by Jan McDaniel
This article first appears in Psych Central's World of Psychology blog.
Even now, when cleaning is so important, I dilly-dally. I have plenty of time as I “shelter in place” and cleaning supplies. But when I think of mopping and scrubbing, I want to sit down. That’s when a concept from psychology called chunking helped me realize the impact this technique has for controlling trauma resulting from events we can neither understand fully nor control as we deal with an unknown and frightening future.
Chunking does not mean throwing things out the door, which I am tempted to do sometimes to minimize clutter (or when my laptop is acting up). In another example, what is easier for you to think about doing … writing a book-length manuscript or writing a chapter? Most people would say 80,000 to 120,000 words is more daunting. Turns out, looking at that number — or anything larger than what the brain can comfortably manage at one time — is overwhelming, just like taking on the entire house as one big job. It is much more enjoyable to pin down ideas on sticky notes as they come to you and tackle one idea at a time for the actual writing. That’s chunking, breaking down complex situations into manageable bits.
That’s how I cleaned my house. And, yes, I divided the work into more than one day and decided on a schedule to clean something each day to keep everything in a fresh condition. That’s okay. It’s more workable for me. You may find it easier to use a different technique, and that’s okay, too.
These examples are simple, but how can chunking aid you in dealing with this year’s abrupt life changes and new experiences, including facing suffering and death in large numbers and in your personal life?
The entire COVID-19 topic is huge. Even breaking it down into personal, economic, and community subcategories leaves large clumps of emotionally charged information that need to be broken down further. But these are good places to start. For each area, remember to test what you hear and read to make sure you get the best and most truthful reports and recommendations.
If facts change, as they do when experts are grappling with something new, update your decisions based on the new facts. Also remember these changes are normal. Knowing and reminding yourself that this kind of process is the way through an extremely difficult situation (one that must use chunking) will help you stay calm. This is something we have not experienced before, but it is not forever. Give yourself these positive messages as you stay up to date.
Personal safety and health depend on the decisions you make now. Break down your needs into sections that cover items like food and water, supplies and medicine, specific needs of family members (will you need to ensure someone has prescription medication, for example or do you have pets that will need to be fed?) and things to make communication and isolation easier. Under each category, group like items together and decide if you will shop, order delivery, or make online purchases. List a second choice for those you think might be difficult to find.
Let everyone in the family know they may have to be flexible for a time. Listen to their ideas and needs. Allow them to help with useful projects like making masks for the family or sorting food containers for storage. Keep communication open to meet emotional needs.
Make a list of each family member’s contact and other important information, including any medications each person takes and special situations like oxygen or insulin requirements. Contact doctors now for extended refill options and advice on telehealth appointments.
Broader categories exist here. Make separate plans related to your household’s income situation, and list ways to tighten up your budget or cut costs. This is a good place to add the advice of experts as you research whether you can delay payments or add extra income. A focus on the positive may be difficult if you have lost your job or if you have others, like employees, depending on you, but facing realities with hope will motivate all of you to work together to get through this time.
Finding ways to cope together are still important. How can you help others nearby? What is being set up locally in case you need help? Check food banks, ways to support small businesses safely, and electronic options for staying connected. If you are an essential worker (healthcare, food supply, safety), plan ways to keep yourself and others as safe as possible.
The toll COVID-19 is taking is real. Working to minimize the trauma inflicted will not change that but using techniques like chunking can help you and your family cope.
Way for Hope
My name is Jan McDaniel. I speak grief. I also speak peace and healing. I started A Way for Hope blog and website to house projects I create that might help others who are grieving. The blog has expanded to include guest posts by my dear friends and fellow survivors who wanted to speak hope for others, too.
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