Silent attacks on our mind: Strategies to cope with COVID-19

Photo by Robert Metz on Unsplash

“I’m doing great.”

If that’s your answer to someone asking you how you’re doing right now, you are either lying to yourself or you’re totally disconnected from the world, says psychotherapist and best-selling author Esther Perel.

This time sucks.

No, the environment will not benefit from this crisis. Just because the economy is on pause and pollution levels are down, we have no reason to assume that things will change after the machines (and planes) are turned on again. Many people will die, and, as always, the poorest countries will be hit the hardest. Social isolation increases depression, domestic abuse, and potentially suicides. In the meantime, a major share of the world’s population will be hit economically.

We’re all coping differently, but effective coping has to start with admitting that things are bad.Before we can admit that, we’re deep in denial and we can’t even to begin to accept this reality, let alone move forward.

On a global scale, people are experiencing a hard-to-place feeling of uneasiness and discomfort. This feeling is grief. Grief about the loss of normal life, economic freedom, the ability to meet with friends. There is also grief about anticipatory grief about an uncertain future. Businesses, schools, and airports may be different after the pandemic. All this discomfort weighs on our minds.

A business school has asked me to give a talk on how to cope with the mental toll of the pandemic, and it’s not an easy task. The crisis has hit me like everybody with isolation and economic uncertainty. I also had to halt my experiments, which will likely delay graduation from my PhD.

Thriving and surviving after a crisis

Perhaps a good place to start is to remember that this crisis is not the first disaster, nor will it be the last, and that disasters have more structure than we might imagine. Hurricane Katrina (~1,800 dead), 9/11 (~3,000 dead), and the Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami in 2004 (~225,000 dead) are not-so-long-ago examples of global scale events that have shaken the world.

Disasters disrupt normal life, and business-as-usual doesn’t work anymore. The world yesterday is nothing like the world today.

We must distance ourselves from our friends and families and change the way we work. When the crisis is over, when the dead are counted, and when the economic bill is posed, the important question then becomes, why do some thrive whereas others merely survive?

When I say thriving, I mean that some people embrace life after the crisis with a zest for life, grateful for new opportunities and eager to make the best of it. Surviving means coming out of the crisis with permanent scars, perhaps unable to function in the new normal.

Why is it, then, that some veterans are able to return to normal life after their deployment and be somewhat okay whereas others can’t begin to adapt to non-war life? Why were some World War 2 survivors able to live a happy life, in spite of the horrors they experienced, whereas others were caught in the experience as a victim that could never escape its past?

The principle of continuity

Haim Omer describes a helpful approach to disaster and trauma management called the Principle of Continuity. He says that in order to come out of the crisis intact, we must have a sense of cohesion in our identities. At all stages of disaster, humans require functional continuity, interpersonal continuity, and historical continuity.

Functional continuity means that we cope with what happened and still manage to function in society—as a mother, a worker and so on—despite the crisis. If we know our role during the disaster, we have purpose and can cope better. When life retains some sense of normal, the amount of uncertainty becomes more bearable, especially when our roles gives us structure. This is why it’s good advice for workers in home offices to keep a schedule.

Relational continuity means that relationships from the past are still meaningful and important in the present. Relationships make key components in the narratives of our lives. In a crisis they can literally save our lives while helping us keep our sense of self. Knowing who we are, in the midst of chaos and uncertainty, is like having an anchor in the stormy sea.

To honor relational continuity, try to stay in touch with your loved ones. Voice chatting while playing video games is great, so is calling people on Skype or the phone.

Finally, historical continuity refers to a sense of sameness in one’s self, family, and community. Who am I before the crisis, and who am I during and after the crisis? Having a sense of cohesion in the narrative, too, improves coping.

Strategies to build resilience during the COVID-19 pandemic

And before I close with some whimsical philosophical outro, here are some no non-sense tips that will help most maintain sanity during the COVID-19 pandemic.  

  • Exercise. Exercise helps with mood levels and resilience in general. Maintaining an exercise regime in this time is essential for physical and mental health. Despite social distancing, you can still run outside or complete home workouts.
  • Diet. With the cafeterias at work, school or daycare closed, many find themselves in a situation where they suddenly have to make food for themselves and others. With many changes going on, eating healthy can be quite the challenge right now. Unemployment or lost income make healthy food less affordable and add to this problem. I’m not a dietitian, so I’ll keep it simple: 1. Get enough veggies and fruit. 2. Have a supply of healthy snacks available at home. 3. Limit processed food. 4. Plan some time in your schedule to make healthy meals.
  • Information. Staying informed is good, but overwhelming yourself with anxiety-inducing stimuli is not. Decide how often you want to check the news today, pick reliable sources like CDC, the WHO, the newsletter from John Hopkins University, or your local health agencies. Limit your time on the news portals.
  • Boundaries. Especially relevant for people sharing a home, who now work from their home office. Let people know when you’re working or when you need time for yourself. With so much change going on, do not rely on people getting your needs without you telling them. Instead, tell people exactly what you need from them.
  • Self-compassion. I wouldn’t be a good self-compassion researcher, if I didn’t remind you that it is essential right now to be kind to yourself. You don’t have to jump on the “I’m going to be hyper productive”-train during the pandemic. Everyone has different circumstances and you should get to decide if you have extra the resources to do more or not. If you like meditation, you can try that. Otherwise, there are many resources online on how to train self-compassion in mini-interventions of 1 to 15 minutes.

Creativity and coping

History has shown that humans are remarkable at coping with hardship. Contrary to common belief, most people react to disasters with neither panic nor numbness. Yes, we see panic buying of toilet paper or pasta. But we also see compassion, love, and creativity unfold to cope with the situation. Many people are scared, overwhelmed, and uncertain about what will happen next. And yet, some our best sides come out during this time.

So yes, this time is hard, and it is important to admit that. We must learn to take care of ourselves so we can stay sane. Then we can do our best to support our loved ones and communities.

Just yesterday, I went for a walk and saw a beautiful example of the kind of creativity we need right now. Our neighbors, dutiful to social distancing, sat by their window having lunch, the window open. Outside, on the stone containers that hold the paper trash to our building, sat two of their friends with takeout. Together but not together, they were having lunch, trying to keep a sense of normal. Relational continuity at its finest.

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