Leaning into post-pandemic growth
“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”
~ Victor Frankl, Man’s Search For Meaning
Recently, I saw a t-shirt featuring the DeLorean from the Back to the Future movies with the words “Marty, whatever happens don’t ever go to 2020!”. I smiled and then thought ‘…or 2021’. For the past 18 months we’ve been living through lockdowns, quarantining, social distancing, mask wearing, hygiene hypervigilance, cancelled plans, family separations, isolation, working remotely, home schooling, job insecurity, financial hardship, health complications and even death. Some days it felt like we were speaking a new language as we tried to make sense of our altered reality. Think about it, before the pandemic, did you know what a ‘Rona was? How about a covidiot or a quarantini? Down here in Australia, it feels like we’re still living on tenterhooks as we bounce between periods of ‘normality’ and snap lockdowns. At the time of writing, most of Australia is subject to stay-at-home orders, with new variants of the Covid-19 virus significantly outpacing vaccine availability. Of course, pain and suffering are a part of life and none of us are immune. However, the pandemic-related impacts are being felt alongside the ‘ordinary’ challenges, stresses and worries we experience in our daily lives. We’ve been living in very uncertain times and many of us have struggled to deal with the uncertainty and situations beyond our control. To quote Marty McFly: It’s been “heavy”!
Since the pandemic started, many mental health practitioners have experienced increased demand for mental health services with waiting periods regularly extending to several weeks and beyond. We’ve been learning on the fly, along with our clients, how to effectively use telehealth platforms to maintain service delivery to our communities (especially for the most vulnerable). I couldn’t stifle my laughter when a colleague / friend told me that she started a Zoom session with a client and was mortified to learn (partway into the session) that her daughter had changed the default background to a picture of One Direction. Imagining Niall and Harry as co-therapists whilst a client lies on a couch and reveals the “story of my life” was good for my mental health (not sure about my friend’s though). All jokes aside, whilst telehealth is a very useful tool in times like these, it can alter the energy of the therapeutic process, the assessment of risk and the type of therapy undertaken. However, when faced with change and challenges, we can resist, or we can adapt to the new landscape (even though it feels scary and uncomfortable).
In the early phases of the pandemic, adults and children alike reported feelings of worry, panic, overwhelm, depression, anger, confusion, and loneliness as the pandemic disrupted our established routines and affected our sense of safety and stability. Clients who’d previously experienced painful situations (e.g., domestic abuse or traumatic events) or had pre-existing mental health problems were particularly vulnerable and required additional support. As the pandemic lingers, the prolonged exposure to stress (and novel situations related to the pandemic) continues to take a toll on our mental health and wellbeing. Now, clients are currently reporting a broad range of situational stressors and adjustment issues including unemployment, returning to normalised working conditions, relationship difficulties, ongoing separation from loved ones, chronic loneliness, loss of freedom, addiction, feelings of helplessness and lack of meaning and purpose in life.
In recent weeks, I’ve listened as people have expressed that the pandemic has left them feeling broken and lost. For many, the Covid-19 pandemic has gradually worn down their layers of resilience and exposed their very vulnerable core. This week in Australia, we’ve expressed anger, frustration and disappointment as our politicians continue to argue amongst themselves about who’s to blame for ongoing outbreaks, the timing of lockdowns, and a paucity of appropriate vaccines. Meanwhile our frontline health workers are still scrambling tirelessly to decipher the politicians’ mixed messages to look after us the best they can. And the rest of us? I think we’re just trying to get on with things whilst trying to bear the disappointments of disrupted plans, missed time with loved ones and delayed aspirations. For me, the pandemic has often felt like a labyrinth with the only way out being to go through it, hoping against hope to find my way back to something familiar and safe.
It’s hard to imagine that good things can come from this pandemic given the price we’ve already paid as individuals, organisations, communities, and nations. Despite the mental health challenges resulting from the pandemic, for some people, this time has also been a period of ‘post-traumatic growth’. Much like a bush fire is integral to stimulating growth and regeneration in a forest, negative experiences can be a catalyst for positive changes in our lives. As a therapist, I’ve been privileged to bear witness to people reframing their negative experiences, recognising or rediscovering their personal strengths, exploring new possibilities, improving their relationships, expressing gratitude for their lives, and growing spiritually.
Post-traumatic growth often happens naturally, without therapy or other formal interventions. It can be nurtured by:
1) Acknowledgement: recognise that the pandemic has been stressful and traumatic and shaken some of our core beliefs, e.g., our assumptions about safety, security, predictability, and control. Before the pandemic, few of us could have imagined that our lives could be endangered by a virus like Covid-19, or that our social and economic systems could be subject to such dramatic upheaval. In our minds, a virus like Covid-19 was an abstract concept perhaps confined to other countries or other eras in time. Most of us didn’t have a reference point for an event like the pandemic, and it was frightening to navigate through from this place of confusion and uncertainty. When our core beliefs (i.e., the long-held assumptions we make about ourselves, others, and the world we live in) are challenged, we tend to engage in anxious, repetitive, and often unhelpful thinking loops to deal with feelings of stress, worry and sadness [read more about this here https://www.ftspsychology.com/post/getting-good]. We’ve been forced to re-evaluate who we are, the kind of people we allow in our lives, our worldview, and our vision for the future. This type of reflection and introspection can be a painful and unsettling. However, recognising the positive impacts of the pandemic (as well as the negative impact) can usher in growth and new opportunities.
2) Acceptance: Don’t resist change! Whilst change may be inconvenient, uncomfortable, and painful, it is a part of life. Practising acceptance allows us to keep our pain from becoming suffering. This doesn’t mean that we succumb, become helpless, or feign happiness about our situation. Instead, we accept the reality of the situation by acknowledging what we can’t change or control. If we get stuck in thinking about what “should have been,” “it’s unfair!” or “why me?”, we can become immobilised by painful feelings including unhappiness, bitterness, anger, and sadness and intensify our suffering. We can’t deny the facts of reality of our current situation. Covid-19 is here and, as we’re learning, it’s going to stick around for a while yet. It’s been scary, stressful and has thrown many lives into disarray. But no matter how unfair it is (or has been), no matter what plans we’ve had to change, the jobs it’s taken, or the loved ones we’ve lost, we can’t change the fact that it is here and it’s impacting our lives. Accepting these facts are challenging and painful. By focusing on what we can control (e.g., thoughts, choices, and actions), we can better harness our mental and physical energy to cope with the situation and take care of ourselves more effectively.
3) Mindfulness: Here in Australia, the effects of the pandemic continue to unfold rapidly and unpredictably as information (and misinformation) around vaccine availability, stay at home orders and public policy permeates our zone of awareness. Understandably, we may be feeling anxious, stressed, or despondent right now. Most of us have never lived through something like this, so course we’ve been feeling ‘it’ (whatever that feeling may be). Fear and anxiety are adaptive responses that direct our attention to the appropriate actions we should take to keep ourselves and others safe and healthy. However, fear and anxiety can quickly escalate to the point where our feelings are no longer helping us and instead are harming our health and wellbeing. Mindfulness promotes enhanced awareness of our own emotional state (and that of others), the quality of our thoughts, and the impact on our bodies. The more we can bring our focus to the present moment (especially when we’re nearing our breaking point), the more capable we become of regulating our acute stress response (i.e., ‘fight, flight, or freeze’). Even brief interruptions to our acute stress response via mindfulness-based practices allow us to consciously choose where we are placing our attention. In these brief moments of rest and reprieve, we find we’re able to make better choices that aid ourselves and those around us. There are a plethora of Apps and resources on the internet that provide instruction on mindfulness-based practices (e.g., https://blog.smilingmind.com.au/how-mindfulness-can-help-during-coronavirus).
4) Connection: Humans are hard-wired to connect and to seek comfort and support from their tribes. The pandemic has exposed some of our deepest vulnerabilities and we’ve been prompted to reflect on our basic needs and reevaluate how we can get our needs met in a healthy way. More now than ever, we should be embracing interdependence (i.e., the comingling of teamwork and independence) and allowing others to support us when we need help. We’re fortunate to have a veritable smorgasbord of communication platforms available to us so we can stay connected to family, friends, and colleagues. For those of us that prefer face to face interactions over messaging and social media-based communication, maintaining social connection during the pandemic has been challenging. However, video conferencing technology (e.g., Zoom) offers the next best available option as we can see faces (and facial expressions), read body language, and listen to the tone and cadence of voices.
5) Movement: Human bodies are designed for movement. We’re not meant to be stuck in an inert state, whether it be in our environment or within ourselves. Any kind of physical movement facilitates the release of excess energy that accompanies the acute stress response. It goes without saying that regular exercise is key to maintaining good mental health and wellbeing. However, movement is not about exercising more; it’s about being present and consciously aware of what our bodies are experiencing and what they’re asking for. Mindful movement is a practice of regularly checking in with your body and listening to what it’s asking for in terms of physical activity. It’s not about forcing your body into doing something that you feel you ‘should’ be doing. For example, at the height of the pandemic when Queensland was subject to a stay-at-home order, I started a practice of cranking some tunes and dancing around my apartment for a few minutes at the end of a busy day to discharge pent up energy. For me, this form of mindful movement was as effective as yoga or running was my friends. With any mindful practice, it’s common to experience discomfort as enhanced body awareness provides an opportunity for repressed feelings or experiences to enter our conscious awareness. Therefore, it is important to anchor our experience by pendulating or repeatedly shifting our focus between pain/struggle and ease/flow (e.g., using a practice such as this: https://www.leedsth.nhs.uk/assets/7c353df422/Dropping-Anchor-Russ-Harris-Infographic-.pdf). At first, mindful movement may feel effortful and difficult, but like a bear awakening from a long hibernation, you’ll soon awaken, shake off withdrawal, lethargy and heaviness and move forward.
6) Health and nutrition: We all know that eating well can help us stay healthy and avoid illness. During these challenging times, a healthy approach to food is vitally important to supporting our mental health and wellbeing. Whilst it can be tempting to seek comfort in food or alcohol, focus on choosing and enjoying a wide variety of foods from the 5 food groups every day. Further information can be sourced by Beyond Blue and the Australian Dietary Guidelines (see https://coronavirus.beyondblue.org.au/managing-my-daily-life/coping-with-isolation-and-being-at-home/the-importance-of-eating-well-during-the-coronavirus.html and https://www.health.gov.au/news/health-alerts/novel-coronavirus-2019-ncov-health-alert/ongoing-support-during-coronavirus-covid-19/healthy-eating-during-coronavirus-covid-19-restrictions)
7) Simplicity: Do only what matters. During the pandemic it feels like we’re constantly trying to do ten things at once to stay afloat. For example, trying to make dinner, fold the washing, and watch our kids all while on a work call. Multi-tasking is a modern-day curse that increases stress as we struggle to meet unrealistic expectations. Simplify your life. Slow down. Set achievable goals. Breathe. Be still and relax. When the mind begins to settle and the breath is calm, ask the questions that weigh on your heart and stay open to the response you hear.
A lot of us are still feeling broken and lost and it’s hard to imagine that, eventually, the pandemic will be relegated to the pages of history. Yet, if history has taught us anything, it’s that humans are resilient, resourceful, and regenerative. Even though we’re still living with the unpredictability and uncertainty unleashed by the pandemic, the growing research on post-traumatic growth gives us reason for hope. The hope that, most likely, we’ll emerge from the pandemic stronger, hopefully more appreciative, and capable of thriving again.