This has been quite a tumultuous time so far! How do we process change and uncertainty, change that affects routines, threatens our work and financial security, and significantly alters our relationships with others? For some, the changes and uncertainty of the times is harder than others. Questions arise such as when will be return to “normal”? Although some of us would like to contemplate whether this a “wake up call” for some or all of us, basic survival concerns take precedence over processing what’s happening. Figuring out the meaning of all the changes we are experiencing takes time and it can come with small realizations or epiphanies and as afterthought or clarity in a quiet moment. Trying to make sense is inherent in all of us and maybe the metaphor of a river will help.
This river of change is flowing incredibly quickly, and we find ourselves drawn in and navigating rapids and hidden dangers. Most of us were not anticipating coming onto such a fast-flowing and all-encompassing situation. No one was prepared for the magnitude of the impact of COVID-19 on all of us. In navigating the river of change, a number of us will cling to the bank of rigidity where we keep following our routines and patterns no matter what to prevent being swept into the river’s flow and probably will lose control. Others find solace in the other bank of chaos where they do what they always do, exist in a nebulous fog of confusion and chaos. However, there are unanticipated dangers in the river that can, and most likely will, push all of us into the flow. For others, going with the flow feels right meeting challenges as they come and maybe a small log or piece of wood will give them support or something to hang on to. I would like to share my “tried and true” psychological models that explain how we deal with traumatic and difficult situations. First, let’s look at a model for dealing with grief and loss that is helpful in explaining how we deal with crisis. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’ model of dealing with grief and loss is helpful in this regard. There is inevitable loss in change particularly brought on by crisis or trauma. Processing the experience is important in recovering, getting our life back together, and developing resilience.
Kubler-Ross’ stages of dealing with grief and loss come to mind —-Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, and Acceptance. Our physiological body and psychological mind usually goes in Flight, Fight, or Freeze modality when confronted with crisis or trauma. Denial (or shock) is somewhat akin to the Flight and Freeze modes and allows our brain to take a break from reality, and deny and distance from what is happening because it is difficult coming to grips with the trauma or magnitude of the change all at once. This is where we say, “It will never happen to me”, or “give this a few weeks then we will be back to normal”, or we go to bed or sit on our couch under a blanket and zone out or dive into a flurry of activity. Flight, of course, is running from thinking only of the task at hand and, if we keep “very busy”, all will be well. It is important to be positive and optimistic about the outcome, but this situation may take much longer than we are willing to admit. When we confront our Denial, the next stage is Anger or the Fight mode where we want to blame someone, “this is not my fault, it is yours”, “it is the fault of the government”, or we displace the anger on our friends and loved ones, or political or historical figures. When anger begins to dissipate, we move on to Bargaining, the stage where we think if I just follow these rules or pray or just keep busy then everything will be OK. I will give up all my bad habits and all will work out.
The next stage is Depression where we feel helpless or hopeless and that nothing will make things better. It’s the stage where fear and darkness takes over and we give in to the overwhelming feelings. But, as in the saying goes, “there is darkness before the dawn” and we finally get to Acceptance and begin to find peace and hope. We become creative about dealing with the constraints of the situation. Instead of looking to some future time “when things are back to normal” we begin to live with the situation as is. We can live one day at a time, not glorifying the past or hoping unrealistically for a certain future. We also realize that things will never be the same or back to the way they were, and we are OK with this. We start to make meaning out of the experience and/or realize the upside of the experience.
Awareness is the key here and it is challenging to be aware of our unhelpful behaviours when we are in the midst of a crisis. In tackling Denial, although it is a natural process, sometimes we cling to the comfortability of not knowing. This becomes unhelpful if we are just not willing to address the reality of the situation. It becomes the equivalent of hiding under a blanket in our room unwilling to come out. It is a holding pattern where we become stuck in one place, one way of reacting. Using alcohol or drugs or food or excessive work or binge-watching effectively keeps us in the state of denial and not processing our experiences. The “not wanting to know” state we are in is alright for whatever our speed of processing allows, but hanging on beyond helpfulness becomes a maladaptive behaviour and impedes our dealing with the situation and recovering from it.
Moving through crises, losses and challenging situations helps us grow as individuals and makes us stronger and more resilient. When we allow our self to go through the process of grief and loss, we gain resources and strength and can then begin to deal with the people in our lives, address work issues, and the changes happening in our life. Although we revisit these experiences over time and they become part of who we are, we are able to live a satisfying and healthy life. We also prevent dysfunction and stuckness which can manifest as PTSD and, if not treated becomes complex PTSD, which robs our lives of joy and well-being. Untreated trauma becomes a part of society creating pathological behaviours, substance abuse, racism, violence and misogyny. (Judith Herman, Trauma and Recovery, 1997, Basic Books, NY, NY).
Judith Herman’s phases of recovery are: establishing safety, telling our story, and restoring connection. We cannot recover unless we are safe because our bodies and minds are in a state of high alert essentially, Fight, Flight or Freeze. Our number one task is to find safety. People who dissociate are seeking safety. Their mind disconnects from reality in an attempt to remove themselves from the situation. Seeking safety for some people is very challenging. We know that for spousal abuse victims, leaving is by far the most dangerous step to take. Many women are victims of violence after they leave. Seeking safety is important but safe planning is essential.
The second phase is telling our story which is telling someone about what happened. Finding a person to trust is the most difficult part of this phase. Many people have been betrayed and abused repeatedly so maybe their first telling of their story is to a counsellor or mental health professional. Someone validating their story is immensely therapeutic. They do not have to relive their experience, but acknowledging that something very difficult happened to them is helpful. Some psychotherapists believe going over the details of their trauma is therapeutic. Others like me are concerned that reliving trauma is retraumatizing. Therapists who use EMDR and other modalities can heal clients without reliving every difficult detail of their trauma. Staying in the present helps people feel safe because they have the ability to control the present not the past or the future.
The third phase, restoring connection with people who are supportive and trustworthy is not easy because isolation is usually a result of shame and guilt. Putting that aside is difficult but when we talk to others, we most likely will find others with similar stories. Letting go of shame and guilt is easier with the connection and support of others. Recovering and getting one’s life on track definitely takes time and is an individual process. It is life-affirming when we understand we are not alone, and we are in the process of recovering.
Regarding the present pandemic, it is a very challenging situation, there is a lot of uncertainty. We do not know when things will get back to “normal” and feel we have some semblance of control over the situation, I think we will all will feel different when we are feeling safe again and can return to some of the activities and life we had before COVID-19. Seeing the situation as an opportunity for growth and insight and changing what no longer serves us will help us enter the acceptance phase and restore connection with others in our life.