Toolkit for the COVID-19 Pandemic?

Being a senior registered psychologist with close to 35 years of private practice experience,  I currently spend 6 to 7 hours a day on Zoom or in telephone meetings with clients.  The remote work is much more demanding than in-person sessions as people’s reactions are difficult to read and it requires a strain of attention to be attentive to the cues regarding how people are feeling and thinking.  Now, in addition to whatever challenges my clients were facing before COVID-19, there are the additional ways in which being in lockdown has strained their world.  In my younger years as a therapist, one of my most favourite mentors used to say to me: “Lillian, you do not have to have it all together to be a good therapist but you do have to be at least two or three steps ahead of your clients”.  Well, while this may be the case in many areas of my life only due to the years I have worked on myself and spent in therapy, it is not true when it comes to dealing with a pandemic.  In this regard, we are all in the same boat facing the same unexpected and totally novel struggles and challenges.

A fitting metaphor would be to say that the entire world is covered in a blanket of grief right now.  We have all suffered losses…some collective and others, individual.  I have heard from more than a few clients that they should feel grateful because they have a job or are able to put food on the table.  This is fine if it is coming from a place of true gratitude but not so helpful if it is being used to deny the feelings of sadness and pain that accompany losses endured.  Comparing one person’s losses to another’s makes no sense in the realm of emotions.   A child’s missing of friends at school is as real to them as their mother being laid off from her job.  Every person’s losses are real and alive in them and should not be minimized.  We all have grieving to do so if you have found yourself collapsing into tears out of nowhere like some of my clients have described, know that this is normal in these times.

The first phase of tackling COVID-19 involved a steep learning curve of preparing for lockdown by learning about and mobilizing to deal with remote interactions, homeschooling children, stocking up on supplies, making all meals from home, and for many learning how to work from home.  It was all new and novel and we mobilized efforts to cope with the new reality.  In the beginning, none of us thought this would go on for months and months.  We saw a light at the end of the tunnel and while difficult, it seemed manageable.  Now, however, as the finish line has been pushed back time and time again, despair has set in for many and more and more of us are feeling as if every day has become groundhog day and it never is going to end.  People are losing their energy to cope and despair and powerlessness have begun to set in in a different way.  The hardest aspect, of course, is not being able to plan for anything.  This is perhaps the biggest way we have all been rendered helpless.  We have been robbed of any sense of certainty and there is no longer any capacity to be able to predict and plan for the future.

The toolkit that will serve us well in these times not only needs to include behavioural coping strategies for what to do when this ennui sets in but to be comprehensive, it must address the emotional, psychological and spiritual aspects of coping with this crisis.  And so, for my own benefit as much as the desire to help others, I put together this diagram.  Not only does it punctuate some of the most basic behavioural coping strategies that many have pointed out like the importance of exercising, eating nutritiously, and adding structure to your day but it also speaks to giving yourself permission to mourn the losses and to try to find some goodness, however small, in what this time of slowdown can offer us.  After all, it is not what happens in our lives but rather how we interpret events that ultimately shape our emotional reactions and consequently our behaviour.  This could not be more true than now.  This pandemic can be seen as an invitation to stop, be still for a while, reexamine our choices and make some new ones.  May this year bring deep personal transformation and important awakenings on an individual and collective level.

3 responses

Excellent post, Dr. Esses! My favourite line is – “After all, it is not what happens in our lives but rather how we interpret events that ultimately shape our emotional reactions and consequently our behaviour.” Hope you are doing well!

Good information. We are asked to stay home for a few months, in comfortable houses for the most part. I think of the inspiring people who were imprisoned in different times in history and read their accounts to realize that this is a small sacrifice for the good of all. I worry most however, about long term care residents, our homeless, those who might be abused at home, and our devoted front line workers. We will get through this!

Thank you for this very thoughtful post and for the Toolkit that serves as a great reminder and guide for us, during this challenging time. I will be sharing this with others and passing along your wisdom. Thanks again.

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