Building resilience in crisis
I believe something as life-changing as COVID-19 and what we come to associate it with has the potential to leave its mark - for months, for years. Sadly, for some folk, it will be for the rest of their lives. As it is having such a devastating effect one way or another, it is going to be some time before we see our way out of this crisis.
The idea of having a 'quick fix', getting 'back to normal', welcoming the 'new normal' is in my opinion, convenient sound bites. Whilst there are benefits of being optimistic, it is equally important to be real and prepared.
We already know there are going to be many presentations stemming directly or indirectly from COVID-19 which are going to be around for some time. These may manifest themselves as substance misuse, suicidal ideation, anxiety, depression, domestic violence and severe levels of stress. With the upcoming holidays and subsequent move into autumn and a possible re-emergence of COVID-19, such outcomes could be devastating.
Just as there are various stages of bereavement, there are various stages as to how we behave during periods of crisis - and we can apply them to any significant crisis we face in our lives.
In this case, it's COVID-19.
The impact of COVID-19 on mental health
Initially, we feel uncertain and anxious; a normal reaction. Locked into our homes for fear of catching or spreading a virus is disconcerting, to say the least. As we find out more about the virus, our anxiety may increase or decrease depending on whether the risk to ourselves or our loved ones is deemed high, medium or low. We may then feel the impact of what the virus is doing - shock, pain, disbelief, paranoia. This is when we usually look to our own survival and those of our loved ones. When we feel more positive and stronger, we usually pull together, help each other, start looking outside of ourselves, believing that things will get back 'to normal' and be okay.
When this expectation is not met, we can become disillusioned and frustrated, angry even. We may worry that the services we relied upon will not be able to cope with demand and our long-awaited appointment is postponed yet again, celebrations and birthdays pass by - never to be reclaimed. We may feel misled by false hope. Misinformed, abandoned, forgotten.
Eventually, one way or another, we recover and rebuild. We work through our feeling of loss whilst at the same time moving onto our new life. This is tricky because it can feel like we are facing both ways. Unless we learn to let go of the past, creating a future which is real could prove elusive.
Just now, the present is the only place to be. This phase usually comes into play when we seek outside help because it often feels too hard a path to navigate on our own.
Being 'real' means we have to be prepared to be disappointed and feel let down. When it comes to COVID-19 there still remains an awful lot of uncertainty which could continue even after a vaccine is found. Folk can become disillusioned, feel powerless and trapped and if things go on a downward spiral we can expect an increase in the behavioural issues mentioned earlier.
So what can we do to help?
One thing we can do is build resilience. Resilience happens when the conditions around us are difficult. We may say to ourselves: how on earth am I going to bounce back from this? What is going to happen to me? Resilience builds good habits, so it needs to be worked at and kept in good order. Resilience is a process which ensures we develop good habits so we can have a better future after potentially traumatic events.
By remaining aware, resilient people maintain a sense of control of a situation and think of new ways to tackle their problems. Resilience is important for our own survival because it recognises that life is full of challenges and obstacles.
In order to be resilient, research has shown we need to stop living in the past, move forward and practice mindfulness. This latter activity quietens the mind, calms things down and gives us much-needed headspace. When we are in a negative frame of mind, the emotional system gets aroused and is triggered by stress hormones. So, we need to become more aware of our breathing. We also need to be able to think clearly if we are to problem solve, so it's a good idea to follow a healthy diet, exercise regularly, get sufficient sleep and rest. Meditation can be helpful too.
Optimism gives us energy and a positive attitude to moving forward. It is important to identify our own strengths, clearing away any emotional clutter which can have a significant impact on our well-being. Emotional clutter is the persistent thoughts that are so familiar. Such thoughts may seem like old friends, they have been in your head for so long. They are anything but - they drain your emotional energy and leave you depleted of the inner resources you need for yourself.
If we are to find happiness and make connections we need to search for something which keeps us engaged and hopeful. Often our goals are blown off course so we need to have other strategies in place for the time being. When our way is clear we can give ourselves permission to continue with our path. We can do this by way of connecting with others, by practising self-compassion and reflecting on the good times, taking up new interests, rediscovering old ones.
By sustaining ourselves this way we are creating our own resilience. We are showing ourselves self-compassion.
Resilient people take care of their health, keep stress at bay and clear the mind of anxieties. They are also aware enough to know they need a confidante to point out their flaws and be open to constructive feedback. Checking in with a therapist or coach can be useful - just to ensure that you are heading in the right direction.
So, take a deep breath - practice slowly by normalising your breath, quiet your mind and relax your body. Think of something you are proud of; that makes you feel good. This builds optimism. Focus on those with whom you connect or relate.
This can give us the hope and the motivation we need for us to be resilient in the face of a possible second and subsequent wave of the virus. Getting support can also help you to build your resilience; a counsellor or therapist can offer the space for you to make sense of your thoughts and emotions, gain clarity and move forward into the future feeling guided and supported.
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