It’s been two weeks since I am staying at home, working from home and essentially doing everything from home. I was lucky enough to have maintained my therapy session schedule unmodified. If last week only the first 5-10 minutes of the session were spent talking about the new developments, this past week more than half of the session was used to talk about the implications of the coronavirus crisis on my client’s emotional wellbeing and on decatastrophizing the effects that it has on their lives.
This is perfectly understandable as the news of the accelerating number of cases is reaching us on all media. There are a number of articles that talk about the changes that will happen after the crisis around the world and around all disciplines: economy, the way we see work, connection, diseases, hospitals and so on.
This made me wonder about the effects that this crisis will have not only in the short term on our emotional well-being but also in the long run.
Most authorities are so busy saving lives, businesses, and economies as they should, but I believe we should be wondering who is going to work, add value to businesses and drive the economy if humanity will deal with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) like symptoms after this all is over.
Traditionally, PTSD appears in times of high stress, when our lives and security are deeply threatened. I see no reason why this crisis is different. Yes, we are at home, no bullets are going past our heads, we have plenty (maybe even too much) to eat, we have heated homes and the internet at reach. But the essential aspects of stress are still there.
What I see in my clients is that they feel disconnected, they feel fear, they battle an invisible attacker which can kill them or the ones they love, they become suspicious of others, some have trouble sleeping or concentrating, others develop signs of anxiety or depression, feeling sad most of the day and finding little meaning.
Our modern lives may be comfortable, providing material security and comfort but PTSD is not just about the loss of life, but also about the loss of security and stability. The sense that you are not in control is a standing point in the development of PTSD and most of us are feeling out of control these days.
We used to have multiple points of stability and security in our lives: our jobs, our friends, our relationships, our free time to spend how we want it. And this gave us a sense of control over our lives. But then the pandemic comes and suddenly, in a matter of days, our whole life is changed. We cannot leave the house, if we are to leave the house, we need to have a piece of paper stating our purpose and duration out of the house. So we give up our liberties for the good of everybody. This contributes to creating a sense of instability: is this going to be forever, how is this going to affect my activities? is this fair?
We must adapt quickly to a changing environment where work is now entangled in our domestic activities, where routine must be re-done in our lives and where we really don’t know how this will change us and our world.
We are using all of our resources in adapting to this change and to keep our lives most as before. So we feel sad, anxious, panicked, and exhausted. Most of the areas in our lives are affected by this and the usual ways of coping are no longer available.
Panic is not always manifested with shortness of breath, sweating, headaches and the usual suspects. In the past weeks, I saw panic manifesting itself while we are trying to maintain a normal life. So it comes out as anger, sadness, loss of meaning, conflictual behavior, numbing. This is still panic but adapted to suit the changing times.
The need for personal development and the essentials of emotional safety and mental wellbeing is becoming urgent. There are a number of ways in which we can navigate this period. One is to keep a thought journal. In times of stress, especially during out of control situations, our minds create endless scenarios. The reason it does that is it creates an illusion of control. The truth is that it only keeps us in a negative spiral and makes us more prone to anxiety, panic, and false news. Keeping a though journal helps by slowing down the thought process and giving the rational mind time to debate and put these scenarios into perspective.
Another is to differentiate between normal worry and anxiety/ panic. It is natural to feel worried about an uncertain and serious situation like this one. Worry keeps us mobilized and actually helps us stay safe and follow the recommendations. Anxiety and panic, on the other hand, are emotions that block us in never-ending circles of scenarios and catastrophization. These kill our productivity, our routines our sleep and make us more prone to false news, overreacting and negative behavior.
Another good way is to start practicing critical thinking on our thinking. Debating thoughts is one of the most effective tools used in Cognitive Behavioural Therapy and research shows that it is highly effective in decreasing anxiety. What you do is take a piece of paper or open notes and write down your thoughts. Then you start asking questions about that though to test its validity: how do I know that my scenario is true? do I have any proof of that? What does my experience/ the authorities say about that? does it help me to maintain this scenario? What is the most likely scenario?
At last, finding meaning in this crisis is paramount. People cannot exist outside meaning. Meaning is so important that it was added as the fifth stage of grief. Meaning helps us connect and it’s actually the fuel to our emotional safety. What do you want to do with your life? Where do you see yourself after this is over? What will be the first thing that you do when you are free to go wherever? What is that one thing that gives you meaning next week? From big-time meaning to small things, finding something that brings you purpose is what keeps you leveled during hard times.
If people don’t take action now, a great number of us will need emotional healing after the crisis. We need flexible organizations and businesses, and these are all led by emotionally fit people. The time for psychoeducation and emotional safeguarding is now so we can all focus on adapting and re-creating the world after the coronavirus crisis.