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Dr. Pooja Mohanty on Coping with COVID-19 Stress

2nd May, 2020

Life and humanity are suddenly challenged with a colossal crisis as the world is infected with a virus called CORONA causing COVID-19. This pandemic has cost numerous lives, brought down economies and subjected each one of us to numerous mental and psychological catastrophes such as fear, anxiety and panic. This fast spreading contagion is thus raising our concerns regarding psychological wellbeing globally and the dismays, despairs, and distress are cumulatively and collectively transfusing into our countries, states, cities and now into our communities.

Time has brusquely lost its meaning within the frame of our closed walls as we are adhering to the safety measures of social distancing and isolation. The pandemic has led us to lose our sense of self security, control and social connections and we are hurtling our path into disconnection and illusion. In the decade of my clinical practice, often I have witnessed that the loss of control and comfort lead us to a feeling of stagnancy in adapting the new normal of uncertainty, unpredictability and ephemeral nature of this life.

As we are forced to face the collective unprecedented trauma and grief, we are humanly and emotionally hounded with feelings of fear, anger, denial, indignation, depression and anxiety. We feel paralyzed being stripped off our labels, our identities, our definitions, our designations leading us to realize the formlessness of our selves. Suddenly a question that we never thought was important to ask in our day to day affairs is now surfacing i.e. who am I and why am I here? Will I suffer this? Is this my end? Will I lose my family?

`In the years of extending therapies for clients going through disasters and calamities, whether internal or external, I have always been intrigued deep inside with questioning the response of clients in attending the similar crisis and stress. Why few of these clients show extreme brilliance and magnanimity on resilience in finding purposeful meaningfulness of life while others breakdown completely during these times of crisis?

As per the researchers and clinical assessments of earlier disasters and pandemics, people who have successfully surpassed the catastrophic times have known to have feeling less the pressure of uncertainty, and trusting this powerful process of transformation. This transformation in the least terms is known as cultivating an attitude of 'tragic optimism'. This word is coined by the psychiatrist and holocaust survivor of Nazi Camp Victor Frankl in his book known as 'man's search for meaning'. Tragic optimism is the ability to maintain hope and find meaning in life despite its inescapable pain, loss and suffering.

This COVID-19 virus today has completely put us out of our places of comfort compelling this whole humanity to wake up from the unconscious slumber of ego. The powerful transformation now happening here is obvious. The ego of our power and leaderships is now no more about our exchange rates, inflation, GDP, NASA or NATO, rather our new path has suddenly turned to focus on our survival, holistic wellbeing and meaningful existence. There is a sudden shift from our small inauthentic lives, survived by fears, controlled by how others think of us, ruled by the culture of conditioning to the consciousness of our inner selves. If there is any way to defeat the fears of this virus (COVID-19), it is through making these times of solitude a vehicle for liberation and fully understand, appreciate and revere this as a source to expedite the interconnectivity of human relationships. The quarantine and isolation today are compelling us to see new ways of connections and compassion towards ourselves, our family, our children, and our communities instead of focusing only on pay cheques and publications.

It is crucial for us to break this chain of contamination of the virus by sensing the oneness within the humanity to fight together revering and admiring our nitty-gritties like our doctors, nurses, policemen, storekeepers and many others who stand indomitably offering their lives in their palms within their sweaty gloves. The historical and modern psychology research has shown that this unified humanity with its oneness has overcome all the crisis by its incredible capacity to creatively turn negative life aspects to something constructive and productive.
The new face of reality is here for us to understand this as an opportunity to elevate. It's time to understand the veils of illusion of our lives that life is ubiquitous yet uncertain, transient and impermanent. The only way to alleviate the dread which this deadly virus has created is to now be in charge, integrate and gather self, through consciousness, connection and compassion.

1. Consciousness: "from what if to what is":

Transforming fear and confusion to awareness and consciousness from 'what if to what is'. The world may be in total chaos, yet paradoxically within oneself everything feels perfectly in place. Is this possible at all. Consciousness of being in present, here and now, letting go 'what if' and accepting 'what is', from probability to possibility could lead us to relief. Self -Awareness, actualization, acceptance, adaptation, and authentication are five ways to activate consciousness. In the client-therapist interactions and sessions, psychotherapists activate the self through mindfulness and meaningfulness centered therapies along with cognitive behaviour therapies.

In the present context awareness of the fact is necessary that incongruously the more we try to control everything in our environments, the less we feel control. Observed behaviour like bulk purchasing and excessive cleaning tells us that we are feeling vulnerable and need to over prepare. Inability to control things can lead to negative and catastrophe thinking. The solution to this is to strike a good balance between recognizing potential threat and avoiding unnecessary panic through scientific evidence. Realistically following what public health professionals are saying regarding social distancing, isolation, quarantine, availability of resources, listening to restricted but authentic news and maintaining cleaning habits as pronounced by government is what we can be incharge of.

Amidst the heartache of being isolated, unable to move out of our closed spaces maybe is also spiking up us to connect with our 'inner narrator' of past and previous traumas within our own lives. There are no day to day clubs, pubs, classrooms, salons and offices to help us be in denial of these. Letting go of denial and attending these with acceptance, actualization and authentication of our little lives can lead us to adapting this new normal of our life transforming ourselves to value those which has purpose and meaning. This is a painful individual matter but enlightens us to meaningfulness and joys not restrictive to person, possession or profession but the very purpose of our lives. Research has shown that having purpose and meaning in life increases overall well-being and life satisfaction, improves mental and physical health, enhances resiliency, enhances self-esteem, and decreases the chances of depression.

2. Connection: Transforming isolation and separation to meaningful connections:

Fundamentally we are social creatures hence the process of self-isolation and quarantining in our healthy ways of keeping safe and flattening the curve is unfortunately associated with mental health implications. Since social connections are critical to psychological healthy life it is imperative for us to use our incredible technology and social media to share our experiences of sorrow and love. We are feeling lonely and sometimes irritable and when we are sharing this emotional stress, we are validating each other and feeling the oneness and togetherness. As solitude can be our strength, virtual social network can be our life line. Let's get our children and old helpless elders together in cooking, exercising, spiritual meetings, write letters, listen to music, create art, and applaud their contributions and resilience in navigating through difficult and uncertain situations. This can be done, either together in family or online forums letting all know that we are unified in our sorrows and resilient in passing this unprecedented phase off.

3. Compassion: Transforming from 'helplessness to helpfulness': empathy and gratitude

Kindness, gratitude and compassion are very powerful mechanisms of making our lives meaningful and worth living. Meaningfulness is all about seeing the bigger picture of life wherein our purpose is imbedded. Research studies have found that the defining features of a meaningful life are connecting and contributing to something beyond the self, which could be your family, society, community, even to the old, the poor, the disabled, and the destitute. Sooner or later in a pandemic, such as this our extension of love and empathy towards the other becomes our joy, our work, our nature, sufficing to all the spiritual teachings encrypted in every religion differentiating none from each other. If you can keep an eye on the other in need, it will automatically help us to revere how rich is our own life and how much we have taken it for granted all this while. Being empathetic will also help us to shun stigma for our fellow beings. Being compassionate and empathetic to reactions and emotions of others and self will help us be focused and centered.

We can't control this life neither can be make it certain, but we can observe with keenness, our self and the world that lives in an indifferent void today, that will certainly transform from illusion to hope and meaningfulness oneday.

The Author is a psychotherapist at XLRI, Jamshedpur and done her PhD from NIMHANS, Bangalore on the subject of Suicide Prevention.

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