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With the headlines about COVID-19 shouting it’s the end of the world, I’m sure you are all feeling slightly panicked right along with me. This is a scary time for the US and the world. There is a lot of uncertainty, and it is entirely reasonable to feel anxious and afraid. If you are experiencing symptoms of anxiety, I wish that you can find a sense of hope.
I am writing to share my hope. When faced with tragedy, we can succumb, or we can rise. I am going to choose to rise every single time and I hope you will come along with me. As a psychotherapist and someone who lived through the impact of trauma after an unexpected loss, I know that good can come from COVID-19. That might not be a popular idea right now, but it is the message I want to share with anyone willing to listen so we can rise together.
After my mum died suddenly in her sleep when she was 52 years old, my world turned upside down. I didn’t know how to cope. I was not a trained psychotherapist at the time, and I was not in a significant relationship.
I was grieving the loss of my first adult relationship. I didn’t think I wanted children, and I was unsatisfied with my career. Because of this, I was experiencing debilitating anxiety each night, and my concept of reality was shattered. There were moments I thought it would be easier to die.
But as time went on, and I persevered through each day, I noticed a shift in my thinking. It was subtle, and looking back, it took years of inner work and curiosity, but my mother’s death inspired growth within me. I am not saying my life is everything I want it to be, I still have plenty of growing to do, but it motivated me, incrementally, towards a better life. After my mother’s death, I felt slightly more compelled than I did before to seek out a career I loved. It gave me the courage and interest in having a family. It deepened relationships with some and lightened relationships with others.
But most of all, it taught me I could get through hard times, and that is a precious gift in the face of this virus. Overcoming adversity quieted the doubting voice in my mind just enough to believe in myself a little more than I did before. I know first-hand that good can come from tragedy, because my own experiences with trauma is helping me cope with the news of this virus right now, at this moment.
It is a struggle to see the good when we are under the pressure of fear, I’ve spent years trying to ‘think positive’ and combat the negativity in my brain to no avail. I am not invalidating the significance of COVID-19 or the impact it is going to make on our daily lives.
I can already see that this virus is putting us in uncharted waters financially, physically, and psychologically. At the same time, we will cope with loss and grief. However, I believe it is beneficial to consider the good that will eventually come from the coronavirus if we look for it.
In the 1990’s psychologists Dr Richard Tedeschi and Lawrence Calhoun, developed a concept called post-traumatic growth (PTG). They researched the impact of trauma and the long-term outcomes following an immediate drop in emotional functioning. They found that yes, people were suffering after a traumatic event, but for many people there was a phenomenon taking place further down the road that couldn’t be ignored. They estimated that half to 2/3 of people experience PTG, and the capacity to thrive following adversity.
In light of all the fear we are feeling right now, the concept of PTG can be calming and grounding. It can take the edge off an alarming time. So what does PTG look like? How how can it help us right now, and what good can come from the Corona Virus? Based on Tedeschi and Calhoun’s work on creating the Post-Traumatic Growth Inventory, we could predict the following:
- A deeper appreciation for life and each other
- Increased compassion across the world for the experiences of others
- Enriched relationships with others – research shows positive relationships, and long-term satisfaction with life are correlated.
- Openness to new possibilities in life
- A spur of innovation like better health care systems, prevention of future outbreaks, and new treatment options
- Resilience and psychological strength
- Spiritual changes
- Re-evaluating our choices and what is most important to us leading to positive outcomes
Just imagine for a moment how the ripple effect of mass, post-traumatic growth could inspire a more peaceful world! I know this may be hard to believe right now, but if we can keep things in perspective and have hope for our future, maybe it will help us find incremental growth when the dust from COVID-19 settles.
Steps you can take to cope with COVID-19 anxiety right now
- Make a list of the hard times you have overcome in life and think creatively about the positive impact it has made on your life. This introspection will add value to your adverse experiences and help you find a calm within yourself.
- Look for the helpers – notice how people are coming together to support each other.
- Stay away from 24/7 coverage on the news and watch shows that make you laugh or take you to a peaceful place.
- Spend time with nature, if possible. Do some gardening or go for a walk outside, preferably in green spaces. Nature has the power to heal.
- I know you’ve heard it all before, but exercise. It will burn off the extra cortisol released in your brain. Cortisol is a stress hormone that causes symptoms of anxiety. After it is released into your body, it needs time to flush out of your system. Exercise helps move this process along.
- Remind yourself that the only moment we truly have is ‘right now’. The past is gone, and the future has yet to arrive. Try to enjoy time in the present moment with family and friends.
- Write down any thoughts and fears before you go to bed each night. Give yourself permission to write whatever you want during this time. This process is called a ‘brain dump’, and it can help you empty the negative thoughts in your brain so you can sleep at night.
- Remember that ‘this too shall pass’. Feelings come and go. Events come and go.
- Challenge your thoughts and assumptions. Not every thought we have is valid or true. Our busy brains fill up with ideas and words and we often don’t slow down to evaluate them. When you have a disturbing thought, ask yourself if there is a more accurate thought you could be thinking and if there is another way to look at things. Usually there is.
Hopefully, one day, we will look back on the Coronavirus and witness the growth that took place. Until then, educate yourself about managing anxiety, love your people hard, and do everything in your power to rise.
Beth Tyson is a psychotherapist, trauma-responsive coach, author, speaker and advocate for families coping with trauma and loss. Her new children’s book, A Grandfamily for Sullivan, is a tender-hearted story about an orphaned koala who goes to live with his grandma when his parents are unable to keep him safe.
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