing well emotionally, and the reason was obvious: He needed to fly, which is his calling and his medicine. Just days before shutdown, he received a generous scholarship from the Jeppessen Foundation through the Wings Over the Rockies museum in Denver. He worked hard for that scholarship, walking through a rigorous interview process, and when he received the email that he had received it, he was over-the-moon elated. Two days later, we received the stay-at-home orders from Boulder County. There would be no flying for months.

At last, the gliderport opened back up. But could we send our son into a small cockpit with his instructor? Yes, they would both be wearing masks and would keep the windows open, but it’s not possible to socially distance in a glider. My husband was clear: This is our son’s passion, and if we didn’t continue his instruction he wouldn’t be able to sit for his licensing exam when he turned sixteen. Not only would this crush his lifelong dream, but it also meant that if we have to quarantine again, he wouldn’t be able to fly. As a student pilot, he would still need to fly with his instructor, but as a licensed pilot he could fly on his own.

I wasn’t so clear. Why would we risk his physical health and the health of our family so that he could fly? But the more closely I watched our son, who was wilting under the isolation and understimulation of this time, the more I saw that it was a risk we needed to take. I weighed in all of the factors: Covid-19 incidence is very low here; our son is young, strong, and healthy; we, as a family, are healthy. I knew that none of these factors were guarantees, but when I calmed my mind and came into stillness, I received the green light to let him go.

It would also have been okay not to let him fly. I share this story not to encourage you to push yourself in one direction or another but to share what it looks like to struggle, and to illuminate the additional layers of internal conflict we’re wrestling with as parents. None of this is easy. For anyone.

What I try to impart to clients and friends who are struggling with the shame layer that says, “I should be doing this better” is to trust the limits of their comfort zone. Usually when working with anxiety I encourage people to push themselves gently just outside the outer limits of their comfort zone, for if we never take risk we don’t grow. But I’m not applying that same approach to covid-19, for in this uncharted territory the stakes of risk-taking may seem too high for the anxious-sensitive mind. Instead, I’ve been saying to those who are struggling:

“What would it be like to give yourself full permission to trust your covid boundaries completely?”


I can hear an audible exhale when I say that. And the person will often say, “I just exhaled, like I’ve been holding my breath for five months.” Nothing feels as good as being given complete permission to be where you are, and sometimes we need a trusted other to us you complete permission to be where we are in order to trust our boundary.

And yet… immediately on the heels of this permission comes another layer of the highly sensitive person’s wiring: caring what other people think.

“If I do that, I have to be okay with people being disappointed, and also their judgment.”

“Yes, that’s right. What are you afraid people will say or think about you?”

And here comes the list, which is heightened during this time but also precedes it (meaning whatever you’re telling yourself now about yourself are things that you’ve been telling yourself for a long time):

  • “You’re overreacting.”
  • “You’re a party-pooper.”
  • “You’re such a dork.”
  • “Get over it!”
  • “You’re too sensitive. It’s fine.”
  • And the list goes on.

As always in transitions – and we are in a global transition – our places of wound are highlighted for the purpose of healing several layers. Transitions, as ruptures in the soul, soften our typical veils of defense and denial so that we can see with painful clarity what needs attention. One of the places that needs attention right now for the highly sensitive person is their lifelong shame about being who they are.

That’s why when I ask, “What would it be like to give yourself full and compassionate permission to honor your covid boundaries completely?” they exhale and then hear the voices of judgement. It’s not likely that anyone in their actual, current life would think or say any of the above statements; rather, they’re the introjected voices of judgment that have creased into the inner folds of psyche due to years of hearing them during the growing up years. And now, seeing and hearing them so clearly, you have an opportunity to respond to them from a compassionate place inside of you. This is how we heal.

And so, I ask you… what is your covid boundary? How are you doing with honoring it? What layers of self-judgment are being called into focus for the purpose of healing?



  1. Beautifully put! This is a boundary issue and we can stand firm in what we feel is best for us. I was feeling not “normal” to many. And that’s okay. 🙂 Love this.

    • It’s so good to hear from you! xoxo

  2. Excellent words! Thanks for your wisdom. My husband is a teacher and his anxiety is over the roof. He has had anxiety attacks before and he can retire in June but his fears ( and mine too) in this moment are painting the most scary scenario

    • It’s so easy to fall into the fear tarpit these days. I hope he can find his way through his fear to some serenity. I know it’s not easy.

  3. The permission is an easy thing to forget so thank you Sheryl.

    I am an addict, and this time of the pandemic has been one of the most difficult things I have had to go through, even growing up in two dysfunctional homes, neglect, abuse, and divorce later on, this for me has been rough. I particularly struggle with the newness of life, that incredibly fantastic dopamine burst that comes with new relationships, new living spaces, even re-arranging furniture fall into that realm for me, and with all new things, they do wear off over time.

    I was laid off a few months ago and injured myself at work so I am dealing with those things on top of these others. Needless to say, I have been sober for over 12 years, but this pandemic is bringing up all those deep feelings of sadness, depression, and anxiety that I have spent all this time being busy to avoid (I smiled as I typed this). I have a wonderfully logical partner that remains steadfast and almost unscathed by this time which makes it harder in moments I have, and I want to reject him on a daily basis, simply because part of me believes I would be happier if I just left, he wouldn’t have to see the mess I am inside, and I could hide this darkness in me away again.

    But I know better, I know there is a softness underneath this, that is condensed into a shadowy array of pain, anger, and let down from my past. Shame, grief, and the dark core of my hurts that I have never wanted to look at, and somehow I know if I don’t face it now, it will just resurface again later. It’s messy, it’s hard, it’s so lonely at times, but as Mark Nepo wrote: “Everything is beautiful and I am so sad.”

    • Beautiful… you are doing so well to be so self aware. It’s scary but I agree that it’s better for us to sort through the scary parts that live inside us now, or they will resurface again. Keep it up xx

      • Thank you! This is really hard to go through and I appreciate the kind words.

    • This was so beautiful to read, talespinner: beautiful in its rawness and vulnerability and your ability to express the pain of being human. Thank you for sharing your soul here. x

      • Thank you Sheryl <3

    • Dear talespinner,
      When I read about your seeking newness I could really relate. For me it was more oriented to seeking out strong experiences (sexual activities, new exotic countries, etc). Interestingly, it vanished when I learned that I had food intolerances (I used the York test). Quitting the problem food allowed me to feel emotions in my body as a more frequent background music. It had all been dead before, hence I had sought the drama in order to feel anything at all, but I did not know that until It changed. Just thought I would share that since I felt I could relate. All the best,

  4. My partner and I were getting ready to start trying for a baby after a trip to Europe in September. Now that’s not happening and I feel stuck and grieving. I keep seeing pregnancy announcements from friends and family and I want it so badly. BUT, I don’t want to put myself at higher risk and I want to have one last “hoorah” before my transition to motherhood. I worry my fertility is slipping away as I get older, I worry about a world post-COVID, and I weigh the decision to start trying now vs. waiting for (if ever) countries to open back up and it to be safe. I know what I’m going through is trivial compared to so many, but it feels so hard.

    • Hi kailey – in the exact same position over here, at the crossroads. you’re not alone! 👋🏻

    • I’m in the exact same place too 🙂

    • I’m in the same place too ♥️ Sending love to us all.

    • Exact same position, down to the big trip! Thank you all so much for sharing. I’m older and I worry about missing my chance but I worry about my health and the state of the world.

    • Thank you all for sharing. I am in the exact same position. Glad to have some company at this crossroads and sending all of you hope, peace and healing.

  5. I feel lucky having not come up against this yet. My family are all on the same page, although some of us have trouble sometimes. I myself am sad right now, because we were quarantined in Hawaii where we spend our winters, and we can’t go home to Alaska because it’s not safe. I had to put my beloved girl Pippin down this summer over FaceTime (she was a dog). Right about now, it would be time to start picking cranberries, and it makes me sad that I can’t be there. I’m even being thrown for a bit of a loop, because I’ve always been so in-tuned to the changing seasons, and Autumn, the season of the Samhain, is my favorite time of year, but the seasons don’t really change much in Hawaii.

    But on the other hand, my family is safe. We’re on the Big Island. There aren’t many cases here. They aren’t allowing inter-island travel, nor tourist travel from the mainland. It’s warm. We have a nice house. It’s a little small for my family’s size, but that’s only a small matter. There’s a lot to be grateful for.

    • I hear both the disappointment and the gratitude that are both so prevalent during this time. You’re doing a good job at holding the paradox.

  6. This perspective is so beautifully compassionate and is desperately missing in the general rhetoric around Covid. If only news and doctors and all media did not perpetuate the quest to the fine the “perfect way” to cope with the pandemic. More than anxiety about the virus, I get triggered by anxiety to find the “right” way to be right now, the fear of judgment or making the wrong choice and missing out. Thank you for modeling how we can make a choice that feels right in our own souls while finding some peace the uncertainty that exists

    • I’m so glad the post was helpful, E, and I agree it’s not a perspective that is ever present in the mainstream.

  7. Thank you for your post Sheryl.

    I feel like an outlier with my covid boundaries (or lack of them).

    My anxiety has been at an all-time high during this period.

    I went from being a recluse, terrified of infecting somebody and killing them, to believing the whole thing has been a complete overreaction, even a scam.

    I have been deeply disturbed by how my government (indeed, most governments) has responded to this. Granted it is a novel virus and we don’t necessarily know what we’re dealing with, but I just can’t reconcile the lockdown measures with the damage they are causing to people: the increase in domestic violence, suicides, unemployment, mandating of masks, actual chronic, life-threatening diseases gone untreated in order to “protect our health service,” (when the health service is supposed to protect us) capping numbers at funerals and weddings, the literal culling of the elderly, the inflated death counts and how deaths are recorded. It absolutely beggars belief to me what is happening.

    I HATE wearing a mask. There are so many studies saying they are ineffective. Even the WHO said they don’t recommend them, and my government didn’t recommend them, now the science has “changed.”

    My anxiety has now latched onto being afraid that all this is being done in order for a more sinister regime, and we are slowly being stripped of our civil liberties.

    Is there anyone else out there like me?

    I feel like I’m being judged for not wearing a mask and for having a different opinion to most.

    I am trying to draw from my learnings from Pema Chodron – about the fundamental ambiguity of life, that everything is an opportunity for awakening. But it’s hard. I know I should;d try to take the middle path and not get so opinionated.

    Sending love to all.

    • I feel like i could have written the exact same post. You are not alone in feeling this way. The effects of the drastic measures are just as scary if not scarier than the virus itself. I feel like no one is paying attention to these effects or the erosion of our civil liberties because everyone is terrified of the virus. Of course, I don’t want anyone in my family or myself to catch it and be one of those cases requiring hospitalization or have a fatal outcome. But I feel like the media do not focus on the fact that most cases recover without consequence. And I agree that the science seems to change which also makes me question things.
      I think it’s important to take precautions but to live in a bubble indefinitely just kills the spirit (at least in my opinion).
      I feel like reducing the amount of media I consume has helped reduce my anxiety level. I often skip reading articles about virus. I no longer engage in discussing it with friends who are not open to my way of seeing things because I am shamed for having an ‘incorrect’ opinion.
      I know it’s really hard to be an outlier on this but I guess we are perceiving a different set of risks and risk levels that others may not be focused on right now. And of course, there are consequences to not implementing those drastic measures too even if I feel this situation is overblown.

  8. I’m so thankful for this today! Both me and my partner are in our early 20’s, and many of our friends are no longer staying at home. Because of this, I’ve recently been feeling restless and ready to get out the house, so we went to see some friends in another city this weekend. I was under the impression that it would just be the small group of us it usually was, but when we turned up to their house there were about 20 other people there that we didn’t know. As soon as we turned up it was very obvious that 90% of the people there weren’t very big on covid regulations. It was nice to see my friends, but they were obviously in a very different place to us.
    I thought I was ready for a party like that, but it turns out I wasn’t! The anxiety I felt that night and yesterday morning was huge and I decided that the situation wasn’t safe.
    I’ve been invited to go camping this bank holiday by a large group, but I’ve decided not to go as it’s made me realise that I’m not comfortable mixing with large groups….and that’s okay! In time i’ll feel safer, everybody is at their own pace. And it’s perfectly okay to realise when others aren’t taking it as seriously as they could be, that you can remove yourself from the situation if you’re uncomfortable.
    I think maybe this bank holiday weekend i’ll take a social media fast…

    • Just to reiterate i’m from the UK where lockdown rules have eased significantly!

  9. OH I needed to read this so badly today!! Just over the weekend I was reflecting on how I need to reset and slow down at my job. At least in my life, I feel like the communities Iʻm involved in get drawn to “shiny” ideas and pursuits. But itʻs very legitimate to stay on track on your current pursuit towards mastery. Being consistent is not the same as stagnant… I didnʻt appreciate enough how much I needed the pandemicʻs side-effects of slowing down. I canʻt imagine now, going into September, if I was operating at full speed. So in answering “what self-judgment are being called into focus for the purpose of healing?” it is my self-judgment (or maybe fear) of under-performing and not moving the needle at my job = being a failure. I know itʻs all my ego, my pride and wanting to succeed at something. I can also feel pressured too to produce and succeed. I need to let go of these feelings and yearnings because I am worthy just the way I am. Maybe thatʻs what I can work on!

  10. I exhaled.
    You really pinpoint what it is all about. I have honored my COVID boundaries, but many other boundaries needed to hear this right now.

  11. Hey Sheryl!

    I have a question about getting help/receiving help and or comfort during times like this and in general.
    Is it possible, especially from my partner, that I don’t want to accept their comforting words because I have emotional walls up, or is it because I just don’t want the help from them specifically?

    I’ll give an example, let’s say I’m feeling down about school during this time of corona – my partner will say something like, “Oh sweetheart I totally understand it. Listen, I wish I could take away all your pain and you know I would, but I can so what we’re gonna do is work through this together and I’m gonna support you through this all. We’re gonna do your homework together and make sure you stay on top of your health…”

    For some reason, it doesn’t help me feel better and it makes me anxious that she isn’t the right partner for me just because she isn’t helping me feel better, but another part of me thinks it’s just my emotional walls rejecting the help and care and love.

    Sidenote – I am a teenager, still in high school. Your work on relationship anxiety and everything probably doesn’t apply to me since I’m so young 🙁 but I’ve been a worrier my whole life and I come from a long line of them

    I’m not sure if that made sense, but anything you have to say would help!! Thank you so much, your blog helps me with so much!

    – Alex, a teenager needing help


Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published.


Pin It on Pinterest