ASHEVILLE, N.C. – “It’s important to not neglect the sensory aspect of Pagan practice,” said Megan Somervill, a Pagan and licensed clinical mental health counselor supervisor in North Carolina.
Social distancing and social isolation have impacted many group experiences for Pagans, from drumming to ritual participation. In order to lessen the spread of COVID-19, much of the group work common in Paganism has shut down. That’s to protect our physical health, but those same strategies can hurt our mental health.
Somervill says that humans need physical contact on a biological level. That need for touch reflects our general desire to both nurture and be nurtured, and often helps to promote a sense of belonging. Many of the people she has talked with are relying on hugging their pets for more tactile experiences.
While there has been an explosion of online rituals and conferences, Zoom parties, and other means of virtual connection, distancing is stressful, and many miss intimate conversation and consensual touch with friends, covenmates, and other loved ones.
Somervill feels that a lot of people are still just “in the moment” and have not fully processed the grief and loss they may be feeling. This is especially true for those who have lost family members that may have died in hospice or the hospital alone. The COVID-19 situation is producing a social and emotional intensity that most are unfamiliar with, and Somervil indicated that many people are still undergoing the “trauma” phase of PTSD.
For many, the unknown factors of the pandemic are the scariest. The types of coping strategies we may have used before, such as visiting friends or attending crowded gatherings, don’t align with social distancing guidelines. The work of coping is even harder for individuals surviving mental health challenges.
JAMA-Psychiatry, part of the Journal of the American Medical Association network, recently published a cautionary viewpoint article about the potential increased risk of suicidal behavior due to the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. The article cites several factors of concern supporting their opinions, such as social isolation, increased economic stress, medical issues, and barriers to accessing mental health services, as well as limited access to religious and community support.
The Disaster Distress Helpline at the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) reportedly saw an 891% increase in calls during the month of March 2020 compared to March of 2019. February to March saw an increase of 338% in their call-volume comparison.
Somervill had some suggestions to reduce stress. Keeping to a routine is a good way to stay balanced, and that often “managing and maintaining the little things helps us to feel in charge”. But she noted that whatever the focus of our behavior, whatever we do while quarantined does not need to be a permanent fixture of our lives, nor should it produce a new source of stress. These are all temporary arrangements.
Stress can affect us in ways we may not fully assess. Somervill cautions about taking on projects that add to the stress. While it might be a good time to take care of a list of chores or plans, we should do so in the context of getting our list done, not as work that increases or anxiety or stress.
Somervill suggests avoiding any major but voluntary life changes or decisions during this time. Our choices during stressful times may not resonate once the crisis has passed. It’s also important to create comfortable sensory environments – for example, using incense, soaking in a bath, or even, if practical, hugging a tree. Somervill also mentioned using techniques like the Butterfly Hug, which involves crossing one’s hands and arms over the chest and gently tapping.
Sesame Street character Abby Cadabby can even teach us how to do a self-hug.
When stay-at-home orders and quarantines are eventually lifted, everyone will be re-evaluating how we interact with others. For many Pagans, that re-evaluation will include how they participate in daily, ritual, and festival social experiences. From shaking hands to consensual hugs or kisses, our experiences will change. But right now, we can focus on getting through the crisis.
Somerville said that while the current situation is certainly unprecedented, “One silver lining is that the slower pace allows for the luxury to explore questions like ‘What are we creating or wanting to create?'”
She continued, “It can be important to remember to feed those aspects of ourselves that maybe we ignore. And that for some it can be a good time to utilize those things that can intellectually stimulate us.
“The recognition that we are all in this traumatic situation together — this is the time we can choose compassion. Whether we realize it or not, we are perfect for this time.”
The Wild Hunt continues to provide coverage of the effects of COVID-19 on the Pagan community. For a list of festivals and events impacted by the crisis, see our special coverage.