I am 73-years-old, having been born in 1947. During those seven decades I have experienced many things, including the loss of both parents, a 3-month-old grandson, two-years in Vietnam, various personal ups and downs along with the usual myriad of outcomes. That said, nothing of my life experience could have prepared me for the current state of the world at this moment. The existence of this pandemic has created fear, uncertainty and at times behaviors way beyond what one would expect.
Two months ago, nobody would have predicted the “world shut down” that we now have. While the economic impact is widely experienced, as a Licensed Mental Health Professional the emotional toll far exceeds even the economic and physical impact on people. It is impossible to separate things into discrete categories but we are seeing and hearing about isolation, loss of life meaning, boredom and moral dilemmas that increase the power of our current situation. In my practice I see this all firsthand. Due to the ground-rules of social distancing and separation we are not able to provide all of the support that we normally would, face to face that is so very essential.
Groups are shut down or put on telemedicine. Individual therapy while still occurring is finding connection more difficult and problems presented more intense. Off-session calls are three times higher with the uncertainty, “flood of information,” and fear for personal safety making even the smallest emotional fires, burn hotter and bigger.
In talking with colleagues around my state and nationally, mental health crisis and addiction is exploding. Domestic violence helplines are experiencing up to ten-fold increase of calls. Crisis lines that once got a thousand calls a week are now getting over twenty thousand. While the first couple weeks of the stay at home were relatively quiet things are now surging. For example one nearby county with only 20,000 people had in one-week multiple domestic assaults, several DWI arrests and an uptick in violence.
Most people would agree we are at a crisis point. In my own life, most of the activity that recharged me from a week of helping people in pain is not currently possible. The Friday night date night with my wife, a 20-plus year tradition is now reduced to “curb-side take-out service.” My “counseling group” (also known as Church) is now viewed via the internet. The hobbies, exercise and activity that balanced me with my professional life are not able to be accessed in the same way. While small by comparison and a micro view of the total population, even this little change can significantly impact the ability to function. Change is tough.
As serious as things are now, my bigger concern is in regard to what comes next. As things slowly move back to the new normal, the world opens up and the crisis lowers in intensity, a significant emotional letdown can occur. This can be called the “Post-Crisis Effect.” Presently we are using all of our emotional and sometimes physical capitol to stand up against this common enemy.
What often happens once the intense crisis is over, there is little if any resiliency left. People are often amazed at this, finding no energy, higher anxiety and depression, irritability and memory problem. There is confusion and doubt about the future. Doubt where there never was before. Questions that still cannot be answered. What next is a quest that if fraught with the depletion of the past. Their “tank is empty” with no prospect to immediately refill it. It is like in basketball when the team that is behind struggles to catch up, gets within one point and then in the blink of an eye are ten points down again. Why? Because they used up everything getting that close, and nothing was left to move ahead.
Many in my profession feel that once the crisis is over, we will be facing the biggest mental health and addiction crisis this country has ever known. Professionals call this “post-crisis drain.” Those on the front line, the doctors, nurses, mental health and addiction professionals as well as first responders will be especially vulnerable. We need to balance now, practice self-care now, support one another now, or we will not be able to withstand the “time that is yet to come.” The post-crisis period will be a staggered event and different for each one of us. For the front line, doctors, nurses, food suppliers, housekeeping, mental health and addiction counselors this will go on longer with less respite than for those on furlough. Things such as survivor guilt and moral dilemmas over impossible decisions may play into the “recovery.”
What to do? Well there are several things. In my research there are several common threads. First of all, avoid the “I” word as in Isolation. While we have social distancing there are still many ways that we can stay connected with others,
recharge and instill hope.
A second common recommendation has to do with reduced consumption – of media. Be informed, that is important, but keep from being saturated with information that exacerbates anxiety, fear and hopelessness.
Thirdly take care of the physical you, something that directly impacts the emotional you. Get enough sleep, exercise, eat healthy and take time to relax in whatever way you find the most useful. Regarding feeding, be aware of what you
are feeding your mind keeping away as much mental “junk food” as you can. Reach out beyond yourself. For me it is my faith which is my prime source of hope and purpose. Prayer has carried me through more extreme challenges than I can even count. Additionally, build those islands of support around you. I talked earlier about not isolating. Do something for others, enrich the relationship you have with family members.
Finally, do not try to do this all at once. The question often given by motivational speakers is “how do you eat an elephant?” with the answer being “one bite at a time.” Take on these challenges one bite at a time, set priorities that are balanced and where gaps exist find creative alternatives to meet those needs. Take heed, this is not just ramblings of my clinical self, but the same tools that have helped me stay balanced and functional as a person. There is nothing new or “magical” in the suggestions. We have all heard this before but now is the time for acting not just knowing.
In my critical incident debriefing training, they taught us to convey that what you are feeling is “normal.” Normal that is in respect to an abnormal situation. Keep your hope, practice nurturing behaviors, and in the words of Winston Churchill during the Battle of Britain, “never give up,” and you will persevere. We will get through this but be ready because the biggest challenge is yet to come. The time to prepare is now.
As a counselor, I am reminded of the importance of an axiom that states that our thoughts determine our attitudes and our attitudes (in turn) determine our actions. In essence we become what we think or dwell upon.
One of the very best quotes I have encountered about positively dealing with post-crises experiences comes from the first century author named Paul: “Fix your thoughts on what is true, honorable, right, pure, lovely and admirable. Think about things that are excellent and worthy of praise.”
I encourage you (in advance) to think through future post-crisis journeys, such as the COVID-19 post-ventures. Preparing for the emotional, behavioral, spiritual, financial and relational components can help you excel in post-hard
Thinking clearly, consistently and constructively in post-crises experiences and then practicing these thoughts can be a challenge. Some people are able to navigate crises in their own power. Many people (myself included) need strength
from outside sources. For me, the source is faith and prayer.