Covid 19: Adapting to new realities and ensuring well-being
By Nathan Davies, on 21 September 2020
By Dr Patricia Schartau
The Covid 19 pandemic is likely one of the most consequential global challenges of this generation. Individually, it impacts on all aspects of our lives including our health, finances, relationships, wellbeing and sense of self. Globally, it has far reaching consequences by affecting our healthcare systems, the economy and the way our world functions on an everyday level.
While this is a new type of ‘disaster’, for decades researchers have mapped the phases of emotional response to crisis, such as natural catastrophes and terrorism1: The initial ‘heroic’ phase2 is characterised by high levels of activity and a surge in altruistic behaviours (e.g. volunteering, healthcare workers stepping up). The ‘honeymoon’ phase which followed through April3 comprised a sense of collective optimism and virtual community bonding. In May the ‘disillusionment phase’ started, probably the most challenging phase characterised by a heightened sense of discouragement and stress. This phase is associated with negative emotions, such as anxiety and sadness, and physiological upsets such as insomnia, dream disturbances and hyperarousal. Eventually, we will progress into a calmer yet similarly challenging phase, the ‘reconstruction’ phase. Whilst some of the phase headings seem somewhat misleading given the gravity of the situation and it is important to recognise the fluidity of the phases, they provide a good framework in order to describe human emotions and behaviours in response to crisis.
The ‘disillusionment’ phase, our current phase, exposes our vulnerabilities- our respective roles amongst family and friends, in employment and the wider society have been shaken up. The fragility of our health, wellbeing and socio-economic security have been exposed. What seemed relatively untouchable (e.g. freedom of movement, supply chains of medications and food) suddenly collapsed. Whilst the world around us moved and reformed on a daily basis, our own personal tsunamis (in my case primarily the unexpected loss of a close family member and losing some of my patients to Covid 19) create even more instability, with the usual safety nets, such as social activities and work routine, having become disabled.
Over the past months, most of us will have felt at least intermittently overwhelmed and asked ourselves- how can I make sense of this situation let alone get through it? Personally, I reflected on my PhD in emotion regulation and assimilated the public advice from former psychology colleagues, such as Willem Kuyken from Oxford University. He highlighted4 a few simple mechanisms to help cope with this challenging situation:
Focussing our attention: We naturally focus our attention to threats in order to protect ourselves. Attending to the 24/7 Covid news is cognitively and emotionally exhausting. Whilst most of us are feeling a sense of loss of control, training ourselves to re-focus (e.g. by using mindfulness techniques5) and by choosing carefully what to attend to is a way to regain it. One practical example is to limit the number of times per day we read the news and/or Covid related WhatsApp threads.
Changing how we relate to the crisis: Us humans naturally enjoy to ‘time travel’- switching from past, to present, and to the future with an incredible speed and fluidity. Making future plans keeps us goal-orientated, grounded and emotionally stable. However, during the pandemic, trying to make plans has been an additional source of distress, unsettlement and anxiety. In my experience, digesting the world in smaller bites, with a sense of calmness and patience whilst not reacting to every change around us (including one’s own emotions), helps enormously. The notion that one can change thoughts and emotions in this situation by shifting focus, and choosing personal ways to relate to the crisis, is immensely empowering and somewhat reassuring. Whilst the world out there continues to change ever so quickly, it allows to regain some much needed stability.
Taking care of ourselves and having meaningful relationships with others: This is not rocket science, but wellbeing is supported by a healthy diet, plenty of exercise, a good sleep hygiene, good hydration, keeping some kind of routine and doing things that we enjoy and that give us meaning. The latter includes social interactions with, for example, friends and family.
As Kuyken highlighted, ‘psychology offers ways for us to meet such crisis with courage, clarity and wisdom’. It also offers us alternative interpretations: For example, to value the opportunity that has arisen from the quarantine to re-evaluate personal goals and priorities:
- Carson, J., Eyre, H. & Lavretsky, H. (2020). Dear Mental Health Innovators: The Covid-19 honeymoon is over. Letter in: MJH Life Sciences and Psychiatric Times.
- DeWolfe, D.J. (2000). Training manual for mental health and human service workers in major disasters. US Department of Health and Human Services. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration: Center for Mental Health Services.
- Washington, E. (2020). Phases of Disaster. https://www.samhsa.gov/dtac/recovering-disasters/phases-disaster
- Kuyken, W. (2020). Waking up in the time of Corona: four insights from Psychology.
- Kuyken, W. (2020). Keeping a cool head and warm heart in challenging times. https://www.oxfordmindfulness.org/news/keeping-a-cool-head-and-warm-heart-in-challenging-times-by-willem-kuyken/