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Coping in the Time of COVID-19

Jessie-Anne Bird - Educational Psychologist

COVID-19. The Novel Corona Virus. SARS-CoV-2. Isolation. Social distancing. Quarantine. Lockdown. Telemedicine. Droplet spread. Mortality rate. Morbidity rate. Recovery rate.

Many of us, mental health professionals included, have been plunged into a strange new world, encompassing new vocabulary, and needing to rapidly expand our understanding of medical and immunological terminology. If you are anything like me, this has been a steep learning curve, fraught with tentative steps into a new way of engaging with the world. The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic has pushed many of us to adapt our everyday thinking and behaviour in a remarkably short space of time. This, however, has not been without its impact on mental health.


The COVID-19 pandemic represents many threats to our survival, each with their own traumatic contribution to our psychological functioning. It is here that our internal structures, designed to alert us to danger, make themselves aware, and we find ourselves feeling the effects of strain. Anxiety, while at times intolerable, is a natural response to trauma and stress, and a psychological mechanism alerting one to danger, and prioritising resolution. In the time of the current pandemic however, we find ourselves without identifiable solutions, or knowledge of an end date. This inability to enact change on our current circumstances, coupled with the need to live within the confines of restrictions and regulations, can leave us feeling as though our lives are beyond our control. This experience of chaos and unpredictability can feel overwhelming, as it impacts directly on our belief that we are able to protect ourselves and our loved ones from danger. Without the ability to realise personal agency, feelings of powerlessness persist.


In a way that for many of us is unprecedented, we find ourselves faced with palpable risk to our physiological health - the risk of contracting the virus. While the severity of the illness appears to be inconsistent and unpredictable, our innate need to protect ourselves and our loved ones cannot be denied. Fears for our own health, as well as the health of our loved ones may impact our ability to feel safe and secure in the environments we once found familiar. Measures to avoid infection may lead us to avoid contact with those whom we would usually turn to for support, and subsequent feelings of isolation may trigger existing anxieties related to loss and separation.


Our ability to respond to these anxieties may be impacted by our early experiences of trauma and separation. Our relationships with our primary caregivers provided lessons that follow us indelibly into adulthood. Through these, we learnt how to navigate human relationships, and this shaped our perception of the world. Our ability to rely on others for support and to trust that our environment will keep us safe, as well as navigate through times of stress and danger, finds its roots in early development. Did we learn that in times of need, we could be held and helped? Or did we find that waiting for comfort was a lonely and thankless process? How does this influence our ability to process our current concerns?


It becomes important then to examine the influence of our pre-programmed reactions on our current interpretation of events. Often, as we enter “survival mode”, our form of reacting reverts back to that of an earlier version of ourselves. Quite simply – we can regress.


The nature of this regression will play an important role in determining our response, and our ability to make meaning of our circumstances, and our belief that we can return to a feeling of safety. Attachment theory suggests that when faced with danger, we typically seek proximity to our loved ones – the very act this crisis stops us performing. Additionally, the indication that COVID-19 disproportionately impacts older generations raises fears about the possible losses of parents and grandparents. The resultant increase in anxiety may be complicated by feelings of isolation and loneliness, as well as powerlessness due to our inability to escape the impending risk. Without support, this places us at risk of feelings of hopelessness and depression.


Many of us may have been fortunate to experience the consistent nurturing of a care giver in our infancy, where feelings of distress could be recognised, tolerated, and soothed, and emotional and physiological needs met. If, however, we discovered early on that the world is a dangerous, lonely place, the threat of COVID-19 (and its associated promise to take us from our loved ones) may awaken those early feelings of terror. In the face of current adversity, if a mechanism to reassure and soothe is not available, we may turn to other means to escape the intolerable. Acting out in the form of anger, denial, withdrawal from daily life, as well as reliance on substances to fill the wounds of our earlier experiences can become all too common.


Modern psychology posits that our early childhood, while instrumental in our personality and response formation, does not cast our fate in stone. We retain the ability to heal and adapt throughout our lifespan, although this often requires intense introspection and support. It is the survival through adversity which allows for the development of resilience – our ability to adapt and grow in the face of difficulty.


So how do we develop this resilience? How do we combat these feelings of loss and fear? How do we calm the instinctual need for fight or flight in the face of danger? While answering these questions is a deeply personal and individual journey (on which we must all embark), it may be useful to begin by acknowledging the losses the pandemic has come to represent. The loss of a way of life, of freedom. The loss of a feeling of certainty of the future. The loss of economic and financial status. The loss of security in tomorrow. It is only once we begin to process these fears and anxieties, that we may be able move forward to the next step of this journey, with the potential for hope. It is, perhaps, a mourning process we need to move through – a grieving of the loss of what we took for granted.

If you, or someone you care about needs mental health support during this time, please don't hesitate to reach out to us.

www.jpccc.org.za

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