Hi everyone. I hope you’re managing well, and hope also that you’re taking the opportunity to find new ways to thrive. This blog is a long one, so get comfortable. Apparently I have had a lot of thoughts about our world today.
A global pandemic as a result of a coronavirus is now part of all of our personal stories. We are living in a world that is unfamiliar to nearly all of us. We in this country have never been so broadly impacted by a pandemic.
Rest assured, you are not alone in the discomfort that you feel these days. The fear, the confusion, the tension, the stress, and the sadness that you feel are shared by nearly everyone. At least by those that are paying attention. And this is all new to us too. This experience is changing our world, our perceptions, our awareness, and our relationships with others and ourselves.
It is not difficult to hear about the medical, social, and economic impacts of COVID19. What I don’t see discussed a whole lot are the psychological impacts of this pandemic and the societal precautions most of us are taking as we attempt to prevent rapid spread. Yet, our psychology, or mental/emotional state is a major character in our lives. We are steeped in it and cannot free ourselves from it. So for this reason, the psychological impact should be talked about.
Now, there are many people who have discovered that they have been able to adapt to the losses we have all experienced. Many have realized their primary partners are good, flexible, considerate people who believe in working as a team. Many have realized that being at home with their children has strengthened their relationships with them. While others are realizing that their jobs don’t have to define their identity. Now that the initial shock of our restrictions and distancing has worn off, individuals and families are realizing how creative and involved they can be. This is wonderful and should be cherished, and even serve to transform their lives going forward.
But not everyone is discovering such positivity during this pandemic. Many are suffering and these are just some of the ways:
- Perhaps the most obvious effect is fear of infection. The disease COVID19 is caused by a current variant of the coronavirus, a class of virus that is relatively common. This variant is much more deadly than the variants we are used to. Despite initial skepticism (some of which still goes on), we are seeing that this virus is very contagious and particularly dangerous for older adults and those with already ailing health. And we aren’t too clear on who that includes – as we hear more and more accounts of young adults getting gravely ill with COVID19. And so we are now carrying around concern regarding a new threat. Our minds scream “contaminated!” every time we touch a door knob, faucet handle, our mail, and the items we are having delivered. Since we have recently been directed to wear masks when out of our home, it’s easy to believe the very air we breathe has become a disease vector. Fear being one of the most primal emotions, it is very easy for us to spiral out into panic and anxiety because it feels like danger is all around us.
- Loneliness. The best societal response we have to handle this pandemic, in light of the lack of sufficient testing and treatment capabilities, is social distancing, or isolation. Because we are all potential vectors of infection, especially since there is a contagious incubation period and that some people may be asymptomatic or manifest only mild symptoms, we can’t be sure if we are passing the coronavirus on to others. And so we separate from our fellow humans. We stand apart, stop hugging, stop shaking hands, stop getting together. And this act of social solidarity could easily break our hearts. Healthy relationships, opportunities to gather, finding “our people” are all hallmarks of good mental health. Community, especially one where we feel genuinely accepted gives us the much needed space and courage to be authentically ourselves. And now we must avoid this specific form of goodness. Many people are finding themselves feeling lost, feeling abjectly alone. We might get crushed under the weight of this solitude, losing track of time, of self-care practices, of withdrawing even further from even electronic means of interaction. Some might catch themselves believing that their friends must not have really cared, since no one has reached out. Doubt, shame, and insecurities can bloom into the space our friends once held.
- Anger as a coping mechanism. Some people react to their fear with anger. When feeling vulnerable and powerless, we may seek someone to get angry at. Anger, while still an unpleasant emotion, tends to be a much better experience than fear because anger comes with the delusion of power. Thus we may seek comfort in our rage and strike out at people so as to avoid experiencing our own fear. Perhaps the most tragic example of this is the increase in racist violence again people of Asian descent; blaming them for the virus spread or believing they are infected because they are Asian. We also see this as a reaction to the close quarters of our quarantines. Families, friends, and roommates everywhere are finding themselves suddenly intolerant of their cohabitants – bothered by each other’s behaviors, snapping at each other, all out verbal fights, and sometimes abuse. There has been a growing concern for victims of domestic violence as they are made to “shelter in place” with their aggressor (keep in mind, while physical violence is still illegal and will be prosecuted, there are many forms of non-physical violence that the police will do nothing about). Volatility born out of fear can lead to very damaging, if not dangerous, outcomes.
- Despair. More and more people are discovering that their average set of coping skills are poorly adept at handling the situation of our world today. All through our lives we are taught, and often figure out for ourselves, how to cope with stressors in life. This situation is so novel, the majority of our coping skills are failing us. Prior to the pandemic, we typically found soothing in gathering with friends, engaging in exercise or other physical activity, or seeking cultural experiences like museums, concerts, gallery showings, or festivals. Those external events have all been taken from us. As we have attempted to slow the spread of this coronavirus, we have restricted ourselves from many of the means we used to cope with stress. This leaves us feeling powerless, afraid, hopeless, overwhelmed, despondent, and desperate. For many, this situation exacerbates the psychological and emotional distress that they were already struggling with prior to the pandemic. We are being made painfully aware that most of our coping skills are not as robust and effective as we once thought.
- Financial ruin. While this is technically an economic impact, money has worked its way deep into our collective psyche. Not only is money a necessary factor in the “goods and services” equation, but industrialization has made money itself a “need”. Poverty, broke-ness, and living paycheck-to-paycheck are already well documented toxins to psychological health. The economic impact of this pandemic is exacerbating the financial anxiety the overwhelming majority of us already live with. Small businesses, often labors of love, are collapsing. Financial concerns are directly tied to our sense of being able to acquire some our basic Masloweian needs (food, shelter, water (can you believe some people are having their water shut off?!)) as well as medication and necessary medical procedures. Thus, financial threats are life threats, especially now.
- Et cetera. Seriously, et cetera. This list is not exhaustive.
Now, there are all sorts of concrete suggestions for managing these impacts. But that is not what this blog is about. The internet is full of rather good and helpful advice on how to get through these experiences in simple and practical ways. I could tell you to:
- Trust the science. Stop listening to non-experts and opinion pieces. Follow published reports by the CDC and the WHO, because they are all we have and you have to trust someone. So, trust the science.
- Ask for connection. Reach out to your friends for online connection or socially distanced gathering. Do a google search on how to make new connections in the midst of your social distancing. Or remind yourself every day that this will end and you can bear it.
- Stop being afraid to admit you’re afraid. Stop being an asshole and recognize that your fear is turning into a toxic anger. Own that shit!
- Remind yourself that this will pass. Do a google search on finding new distractions and coping skills during a pandemic. Research some mindfulness techniques.
- Reach out for financial consultation. Call all your billing companies and defer your payments. Reorganize your budget and reprioritize your life.
- Et Cetera…
I could further elaborate on each of these suggestions. I could guide you on how to approach each of these things from a problem solving way. But that isn’t what this blog is about. Google, the CDC, your bank or your financial advisor all have better suggestions than I could give you. So I respectfully direct you to them.
In this blog, I’m suggesting that this is a time to look at something deeper.
An Unconscious Surge
The negative psychological impacts of this pandemic extend beyond the five I mentioned above. We are all feeling the strain of this situation and we are all experiencing unique struggles in response to it. And the uniqueness of our response is defined by the uniqueness of our personality, our psychological makeup. And so now I think there is some value in discussing the psychological processes that are underlying the effects discussed above. When our coping skills fail and fear overwhelms our general ability to engage in the world, all sorts of psychological material surges forward from the unconscious; from the section of our personality that we are barely aware exists. Like our coping skills discussed above, our egos are normally bopping around holding back uncomfortable or disturbing elements of our unconscious selves. When the ego is exhausted (due to strain caused by something like, let’s say, a global pandemic) it’s ability to do this weakens and all the heretofore suppressed fears, insecurities, prejudices, and resentments spill forward. We then defensively channel these unconscious disturbances out onto others, the opposing political party, or the world. Or we attempt to numb them away with harmful distractions or drugs, recreational or prescription.
So, what is to be done?
Conveniently, there is a wealth of articles and advice online on how to approach this with external means. Suggestions on how to start hobbies, or do different things, or access your social distractions via webcam. All of these are fine ideas, and often effective at injecting a dose of positivity and connectedness into our isolation.
But there is another opportunity as well. All of the uncomfortable material that is coming forward serves as an invitation for us to get to know ourselves on a level that is more deep than we may be used to. We are forcibly encountering parts of ourselves and as uncomfortable as they may be, taking the time to look at them can strengthen our sense of ourselves and lead to a better relationship with our psyches.
What does this look like?
Well, at first, let’s collect some information. What are we possibly learning about ourselves?
Let’s look at your solitude. How are you handling the loneliness? If you don’t have roommates or are not in a partnered relationship, how are you experiencing your aloneness? Do you see it as an opportunity to read, craft, or relax? Does it feel like doors have opened up and pressure relieved? Or is it oppressive? Are you feeling the stark lack of connection and interaction like a thirst or a longing? Has waking up in your home or apartment filled you with dread because you are painfully aware that these walls will be most of what you see for the entire day? People today are more and more aware of their personality in terms of “introvert” and “extrovert.” Where do you fall within these classifications? I have seen memes in which introverts humorously exclaim “I have been preparing for this my entire life.” But professionally I am even hearing that introverts are feeling the pangs for human connection. This is a time to learn something new about yourself. Look at what solitude does to you and make note. Do more than simply judge it as “this is great!” or “this is torture!” This is a time to discover what relational connection means to you; what role does it play in your sense of self, how healthy is that role?
Think about your relationship, if you’re in one. If you notice that tension and frustration is building up between you and your significant other, what is that saying about the nature of your connection with them? About the degree to which you have previously relied on “nights out” with friends or other forms of getting “space” from your chosen partner? I challenge you not to minimize this experience as “we’re just getting cabin fever” or “we’re just not getting our own space right now.” Look at how you are communicating; at what you hold back or how open you may or may not be. What does that say about how much emotional trust you have in your partner? Or what is the status of your attachment to them? I know these aren’t comfortable things to look at, and a busy life affords us with ample opportunity to avoid looking at and addressing them. But we are now in a state where looking at these things as they rise to the surface may give you the opportunity to see what needs repairing in your relationship. What would it be like to work up the courage to sit down with each other and talk about emotional distance and frustrations. Put your pride aside and open yourself up to constructive criticism by asking your partner, “what things do I do that make you feel unheard, unimportant, unloved, or taken for granted” and maybe muster up the guts to say “I’m sorry.” Read the “love languages” book and talk about how you each experience and express love (note: while I don’t believe the “5 Love Languages” coined by Chapman are the end-all-be-all of relational theory, they do present a very nice, simple way to engage each other and talk about the relationship). This can be the beginning of you two making the choice to improve things so that your partnership is more whole and fulfilling.
Think about your daily routine and your connection to it. Has the practice of staying at home, or the generalized upheaval to your routine had a profound emotional impact on you? You may be discovering that you have an emotional reliance on routine and habit. Has your routine inadvertently become your set of coping skills? I saw a meme the other day that illustrated this point rather well. It said, “I never realized how much I relied on going to the grocery story for my sanity.” People everywhere are discovering that they had built a structure of emotional stability onto the mundane tasks of life, and that these tasks make for a poor foundation of stability. They believed that contentment was built on daily routine, rather than an internal connection to deeper, more meaningful aspects of their personality. I suppose we might say, “pandemics and the current state of the world aren’t going to be the norm (yet?) and so why not rely on external routine for emotional stability?” Well, simply put, because the way I’m talking about is better! Building our emotional stability on internal, psychological foundations is better because then we are building it on firm, level, stable, and reliable ground.
Having healthy external coping skills is a great thing. They are a very necessary tool to navigate life today. If you go to yoga classes, or have a running club, work it out at a cross fit gym, or go bike riding, or clubbing, or take classes, or find interesting MeetUps, then you are doing awesomely. Those are great ways to de-stress and find yourself again in the midst of the noise of life. My only challenge to you is: can you add some internal, self-sourced coping skills to that mix? When you are suddenly not allowed to do your chosen activities, and thus your chosen coping skill, do you find that your uncomfortable emotions, negative thinking patterns, and limited frustration tolerance all overwhelm you? This is why exploring your inner world and finding the way to grounding and strength from within is so important. Generally speaking, when we carry a sense of assurance based on psychological factors, we are more resilient, more adaptable, and ultimately more psychologically authentic. And it is important to note that` this doesn’t mean you don’t experience hardship. This doesn’t mean that you will no longer feel fear, frustration, helplessness, despondence, or pain. It means you will be better able to weather those experiences because of a solidly established sense of who you are. So if you are discovering the things I mentioned above about yourself, then consider seeking out some psychological assistance, particularly with someone who specializes in “depth psychology.” Accept that you may have built your sense of emotional stability on “shaky ground” and make the choice to delve deeper into your psyche, learn more about who you are, and build yourself up from there.
I am not going to write much about this, because this is something you can read a lot about elsewhere. But suffice it to say this quieting of our lives is without a doubt an opportunity to grow. Online educational programs everywhere are offering discounts or free courses. People are experimenting with new crafts and are engaging with their children in more relational ways than their previous routine would allow. And all of this is awesome. If this period of social distancing is giving you the impetus to learn something new, that is awesome and you should momentarily appreciate your ability to self-motivate and take advantage of this time and space for self enhancement.
But what if your discovery is that you are not good at self-motivating. What if your discovery is that outside of your routine and the structure of your pre-COVID life you genuinely struggle with what is called “self activation”? Then I would tell you that this is an aspect of your psychological make up that was previously obscured by the noise of living and is now revealed to you. You could certainly find some mediocre solace in telling yourself, “I can’t wait till things are back to normal” as a hope that these uncomfortable discoveries will return to obscurity. Or you can take note of these discoveries as future projects for self enhancement. Write them down or commit them to memory with all due curiosity, saying, “well, I didn’t know that about myself. That’s somewhat disappointing. I wonder what that is all about and how I might transform beyond those limitations.”
Now, it may seem to you that I spent most of this time, all of the time you spent reading this, talking about behaviors and patterns that are less than stellar. I may come off as being critical or unnecessarily negative. I hope you can see that highlighting the negative is often the way to enlightenment. We can only really tell where we can improve if we courageously and compassionately look at the things we don’t want to look at. Change can only happen after ownership, and ownership can’t happen if we ignore or avoid. To paraphrase a theme Jung often talked about, “the gold is in the shit.” This means that there is always something deeply psychologically valuable at the core of our suffering. And I’m telling you that the uniqueness of this pandemic is providing many of us the unique opportunity to root around in that “shit” and find some “gold” that can transform who we know ourselves to be.