For several weeks now we’ve had to get used to hearing that we’re living in uncertain times. Few of us can shake the uneasy and frightening feeling that so many things we took for granted before the pandemic could be coming to an end. Worse, we don’t know what awaits us on the other side.
In the meantime, all this uncertainty, anxiety, and fear is wearing us down. We’re tired of staying at home, of worrying about our next trip to the grocery store, of not getting to hug our friends.
And the fear and uncertainty itself is wearing us down with persistent and unanswerable questions. How many more people will lose their jobs? How many more people will die? Will it be me? My parents? My spouse? My child?
As mental health care providers, we know that this fear and uncertainty can compound symptoms of depression and anxiety. It can also cause people with no history of mental illness to lose their bearings.
We also know that it can, for many, be traumatic. It can overwhelm us in the short term. In the long term it can reshape the way we we perceive and interact with the world. That’s especially so when the thing many of us fear most happens—the loss of a loved one.
Iraq war veteran David J. Morris describes his experience with trauma in “The Evil Hours: A Biography of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.” He writes that major traumas are “both a death and a rebirth.”
“After trauma,” he says, “your mind works differently, and your body has been altered to the extent that an entire new understanding of it must be negotiated.”
Morris adds that we can’t make the memory of the trauma go away, but we can “work to contain the pain, draw a line around it, name it, domesticate it, and try to transform what lies on the other side of the line into a kind of knowledge, a knowledge of the mechanics of loss that might be put to use for future generations.”
In other words, even though traumatic events change us, they don’t have to destroy us. In my many decades as a mental health care provider, I have seen that humans have vast reserves of strength and resilience. I am confident that we can bring those qualities forth to help us withstand this pandemic.
We can start by acknowledging the trauma that many of us are experiencing (or may soon experience) is real. That it can create anxiety or make us depressed.
Mental health professionals have a number of coping strategies for challenges like this. They range from practicing meditation to exercising regularly to eating healthfully to getting therapy. I recommend them all to strengthen our bodies and our minds. I especially recommend strengthening our relationships with one another, checking in with each other, telling our friends and family that we love them and are there for them. Even if all this must take place by text, phone, or screen. Building and maintaining strong relationships is one of the keys to remaining resilient in the face of adversity.
I also believe we can find strength in our collective actions. For the moment we are socially isolated from one another, but we are also, paradoxically, acting as one to stop this disease. Billions of people across the world are staying at home for a common purpose, making a big sacrifice to protect their families, their neighbors, and people whose faces they’ve never seen. Doing what we can to protect ourselves and our communities gives us some degree of control over what seems like an uncontrollable situation. It also reminds us that the actions we’re taking are part of something larger than ourselves.
And we can find strength in the heroic actions of our health and mental health care workers, our first responders, our grocery store workers, and others who are engaged in the essential work of healing and helping those who need it most. There are people out there putting their lives on the line to keep us safe. Their examples should inspire us to soldier on.
All these actions show us that we have the ability to adapt to other challenges that will come our way. If we can act collectively to protect ourselves from physical harm, I am confident that we can also act collectively to cope with the pain and trauma the COVID-19 outbreak is creating. And when we get to the other side of this pandemic, those hugs will be more important to us than they’ve ever been.