Author: Dr. Laura Ellick, Licensed Psychologist
There has been much talk about the COVID-19 pandemic being “unprecedented” and “unlike anything we have ever seen before.” This is the first time (although, I’m afraid, not the last) that we have experienced a national trauma to such a degree: lives have been lost, the economy has struggled, rates of mental illness and addiction have grown, and the country has become polarized around issues of hate. How can we manage and regroup from such an emotionally tumultuous time?
When working with clients, I am very mindful of the fact that COVID has hit every individual in a different way, whether through health issues, loss of employment, or increases in depression and anxiety. When people come to me feeling ashamed that they have started using alcohol to cope, or that they have gained 20lbs during quarantine, I am quick to respond with support and education. If you normally have enough coping skills to deal with a “7” level trauma, but you are confronted with a “9,” there will be a gap between what you are capable of coping with and what life has thrown at you. In that gap is where we develop symptoms. Our symptoms are based on a clever mix of genetics, family culture, environment, and personality. While one person in the family may develop depression, another may start binge eating. I have been telling all of my clients that COVID has pushed every trauma to a “10+.” So, your best friend is struggling with a divorce + COVID, you are mourning the loss of your dog + COVID…any stressor you have is being multiplied by living through and trying to cope with a pandemic. So, why are people struggling because of COVID?
- Human beings like predictability: The difficulty with COVID is that the rules of the game kept changing due to the uncertainty of the virus. When we know that a hurricane is coming and that we will likely be without power for a week or two, we can prepare with the understanding that this is a temporary event with a fixed ending coming soon. We are one year into COVID and still unsure when it will end, a true recipe for anxiety and depression.
- Human beings thrive on structure: Most people tend to eat the same foods, frequent the same places, and follow a general schedule day after day. COVID removed the structure from our day. All of a sudden, we all had 8-10 hours to fill every day, but we weren’t allowed to do the activities that we would normally do in our free time (gym anyone?). We’ve seen an increase in the use of alcohol, drugs, and other maladaptive coping strategies because time tends to pass quicker in these circumstances.
- The trauma of loss: We have lost so many things during this pandemic–our sense of safety and security, the hope that we can protect our family members, our jobs, our identities and, of course, some of us lost friends and family members. While trying to pay bills, homeschool, work, and take care of ill family members, we have also been trying to process loss…not just the loss of life, but the potential loss of a way of life…one in which going to CVS does not instill fear of death from contracting the virus from a random sneeze.
So, what can we do to help cope better and lead to healing?
- Surround yourself with good people: 2020 was a year filled with fear, hate, and extremes of emotion, for multiple reasons. We’ve learned that life can change in an instant and that we can make choices about how we want our lives to play out. Being able to only interact with a small group of people has allowed us to weed out those who have not been good for us. Now is the time, as the country opens up a bit more, to figure out who belongs in your world. Setting appropriate boundaries will save lots of time and heartache later.
- Discover work/life balance: A possible positive outcome of the pandemic is the realization that the office world, as it has traditionally operated, may be extinct. Parents have recognized how important being present for their kids (and for each other) is, and companies have begun to recognize that productivity actually INCREASES when workers have more control over their schedules! A company that takes into account the need to work from home to take care of a family member is investing in its employee. What the company gets back in terms of loyalty (less turnover) is priceless.
- Mental health “counts” so don’t ignore it: When professionals speak about “self-care,” they are really encouraging a focus on mental health. Yes, practicing yoga is good for the body, but it also leads to increased relaxation, which results in decreases in anxiety and overall better sleep and sense of well being. The past year has been (pleasantly) surprising to me in terms of how many people I hear discussing anxiety, trauma, and depression in everyday conversation. Talking more openly about it will result in getting help sooner and reducing suffering and poor quality of life. When parents get help early on, the children benefit as well. Loosening rules related to Telehealth has been positive in bringing treatment to those populations that might not have been able to access quality treatment. Pressure to open schools safely due to the acknowledgement that social interaction and mental health in children is worthy of attention is a big win for our country!
As we come out of one of the toughest years our country (and others) has ever faced, I remain hopeful that we take some of the lessons we have learned and apply them to our new reality. Change brings about the opportunity for growth, but only if we allow it to happen.