This column is an opinion by Dr. Heather Keizer, a clinical psychiatrist and faculty member with the Department of Psychiatry at Dalhousie University.
We’re a year into COVID-19 restrictions and many are fighting a sense of loss, sadness and low energy that can be described as pandemic fatigue.
For some, it has the intensity of grief.
In the wake of these challenging feelings comes a unique opportunity to increase personal resilience, compassion and empathy.
Before COVID-19, those who struggled in social isolation with fears of financial and food insecurity were often the disenfranchised and mentally ill of our communities.
Disorientation, isolation and uncertainty
The feeling of existing in a strange new environment without a clear understanding of what to expect was somewhat unique to refugees and new immigrants to our country.
But today, a year into COVID-19, everyone has experienced disorientation, isolation, and uncertainty to some degree. Some have experienced multiple losses not only with the severe death or illness of loved ones, but with loss of employment, educational opportunities and predictable daily routines.
For the first time, many have confronted their mortality, with a deep sense of helplessness and anxiety.
As we confront our distress, whether large or small, we may apply the classic stages of grief to better understand where we are on the spectrum of response.
A positive and hopeful path forward
Once we have named our distress, a positive and hopeful path forward is to embrace the concept of increasing our personal resilience.
Resilience is defined as an individual’s ability to adapt and persevere through challenging circumstances. In part, personal resilience is the product of genetics and secure, healthy attachments in childhood — predictable and compassionate parenting. But, regardless of early experiences, individuals can enhance their capacities to cope.
Based upon decades of resilience research with survivors of trauma, the following elements can potentially help each of us improve our management of distress through the uncertain times of COVID-19:
- Optimism: Seeking to focus upon positive news and hopeful developments. When fearfully ruminating, refocus on those things which inspire gratitude. The WHO, the CMHA, and the Mayo clinic all suggest that limiting time following social media stories helps reduce anxiety and fear.
- Integrity: Identifying and adhering to a sense of right and wrong. With COVID-19, there has been a window of opportunity for reflection upon personal values and goals. This can lead to the establishment of a strong moral foundation as one builds a plan to adapt to current and future change.
- Belief: Exploration of belief, particularly in a higher power, is a common characteristic of highly resilient individuals. It can provide both context and meaning to navigate suffering and to inspire hope and purpose. While public worship has been limited with COVID-19, connection through the internet for religious and spiritual communities has increased. As well, there is potentially more private time to meditate, pray and explore devotional exercises.
- Altruism: The early COVID-19 hoarding of toilet paper notwithstanding, the development of healthy resilience is enhanced more by selflessness than by selfish self-indulgence. Rather than focusing on what one has lost or upon how others are failing to comply with regulations, seek opportunities to share and to help others to gain a greater sense of personal well-being and social connectedness. Helping others adds meaning and purpose to our lives.
- Acceptance: We gain emotional strength when we practise acceptance of the things we cannot change. The Serenity Prayer is not only applicable to those navigating 12-step addiction programs. It is a simple and profound mantra for all of us during these pandemic days.
- Mission: We are each strengthened by a sense of meaning and purpose, which guides our thoughts and activities. We gain capacity and resilience when we reach beyond our internal struggles to a higher purpose. A mission may be a personal commitment at a local, national or international level and could range from advocacy for educational assistance for one’s child to lobbying for improved low-cost housing to volunteering with an environmental protection agency. Committing to a higher cause can provide both identity and depth to our day-to-day lives. It increases our sense of control and reduces feelings of helplessness and anxiety.
- Social Support: While some people relish the private time that the COVID-19 pandemic has created, all of us require social supports and connections to prosper and grow. On the one hand, now is an opportunity to increase virtual connections and to deepen our close contacts. On the other hand, it is also a time to be diligent about setting emotional boundaries, and limiting or ending contact with individuals who sap our energy, or disrespect or mistreat us. We need to seek relationships with those who appreciate us and we need to protect ourselves and others from mistreatment.
As masks, handwashing and social distancing protect us physically, personal resilience, kindness and compassion protect us emotionally.
If, in the journey to adapt to the new pandemic world, daily sadness never lifts and intensifies to the point of an inability to eat, sleep and work, it is time to seek professional help.
Thoughts about mortality and the purpose and priorities in life are normal and even healthy at this time; making plans to terminate one’s life or getting drunk or high daily to avoid feeling distressed are not.