Dealing with the New Abnormal
The pandemic has upended everything. Between confinement, closing schools, shuttering businesses and social distancing, everything we have every known about everyday life is suddenly completely different, and the impact on our mental health is huge.
According to a recent Lancet article, we are surrounded by a plethora of stressors: frustration, confinement, boredom, inadequate supplies of all kinds, financial losses, fear of infection, inadequate information, stigma, separation from or loss of loved ones, loss of freedom – and the impact may well last a while (Brooks et al., 2020). COVID-19 survivors recover at great psychological cost, which can even go as far as post-traumatic stress symptoms (Parker et al., 2015). Worldwide, we are experiencing mass trauma.
We Can Cope
Fortunately, there is an existing large body of research on coping strategies that reduce stress and encourage resilience in times such as these. A recent article in Clinical Neuropsychiatry (Polizzi et al., 2020) set out techniques that have proven helpful in the wake of other earthshaking events.
Realign with your values
COVID-19 seems senseless. Yet studies found that after the 9/11 attacks certain people were able to find meaning in the meaningless by seeking to express their personal values, such as friendship, kindness to others, compassion, spirituality or religion. While they acknowledged the pain of what they were going through, they did especially well in avoiding psychological difficulty and regained a sense of control, self-esteem and a sense of community by giving emotional and practical support to others. Rumination was limited and a sense of the possible was reinforced.
Find alternative ways to connect
Confinement and social distancing has been catastrophic for us. Studies of disaster survivors show, however, focusing on a smaller circle of people to listen actively, express empathy and share resources, helps to reduce fear and anxiety. We are lucky to be experiencing the pandemic in an era where social media and digital technology helps us to do this.
Even if you feel alone, still aim to live your best possible life
This research also shows that ensuring proper self-care and taking pleasure in the mundane count.
As we emerge from confinement and look for the way forward, the three pillars I always preach to my clients really matter: proper eating; regular exercise, even a little, preferably every day; and proper sleep. Sleep is hard to come by for some of us, these days, but we can favor it with regular hours, limiting screen-time before bed, and perhaps using a relaxation hypnosis recording such as I have made available for free on my website.
Giving time to mentally challenging activities and hobbies – crosswords, painting, watching TV, listening to music – has proven a clear predictor in the past of reduced stress symptoms and greater psychological balance among trauma survivors (Dekel et al., 2016). This is called “behavioral activation”, a fancy term that refers to turning to activities like this, aligned with our own interests, that generate good feelings. Don’t underestimate them. They not only reduce stress, but they also free up your mind for dealing with what needs to be dealt with (Bonanno and et al, 2010).
Develop your sense of control
Even when you feel helpless, there are still things that lie in your control. You can still find time for laughter, take your medicine on time and in the right dosage, get the information you need to protect yourself and your loved ones from the virus, and ensure you don’t overexpose yourself to the media and increase your stress (Gardin, 2020).
The virus is real, but it doesn’t help to push anxiety away with all your strength; letting it overwhelm you doesn’t either. Rather, it is question of learning to accept your negative emotions, knowing they are there and what their content is, but not letting it keep you from living your life. Keeping a diary of your experience of and reflections on events has also proven valuable for certain disaster survivors in achieving this. Meditation, and in fact any quiet, absorbing activity where you focus on the present moment, such as drawing or jigsaw puzzles, which help you to do this.
Practice loving-kindness meditation
This consists of turning positive feelings (tenderness, happiness, warmth, compassion) towards oneself, by focusing on the heart area and then extending outward to others and the world. This practice alone has been shown to augment well-being and reduce depression, while increasing social connectedness (Galante et al., 2014), even with only a 7-minute daily session. You can find a loving-kindness meditation I have made available for free on my website here.
The human race has lived through innumerable tragedies, and this has permitted us to learn from them to develop strategies. They can help us to focus on our values and find meaning, to recover and become resilient even in a pandemic.
Note the two free audio recordings mentioned above
You will also find there a third free audio recording to provide help during these difficult times:
- Bonanno, G.A. et al, 2010. ‘Weighing the costs of disaster: Consequences, risks, and resilience in Individuals, Families, and Communities’. Association for Psychological Science, 11 (1), 1-49.
- Brooks, S.K., Webster et al, G.J., 2020. ‘The psychological impact of quarantine and how to reduce it: rapid review of the evidence’. The Lancet, 395, 912–920.
- Dekel, S. et al, 2016. ‘Posttraumatic growth in trauma recollections of 9/11 survivors: a narrative approach’. Journal of Loss and Trauma, 21, 315–324.
- Galante, J. et al, 2014. ‘Effect of kindness-based meditation on health and well-being: A systematic review and meta-analysis’. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 82, 1101–1114.
- Gardin, D.R., 2020. ‘The novel coronavirus (COVID-2019) outbreak: Amplification of public health consequences by media exposure’. Health Psychology, 39(5), 355-357.
- Parker, A.M. et al, 2015. ‘Posttraumatic stress disorder in critical illness survivors: a meta-analysis’. Critical Care Medicine, 43, 1121–1129.
- Polizzi, C. et al, 2020. ‘Stress and coping in the time of COVID-19: pathways to resilience and recovery’. Clinical Neuropsychiatry, 17 (2), 59-62.