A psychologist’s response to COVID-19.
The world as we know it is in the process of undergoing sudden and radical change. The general health crisis that is being brought about by the rapid spread of coronavirus could easily become a mental health crisis.
Change Is the Only Certainty
What is happening in the current crisis is causing sudden drastic changes to people’s way of life, livelihoods and sense of safety and security. Some changes will be temporary and, alas, others permanent. This is how life is; it’s part of the natural order and you have to learn to embrace that reality to live fully and in the present and not let fear hijack your joy.
This Is Serious
Overreaction, when it comes to keeping yourself and others safe in these circumstances, is the most functional behavior. Adjustments take time and can be exhausting and at times seem overwhelming. Treat this as a project that you work on day by day, making incremental adjustments and taking it one step at a time. We will learn from this crisis as we go along. We will be able to develop and benefit from collective wisdom, resources and skills.
Emotions, like viruses, are extremely contagious. Just as we have the obligation to do whatever we can not to spread coronavirus, we equally have a responsibility to not spread the viruses of fear, hysteria, cynicism, pessimism and mistrust. If you put the appropriate mental health measures in place, then it will be possible to keep a healthy state of mind. Achieve that and you can be a beacon of calm, support and encouragement for others.
Adjusting to Change
The first step in the process of adjusting to the transition we face is to let go of the idea that things need to stay the way they have always been. Give up the impulse to try and deny the current reality and resist change. Nobody likes to change, especially when it is sudden and forced on them. All the more so for such a pervasive change that it affects your lifestyle and everything that you are accustomed to being able to do and take for granted. It is very disconcerting to be forced out of your comfort zone. It is scary to be confronted with uncertainties and to feel that you do not have control over your world. It is frightening to face the unknown. It is unnerving to feel that your ability to predict and control your future has been taken away. Discipline yourself to not dwell in the past. The current reality provokes us to draw deeply on inner resources and develop new ways of coping and hopefully even thriving.
We need to exercise mindfulness in how we manage our own and our children’s expectations for the future. We need to model psychologically healthy and mature behavior. If you do not know what that means, now is the time to find out. It is a collective responsibility to model and teach the children that you encounter the perspective and skills to deal with adversity.
This is the perfect opportunity to teach youth that showing care and compassion for others is the ideal way to protect your own interests. Children can be enrolled in acts of service, in being alive to ideals and to the concept of personal responsibility for the welfare of others.
The pandemic is not going to last forever. While it is around us, it presents us with an invitation to live more fully, thoughtfully and deeply, to become more deeply engaged with what it means to be alive and to be human living in these times. It can bring you to a deeper appreciation of the gifts of life and the privilege of the life you have, to be grateful for every new day, for health and for the people around you. It is an opportunity to up your game, on a physical, emotional and spiritual level. This could be a time to discover your own unique strengths and potential for greatness. This is still one the best times in history to be alive.
The Freedom to Feel Secure
The key to feeling secure is to maintain a sense of mastery and control over your life. This is especially so when you cannot control your circumstances or the external conditions of your life. Whatever you can maintain of your normal pattern’s habits and rules, do so to keep a sense of stability and to feel anchored in some familiar reality. Keep up your interests and hobbies. Keep as much of your normal routines as possible and do not allow yourself to drift into free fall.
Accept that you will probably be directly affected by this pandemic: you may get ill and there will definitely be people close to you who will get ill, some even seriously. People you know may die. Accepting this reality is hard but also empowering and can help avoid panic, denial and paralysis.
It is a valuable step to building resilience, to rehearse possible challenging scenarios in your mind as well as to visualize the precautions necessary to prevent them or the strategies available to you for dealing with them. Each of us will either get sick or have people close to us get sick. We will in all likelihood be confronted with death at some level of our family or social world. We have to inoculate ourselves and children by building our faith and perspective and rehearsing how we will cope emotionally through a healthy attitude and approach. As hard as this might be, in the long run denial makes you feel even more helpless and fearful. That makes it even harder to cope when crisis happens. Anticipation and rehearsal are very different from worrying and catastrophizing. It is coming to terms with the realities of life that, until we are forced by circumstances to confront, we never think deeply about if at all.
One way to feel in control is to set goals about who you would like to become through this process. Consider what skills and character traits you would like to develop or improve upon. Decide then how you will work on becoming that person. Learn what steps you need to take and what you would need to know to become that person.
A good starting point is to take an inventory of your morals, values and ideals. Those don’t change. When you are clear about what is really important to you, decide how you will keep that knowledge close so that you can draw guidance, security and strength from keeping faithful to what truly counts in your life.
Learn From Your Own Past
Think about all the ways that you have dealt with challenges in the past and discuss strategies that you have used to overcome adversity. Get in touch with what you have discovered about yourself: your strength, courage, resilience, resourcefulness, wisdom and skill in those times. Then work out how you can apply that knowledge and experience in dealing with your current challenges.
Take time to develop self-awareness and through that to gain mastery over your reactions. Learn to identify and pay attention to your emotions, being compassionate to yourself and holding space for others to share feelings with you. It is invaluable to make time to reflect on your experience and to record your insights and impressions in a journal. Get in touch with and express your emotions, especially your sense of powerlessness (at times), fears and sense of actual or anticipated loss.
Express Your Emotions
It is important to release feelings through crying when you need to. Bottled up feelings lead to behavior that is not useful or is even destructive to yourself or others. If you process your own feelings and confide them in someone who can hold the space for you, you will avoid spilling them out in ways that upset others, particularly children. Be careful what you say to yourself and in front of others, especially whom you say it to, for example, children and vulnerable people. Accept your humanity. Practice being more patient and forgiving of the humanity, and at times frailty, of others.
We are social beings who need connection above almost anything else: find creative ways to stay connected and deepen connection. We are all in this together and we have to be there for each other. Tighten your social and relationship bonds, support others and learn to seek and appreciate support from others.
Practicing consideration for others, improving social awareness and learning to put the greater good before your own interests are empowering qualities that take the focus off your own feeling of vulnerability.
Remember that regardless of the circumstances, you have choices. You can choose how to respond to the situation. You can choose how you wish to be there for others. Whether to grow from this experience and become a deeper, stronger, wiser and more courageous person or to be defeated by fear. Optimism is also a choice. Above all, in keeping yourself healthy and avoiding illness and death, do not forget to live. Even more importantly, remember to enjoy the life that you have, the blessings and gifts of each day and the power and opportunity to make a positive difference in the world.
The writer is a South African-based clinical psychologist. He is sought after internationally as an organizational development consultant, expert witness, speaker, writer, radio and television personality. His website is www.leonardcarr.com.