Written by: June Fong, Forensic Psychologist
Lessons from the past
As we come to the final stretch (hopefully) of the circuit breaker, we find ourselves in the race against time to find a cure or vaccine against COVID-19, not just for the Physical Health but also for Mental & Emotional Health too. Research from the areas of stress and disaster management (e.g. Reich, 2006) points to a few tried-and-tested strategies that might help to inoculate our minds against fear and distress.
The 4 ‘C’s against COVID-19:
Loss of control is perhaps the single biggest contributor of stress in this current pandemic, on an individual as well as societal level. Things that we took for granted before – leaving the house, having a meal, hugging our children – have now been completely upended. On the global stage, this is also playing out in how world leaders are giving conflicting messages about what to do, and how to bring the situation “under control”.
Though we may not be able to look too far ahead into the future, one can still maintain some sense of predictability and control by setting small, short-term goals to get through the day or week. This can range from simple things like getting enough sleep, limiting exposure to the news, taking medications as prescribed, going for a short walk daily with the necessary precautions in place, prioritizing and completing one or two tasks on your to-do list.
Perhaps like me, you were filled with dread at the start of this Circuit Breaker, wondering how you were going to fit work, caregiving, cooking AND cleaning into a day, every day. Or perhaps you were optimistic that you were going to have so much time to read, exercise, bake, lose 5kg, write a novel or Marie-Kondo your entire apartment. Regardless of which mode you were in, it is likely that you have over-planned and overscheduled yourself in an attempt to regain some semblance of “normalcy”, “efficiency” and “productivity” à la pre-COVID days, only to feel disappointed in what you could reasonably accomplish.
Instead, consider scheduling just one or two activities a day which enhance both mastery as well as pleasure. Something like doing laundry may give you a sense of accomplishment, but not necessarily pleasure, whilst something like having a cup of bubble tea may make you feel good, but “accomplishes” nothing. Yet, both might be necessary to help you get through the day. By setting aside old notions of what it means to be in control, and paying attention to your current needs, you will be developing new routines and habits that fit with what is happening around you, not what you think should happen.
Isolation is the defining characteristic of COVID. It goes against the grain of what we, as humans, need and crave. This also sets COVID apart from other disasters, be it natural (e.g., earthquakes) or man-made (e.g. 9-11). In the aftermath of such crises, people typically rally together to provide aid, assistance and above all, human connection. Yet, we are being asked to literally distance ourselves now, if we care about someone at all. Many of my clients, who had limited social supports to begin with, feel even worse about reaching out to someone during these times as they think “everyone is going through a difficult time, I should not be imposing on others”. In fact, some clients have even reported being unwilling to “burden” their therapist at a time when they need to talk to someone most!
If you are someone struggling with social isolation, do consider giving these hotlines a call. Trained volunteers man these chatlines and can refer you for more specialized help if necessary. Think of it as your 3am friend. I have spoken to so many clients who, despite being surrounded by family and “friends”, admit that they do not feel safe enough to open up and be vulnerable in front of another. Ironically, it is sometimes easier to confide in a total stranger, than someone you know, whom you fear might judge you. In addition, many mental health professionals are also offering sessions and support groups online. On the other hand, if you are someone fortunate enough to have navigated these times relatively well, do consider taking the initiative to reach out to a friend, rather than assume that “if they need help, they will call”. This could make all the difference to someone in need. Even small steps such as saying hello to a neighbour, noticing that something seems “off” about your colleague and dropping a text to check in on him/her, or simply listening empathetically to someone can help promote a sense of connectedness.
In psychotherapy, this is what we would call “meaning-making”. Years of trauma research have unveiled something interesting: that people who are exposed to the same traumatic event often have different responses and pathways to recovery. What is the key ingredient that differentiates these groups? The answer may lie in how one makes sense of, or develops a coherent narrative of what has happened. This is more than just about looking on the bright side, or trying to find the silver lining in all of this; to do so would invalidate our experiences of pain, grief and fear – grief over what used to be, and fear of what is to come.
Instead, let’s take a leaf from mindfulness and acceptance-based coping, which involves changing how one relates to these emotions, stressors or to uncontrollable events by remaining aware but non-judgmental. As some researchers have noted, the idea is not to strive to change, distract from, or otherwise suppress these emotions and responses. Rather, acceptance-based coping suggests that “it is possible to co-exist with realistic fears, to observe our reactions to them, stand apart from them, and weave a compelling narrative around what constitutes an adaptive response” (Polizzi, Lynn & Perry, 2020). Some guiding questions to help you clarify your personal values in the current context include:
- What are some things that are important to you?
- What makes you feel good, even when confronted with a situation you can’t fully control?
- What do you want other people to say about you and how you responded at this time?
- How do you want to remember what you did or didn’t do?
As a parent, I am completely overwhelmed by the demands of WFH (work from home) and HBL (home based learning). I found myself becoming resentful, even angry, with my children for “bothering” me with the simplest of things when I have ten other “to-dos” to check off my mental list. I snapped at them. I yelled at them. But then I realised that when all is said and done, my children aren’t going to care about whether I kept the house clean, or managed to bake them bread from scratch (I am seriously impressed by friends who are able to do all that, but there is no way I can and that’s fine too!). They are going to remember a stressed-out mother, who constantly brushed them aside with pleas of “not now”, “5 more mins”, “Can’t you see I’m busy?”. Is that what I want for them, for myself, for my family? Perhaps asking ourselves these questions can help us reframe our perspective, and allow us to view COVID through a slightly different lens. Yes, there are still chores to be done, work to get through, but I feel more centered knowing that this too, shall pass, that we are all allowed mistakes, and that each day represents a new opportunity to live as best as I can.
This brings me to my final point, and perhaps the most important one of all – self-compassion. We are our worst critic, and when placed under stress, our negative thoughts become magnified a hundred-fold. These are what I call the 3 horsemen – the “should’ve”, “would’ve”, “could’ve” – voices in our head telling us we should know better, could do better, and would do better if only we were more focused, more patient, less tired, less angsty, etc. Take a step back from these voices, and give yourself permission to just be. Don’t be caught up with the past, or worry about the future, but just focus on your present moment. Be kind to yourself – what would you say to a dear friend who was in the exact same circumstance as you? If you can articulate loving words of kindness and compassion to a friend, why not do that for yourself? Acknowledge that these are all normal reactions in an abnormal time.
Taking the time, even 5 mins a day, to engage in some self-soothing activities is another way of showing compassion to the person who needs it most – you. There are numerous resources to help you fit in bite-sized mindfulness and self-compassion practices in your daily life. I used to regard this as “geez, another thing on my checklist of things to do!”, but you can adapt just one or two things that fit best for you.
These are by no means exhaustive ways of coping during exceedingly trying times, but a few key lessons from the past that still ring true today.
- Polizzi, C., Lynn, S.J., Perry, A. (2020). Stress and Coping in the Time of COVID-19: Pathways to Resilience and Recovery. Clinical Neuropsychiatry, 17 (2), 59-62.
- Reich, J. W. (2006). Three psychological principles of resilience in natural disasters. Disaster Prevention and Management: An International Journal, 15(5), 793-798.