Many of us feel an unprecedented amount of uncertainty, ambiguity, and loss of control as we are forced out of our jobs, forced to stay home, and forced to confront an invisible enemy, one that may or may not make us deathly ill, but will certainly change our lives forever. We are impacted by restrictions placed upon our freedoms and every day brings new stresses and challenges above and beyond our normal lives.
In short, it is very easy to succumb to a hopeless feeling that control is no longer in our hands and there is nothing we can do. But that is not true.
Let’s take a look at some of the contributing factors surrounding the feelings of loss of control and how you can, with concerted effort, overcome them.
Pandemics Increase Psychological Toxicity
George S. Everly, Jr. PhD asserts that infectious diseases (especially pandemics), terrorism (especially bio-terrorism), radiation-related disasters, and even pollution-related disasters are the most psychologically toxic disasters for those who survive. These disasters have the ability to reshape the future and leave a legacy lasting decades (think Chernobyl, the World Trade Center attack, and this 2020 pandemic). Dr. Everly concludes that all of these disasters have a common denominator that makes them toxic to the psychological well-being of the survivors: ambiguity and uncertainty.
Toxic events like COVID-19 lead to what Dr. Everly calls psychological casualties. Psychological casualties are survivors of any disaster who are no longer able to perform the essential activities of daily living as required.
The number of psychological casualties increases as the psychological toxicity increases. Dr. Everly posits a three-factor formula for psychological toxicity: morbidity/lethality x duration x ambiguity. Put simply, the number of physically ill or dying interacts with the duration (length of time) of the exposure to the threat (the longer the threat, the more toxic), which interacts with the ambiguity surrounding media messaging, the understanding of the threat itself, and governmental guidance. Being exposed to the threat of COVID-19 over a long period of time combined with a lack of understanding and clear direction causes more stress on our mental health.
Dr. Everly feels that the mental health doctors and government officials should focus more on helping people increase their resilience (ability to cope with a crisis and then return to pre-crisis status) than worrying about the causes and components of the psychological impact. In other words, how can life be made better even though we will be facing a new normal.
So, let’s take a look at what we can do gain a feeling of control in our lives and bounce back to a better “normal” state.
Choice: the Last of the Human Freedoms
In Man’s Search for Meaning, Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl wrote, “When we can no longer change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves…Everything can be taken from a human but one thing: the last of the human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”
Crisis is an opportunity to make the future better. Looking forwards toward the changes that the pandemic may bring can cause fear and trepidation – or – it can cause embracing change and an opportunity to grow in the future. That may certainly be difficult to do when one’s basic need of shelter and food is threatened. However, there are some choices you can make to improve your outlook.
- Step One – acknowledge the reality of your situation. People tend to resist crises by wishing it away or focusing on the utter unfairness of it. By embracing the situation as fully as possible, you will be able to release the resistance to the crisis and, little by little, come to acceptance.
- Step Two – have a plan. Whether it is an immediate plan to secure food and shelter or a more long-term plan to move towards a new life direction (job, relationship, location), put a course of action into motion and move forward. If you don’t have a plan, you will become part of someone else’s.
- Step Three – support others. Helping others without any expectation of return will help you feel better and will improve your outlook on your situation. You will feel empowered and more in control.
- Step Four – don’t let negative feelings overwhelm you. Your attitude towards your circumstances is completely under your control. You have the power, moment by moment, to control how you want to be in the world. Take a look at your current situation and flip the perspective. Dr. Bryan E. Robinson, Ph.D. recently took President John F. Kennedy’s famous message and modified it: “Ask not what your life can do for you; ask what you can do for your life.”
- Step Five – be grateful. Appreciate all that you do have in your life. Be thankful that you are alive, that you have loved ones in your life, and that there are people and organizations willing to help. It is easy to focus on the negativity of the current situation in our lives and the constraints put on us. Focus rather on all of the good things and you will improve your outlook and well-being.
Life’s curve balls will always throw uncertainty into your life. That uncertainty is more pronounced now with the huge changes the pandemic has caused. What are you going to do about it? You do not get to choose how you are going to die or when. But you do get to choose how you want to live in the present moment. It is a freedom open to you every moment of every day of your life.