April, 2020 – Five key challenges to psychological stability raised by the pandemic:
1. Uncertainty about the future. When and how will this end and what will come next?
2. Inability to grieve effectively. How do we mourn so many losses at once: people, financial security, geographic home base, even core identity as workers who have schedules, co-workers, routines?
3. Separation from the company of others and the rituals of community and grief.
4. Anxiety that has no destination or end point. Ever-anticipatory anxiety becomes corrosive, enervating, exhausting, and just as destructive as immediate threats.
5. Social-distancing that merges into confinement. Relationships transform from cozy to claustrophobic; conflicts left to die of benign neglect re-emerge and demand solutions that may not exist.
I could go on, and I’m sure you have many more examples in mind. But what is the antidote to becoming overwhelmed? Diverting ourselves from our worst imaginings of what our future portends is a good temporary fix. Acknowledging in words our most raw and even primitive fears, impulses, and fantasies can redirect behaviors that are self-destructive. Mindfully sifting how much stress we can afford to feel at any given moment can stave off other stressors without trying to deny them.
Maintaining our psychological health in the time of Covid requires resilient defenses. Just as a soldier must prepare for battle with mind, body and spirit, we must prepare for the battle of anticipatory anxiety in a similar way. Alas there is not boot camp. There is, however, the option of turning our efforts to strategies and acting on them. Going it alone without a plan is not a plan. So these are my recommendations to the challenges cited above.
1. Uncertainty: do not speculate. Defend against dwelling on possibilities. When the situation becomes actionable, you will act.
2. Losses: do not be a stoic. Call people, go on the internet, talk and talk about all you are feeling. If the listener is of no help – meaning they may pile their own anxieties on your own – cut it short and call someone else.
3. If you have a therapist, make online appointments. Your therapist should know why your anxiety is running wild in a particular direction. Hopefully she will lead you back to the actual anxiety of now, and help you process it. If you don’t have a therapist, get one via telehealth.
4. Confinement: bad dreams are filled with being stuck in some awful circumstances. Details differ but the terror of helplessness to escape is consistent. Make your escape in waking life into whatever distracting activity you can, no matter how pointless. The internet is full of online trivia games, group singalongs, cooking and yoga and meditating and even charades. If you find yourself heading for a pathological place, take the off ramp. Don’t try to fix it.
Defenses get a bad rap in everyday psychological thinking. They are our friends! It’s how we treat our friends and how they then treat us back. You absolutely can protect yourself with functional defenses as described above, without becoming a defensive person.
*This is a reference to Love in the Time of Cholera, by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, which in turn is a reference to Journal of the Plague Year, by Daniel Dafoe.