Therapy in the Time of Pandemic

This website begins at the time of a global pandemic. Life has changed for everyone everywhere in the world. There is no place away from the virus and its impact. No one will remain untouched however well protected we are. We are facing great challenges that will last for some time. We can embrace them as opportunities – to change what needs changing for the better – right now.

We already see how the Earth is healing during the imposed lockdown on human activity. Some of us are lucky that we can now spend more time in nature – our village is in the midst of a beautiful countryside and we walk in nature every day embracing the beauty of spring. We have also seen unprecedented connectedness between people in old and novel ways, right in the midst of physical isolation – Zoom being one of the most popular new online environments – my new socialising and working space. Innovation has sprung abundantly from human activity now. And, underneath it all (despite media and political garbage bombarding the world), we have seen the daily manifestation of the power of the human spirit. I think of everyone who continues to stand for care, love and truth; I think, in particular, about our doctors, nurses and all frontline workers who risk their life on duty now, and also – of people like Captain Tom here in the UK, whose strength of spirit has inspired tremendous human generosity that testifies: we never walk alone. We never should walk alone. What do the virus and the pandemic represent for you? Where do you stand in the midst of it all?

Every crisis is both a challenge and an opportunity. How can you embrace the opportunities the current pandemic presents? How do you save yourself from drowning in anxiety, despair, loss, rage, violence or confusion, and, instead – how do you feel empowered, hopeful, whole, passionate, full of life, giving and receiving love, staying in touch with our insatiable life-force, and being held by the Earth and the insurmountable lightness of the human spirit? 
 
This global pandemic tests our very innermost resources to live and thrive. Here, I list some of the current key challenges with psychological implications (they are enhanced by wider social, economic and political challenges):
– facing high levels of continuous and ubiquitous uncertainty and a threat to one’s health (and even life) while losing the existing boundaries, routines and support pillars of daily life; 
– daily witnessing or partaking in suffering (and witnessing could sometimes be a source of secondary trauma);
– having to work in challenging new ways or losing pay and work;
– experiencing and witnessing all sorts of losses, including the loss of life or bodily capacity, loss of loved ones, loss of income or even a home, or other sources of basic human security;
– feeling the pain of loneliness, poverty, insecurity, stress and anxiety;
– suffering discrimination, abuse, inequality or other forms of violence inflicted directly by others or by a system;
– feeling too much, too little, too frequent or misdirected feelings, such as anger or rage; 
– having to parent children in isolation and under tremendous stress while trying to deliver on your job;
– caring and loving in extreme or, at best, unusual circumstances, including having to spend long periods of time in close interaction with your family without the support of usual routines and boundaries; and many others.
 
We need to pause and make sense of what are the specific challenges for us. We need space and time to process them, that is, to understand them so that we feel empowered to make active choices in how we live through the pandemic and beyond. 

In a way, the wider world, as we knew it, has been lost forever (even if we do not want to believe it), and yet, we have hardly had the time or space to see this, to grieve this loss and to explore what this loss represents for us. Some of us are yet to come to terms with this major loss. We have all possibly been in a bit of a shock. Many feel it all happened too quickly and out of nowhere. Everything changed almost overnight. While there is physical devastation at stake, our habitual ways of being have been devastated all around too. The initial shock of this ubiquitous devastation has taken its time to penetrate every home and workplace. The joy of isolation (that I will discuss in another blog) is a breather, and a helpful one too, but still, we need to look at the shock. Shock is the first stage of grief (if we refer to the stages of grief described eloquently by Elisabeth Kubler Ross and David Kessler in the context of loss). It is a physiological as well as a psychological response to extreme devastation. And coming to terms with it properly, is an important prerequisite to preparing fertile ground for healing our hearts, our lives and our communities. 

When in shock, our bodies may be numb to the felt experiences of pain, anxiety, fear or anger. As we come out of the shock, all these strong feelings might begin to flood in, especially if we have kept them pushed away. How can we navigate through them while keeping our lives going. However challenging, feeling the depth of our feelings is a fruitful way forward. It is important to remember that feelings of sadness and anger might surface next, just as in the classic (even if always uneven) experience of grief – we might have these feelings come up rather unexpectedly or in unpredicted spaces and situations. Let them come. Don’t stop them. You are not going mad, just letting go. They will naturally subside and clear the path to embracing the new life.

Moving along this journey with care and making space for the feelings along the way, is essential, otherwise, they might return to haunt us – as we always see with people who have to deal with unexpressed grief. Unexpressed grief often manifests itself in panic attacks, heightened anxiety or depression among others. Making sense of this journey and its accompanying feelings is best in the company of our trusted and safe social and spiritual communities. When these are not available or sufficient, therapy can offer support.

Therapy is a way of contextualising and making sense of our feelings and finding how we can work through them without fear, and, in a fruitful, special way, for example, by oscillating together – gently and with care – between the unbearable and bearable feelings or images, between lack of safety and safety, and between holding onto and letting go. We could work together in a variety of meaningful ways to get stronger – instead of harming ourselves or others through neglecting our true selves, by arresting love and by ignoring, undermining, blocking, glossing or making fantasies about our feelings – all these surviving strategies always fail sooner or later and pave the way to depression, panic attacks, chronic anxiety, addictions and various mental health problems. Working through our feelings of loss in a healing way can be a very insightful, enriching, experience and often, it can bring a welcome relief (enhanced by the many masters of trauma work and by such neatly, simply structured and comforting concepts like those by Judith Kubler Ross and David Kessler and the numerous websites describing or debating their “stages of grief”). While we are busy working, adjusting, setting new routines and caring for others, our grief may remain unprocessed. We have to find a way to pause from the daily haste, make some space and work kindly through the debris.

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