by Margaret Stoll, Ph.D.

For the last nine months we in the United States have been living with the numerous and far-reaching challenges of the corona virus pandemic.  Some of these affect nearly everyone.  The need to practice social distancing and to avoid unnecessary contact with others outside one’s home is one result.  Associated with this is the inability to be together with family and friends.  Another condition is the necessity of living with the possibility of contracting a serious, potentially life-threatening illness.  Not knowing how long it will last and what its long-term effect on our mental, economic and social condition will be is another factor.  This chronic uncertainty is something that many of us are not used to having to manage.

How different people are coping with the pandemic varies greatly and this is determined by many things.  Some obvious factors include economic resources and the degree to which one’s employment is compromised by the pandemic. Another is the availability of social support as well as practical support for those who are unable to fend entirely for themselves. Availability of and access to sound medical care is another undeniable enhancer of healthy coping.

Another key area of functioning during this pandemic is one’s emotional coping or mental state.  We may have  very different reactions to the pandemic depending on our personalities, our attitudes toward loss or change,  a need for a sense of control or past experiences of trauma. 

A psychological crisis is precipitated when a person’s ability to cope with a current situation is inadequate.  Typically this occurs for one of two reasons. The first is that they have had no previous need or opportunity to have developed the tools to manage that type of situation. The second reason is because the person has had some earlier traumatic experience from which they have unresolved emotions and beliefs.  Therefore when a current situation occurs it triggers the past emotions, which render them overwhelmed and unable to think clearly about how to problem solve. Typically they feel as if they are back or still in the past and are unable to recognize resources currently available to them that were not available in the earlier situation.  Therefore they often feel stuck, helpless and distressed.

The corona virus pandemic has triggered psychological crisis reactions for many people.  Some of those who already live with anxiety and fear of illness or harm have been put into a heightened state of chronic fear that they cannot rationalize.  Or people who tend to be pessimistic and to expect negative outcomes in life may have a difficult time finding things to look forward to, enjoy or to feel optimistic about.  Rather than using the world around them to challenge their ‘glass-half-empty’ attitudes they may see the pandemic as a confirmation of their worst fears. 

Those who have survived a recent death of a loved one or who have had a traumatic loss through death in the past are at a greater risk for emotional crisis with the pandemic.  The thought of unexpected, sudden death may trigger traumatic emotions from the past and put them in a chronic, heightened state of fear and grief. Going through the unique challenge of this pandemic without their loved one may also highlight the absence of that person who had no concept of what we are now going through.  The recently bereaved may feel especially alone at the loss of the person who would be a support during this time.

Some people manage life’s challenges by having a sense of being strong, independent, capable and generally in control. They are often the caretakers of others; the ones who get things done.  They tend neither to show their needs nor to ask for help from others.  Often, they poorly tolerate feeling vulnerable or uncertain.  Many such people developed this method of coping as a result of need during childhood circumstances that deprived them of the opportunity to be childlike, dependent and to trust that their age-appropriate needs would be accepted and met.  The corona virus pandemic has precipitated a psychological crisis for some of these people as it has challenged their ability to maintain their sense of autonomy and invincibility.

The state of uncertainty that we have all been feeling can be unnerving and intolerable for such individuals. They may experience guilt, shame and disappointment for not living up to their expectations of themselves.  Fear, anxiety and physical manifestations of anxiety are common. Some of the ways they can present are insomnia, bodily tension or pain, agitation and inability to relax. 

Many of these personality traits or life circumstances that heighten one’s reaction to the corona virus pandemic are permanent.  Yet there are still ways of improving one’s coping and recovering from psychological crisis.  A key component to healthy mental functioning is awareness.  Understanding what you are anxious or depressed about or why you feel unable to manage since the pandemic can reduce feelings of fear, being overwhelmed and confusion.  Making sense of your experience creates a feeling that you can think, problem solve and find a way through the painful emotions. Understanding the meaning of your disturbance can lead the way to solutions. 

The widow who feels even more lonely during the pandemic can be reassured that this feeling is not solely typical bereavement.  She can be reassured that post-pandemic widowhood can be enhanced by numerous social, recreational, travel, community and other involvements that are currently not allowed.  She may also be reminded that her acute fear of death is heightened by her loss. Therefore despite the seriousness of the pandemic, most people will survive. 

Additionally, those who rely on considerable control over their internal and external lives can be helped during the pandemic by clarifying the source of their disturbance. Faced with uncertainty, vulnerability and lack of control their reaction is to try harder to regain control.  Helping them to understand their fears and to challenge their related sense of failure is necessary.  Encouraging and teaching ways to allow assistance, accept their limitations and trust that they cannot and do not have to be in charge is therapeutic. 

It can be said that crisis and disruption can be an opportunity for change and growth.  With support and guidance we can learn new, more effective perspectives and coping methods that may result in greater flexibility and satisfaction. Without minimizing the pain and loss of this pandemic, those who are able to try new solutions or who seek psychotherapy can gain insight, relief and even improved quality of life.

Dr. Margaret Stoll is a clinical psychologist in private practice in Redondo Beach and Glendale, CA.  A member of the Independent Psychotherapy Network, she can be reached at (310) 375-3607 or margaret.stoll@gmail.com

Copyright 2020 by Margaret Stoll, Ph.D.