It’s no great surprise that the covid-19 pandemic is taking a harsh toll on people’s mental health. The disease itself is scary. There’s a lot of uncertainty about what is going to happen, so we’re living in an “until further notice” mode, with no sense of when that notice might come. And a lot of us have lost our jobs, and are struggling with the basics like how to pay for food, housing, bills, etc. So it makes sense that a lot more people are feeling anxious or depressed. I know I’m seeing that in my practice.
In response, there have been a lot of good articles giving advice about how to deal with this situation. They advise focusing on the places where you can make a difference: things like taking proper precautions, taking care of yourself, being aware that an increase in anxiety or depression is very understandable, and getting help when you need it. Most therapists that I know are seeing their therapy clients remotely, and lots are figuring out ways to make therapy more safe and accessible.
I want to add three ideas to this set of good advice, things that I think can make a difference as we deal with the pandemic. These are: reaching out to your social network; having a sense of purpose during the pandemic; and offering help to others when you can.
In the face of a communicable disease, we have a lot fewer options for safely being around the people we care about. Lots of us tend to pull away in these situations, in part as a reasonable tactic to keep oneself safe. And lots of us spend so much time now on Zoom and other platforms now that we don’t feel like using them for social calls. However, that can be very isolating. This is a time when, more than ever, we need to be in touch with the people we care about. Not just because it feels good to talk to a close friend or family member (though it does), but also because a huge part of our safety and security comes from our social network, the people we know we can count on in a difficult time. It makes sense to be maintaining and tending those relationships. And your loved ones will most likely be glad you reached out, too.
As mentioned above, one of the big sources of distress in this pandemic is the sense of uncertainty we’re experiencing. We’re all facing a gigantic unknown, and it can be hard to know what to do about it. One thing that can help is having a sense of purpose during this time. This sense of purpose can act as a compass to guide our actions, and reduce some of the uncertainty. This purpose doesn’t have to be big or grand. It can be as basic as deciding that you’re going to do everything you can to keep you and your family safe. And it can vary according to your circumstances. If you’re an essential worker who is still interacting with the public, your purpose might be to present a calm presence to the people work with. If you’re a parent, your purpose might be to help your kids get through the changes in their school and home lives. If you’re stuck in your home during this time, you might decide to use the time to explore something you haven’t had time for, maybe baking bread or organizing your kitchen. The point here isn’t to add more activities and responsibilities. It’s to have a sense of meaning to guide your actions toward something that you think is valuable, in the context of this great uncertainty.
This idea can be related to the sense of purpose. It’s not that you take responsibility to fix the pandemic; obviously no one person can do that. And it’s not about adding so much helping activity that you over-stress yourself and burn out. Rather, the idea is to lend a hand when and if you can, and to keep an eye out for where you can make a positive difference. By analogy, Peter Levine in his excellent books on recovering from trauma makes the point that people who were able to take action immediately after a traumatic event were less likely to experience PTSD symptoms than those people who were immobilized and could not act. I think there’s a similar dynamic here. Helping others when you can changes you from a passive victim of the pandemic to an active responder; that change can significantly help the sense of powerlessness that many of us are experiencing. And again, helping does not have to be something grand and heroic. It can be doing the job that you already do as well as you can; calling a friend who is struggling; sharing food with someone who needs it; volunteering for an organization that does something you feel is worthwhile. The help you give can really matter to someone, and you can gain the sense that you can make a difference in the face of this situation.
The bottom line is that we’re all facing something that’s unprecedented in our lifetimes, and it’s causing everyone a lot of stress. Some of it really is beyond our control as individuals. But there are also lots of places or moments in our lives where we can make things better. And it can help other people and ourselves to seek them out and act on them.