COVID-19 has impacted on our individual lives in various ways, ranging from depression to isolation anxiety, despair, trauma, and bereavement. Whilst COVID-19 is new to us all, the psychological issues surrounding it are not. As a counsellor, I am experienced in dealing with many of these issues.
Of all the losses which accompany COVID-19, bereavement is probably the most challenging. Current social distancing rules and restrictions around funerals have left many grieving in isolation, alone and unable to seek much-needed comfort from friends and family. Many people have been unable to say goodbye or attend the funeral of a loved one. We have grieved this way for centuries, and the funeral ritual not only brings us comfort, but is part of a process to help us reach acceptance of losing a loved one. Being unable to participate in this ritual makes it likely that many of us will endure more complex bereavement.
There are many reasons why individuals may experience more complex grief, one being the lack of a social network. As well as gaining support and comfort from family and friends, it is important that loved ones of the deceased can come together and share memories to make sense of their loss. The loss of a loved one is extremely challenging in normal circumstances, so it seems inhumane that COVID-19 has taken away our right to grieve in a normal way.
Whilst COVID-19 has greatly impacted on our grieving process, complex bereavements are not new. I have practiced in hospices and counselled many individuals experiencing more complex grief. The counselling process has enabled these individuals to reach acceptance of their loss.
Today we are all grieving. We are grieving the loss of our freedoms and a predictable future. All of us are fearful about work, health, our families, our feeling of safety, and our shared future in ways that were unimaginable just a short time ago. We are afraid for our parents and grandparents, our children, our jobs, our relationships, our country, our way of life, and, perhaps most deeply, our own mortality. Our individual responses to these fears can vary considerably. However, by using the universally shared experience of grief, perhaps we can gain some insight into our individual as well as our collective reactions.
Many of us are aware of the impact of isolation, and research shows that it can be greatly debilitating in terms of reducing our social skills. Much of our happiness is created by socialising, so isolation is likely to have a significant effect upon us. Some people may experience loneliness, low moods, stress and anxiety. Challenging as it is, it is hoped that most of us will gradually adjust to our new ‘normal’. Others may feel stuck and unable to move on from the trauma of a long period of isolation, so extra support, such as counselling, may be required.
Many people are now reporting a heightened sense of anxiety about COVID-19, not only relating to fears of catching the virus, but also to fears about its short and long-term financial impact upon individuals, companies, and nations.
Anxiety often causes us to feel generally unwell. The extraordinary media coverage of COVID-19 has increased people’s general anxiety and health fears. It is now virtually impossible to escape or ignore shocking announcements on a daily, or even hourly basis concerning the virus. Fears of having contracted COVID-19 can lead to even more anxiety.
Anxiety is often related to not feeling in control of the events in our lives. Right now, may people feel out of control, and also feel that the world is not a safe place.
Another main cause of anxiety is change. In the past few weeks, most of us have experienced radical changes at home and at work, but in some cases, there has been serious upheaval in people’s lives. Change takes us out of our comfort zone, and this makes most of us feel very unsafe. Anxiety is the inevitable result.
Anxiety usually puts us into a state of hypervigilance, which often makes sleeping difficult. When we do not feel refreshed by sleep, the physical sensations of exhaustion and tiredness can feel like a cold or ‘flu. Nowadays, it is understandable that this might lead to worries that the virus has been contracted, and even worse, that we might die, or that we might lose someone we know, love and care about. Excessive worrying can lead to panic or panic attacks.
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Making Positive Changes
We do not need to be resigned to unhealthy habits and thoughts. Life today has been lived at a fast pace for many, and some individuals can barely reflect on what they do, let alone on how they think. So, it may be an opportunity to make positive changes in your life! Perhaps you may have been considering change for some time, or perhaps changes are imperative for your wellbeing at the present moment. You may find that you have a lot of extra time on your hands and an opportunity to reflect on the positive changes you want to make in your life, without overthinking.
Part of the process of making positive change is to consider how we think and feel about, and react to, certain situations. It is common to feel overwhelmed: the brain goes into overdrive and the situation can feel much worse than it actually is. This greatly reduces our ability to think rationally and we are often left with irrational thoughts. The key is to recognise the triggers and bodily sensations of anxiety at an early stage, so that you can deal with them before you become overwhelmed.
Making simple changes to the way you think and behave could have a positive impact on your life. I suggest the following coping mechanisms to help make those changes:
1. Simply talking to a friend or family member can effectively reduce anxiety. It is important to remember that you will not sound silly and that many people will share your feelings, especially at the present time.
2. If you are finding it hard to speak to anyone, it can be beneficial to seek professional support.
3. Mediation, mindfulness and yoga are extremely helpful for recognising what is happening in our bodies and recognising early warning signs of anxiety.
4. Mediation, mindfulness, yoga and general exercise are especially useful for managing symptoms of stress in the longer term, but are also great tools to use in the current circumstances.
5. For some people, pursuing interests such as music, gardening, cooking or art can also reduce symptoms. What is important is that you find what works for you.
6. Assess your threat. When you feel overwhelmed with worry or fear, it is sometimes helpful to inform yourself of the facts to assess your personal level of threat.
7. Identify what you can do. When we encounter stress, it is important to ask ourselves if we can do anything about it. If there is some action we can take, then taking that action will help reduce our anxiety.
8. Accept what you cannot control. Focus on what you can do and not on what you cannot do. There will always be variables that are out of your control, and this is part of what makes COVID-19 so frightening. Sometimes, the healthiest thing we can do is accept that there is nothing we can do. Worrying, complaining, ruminating and wishing things were different are thoughts we will entertain, but if we focus on them too much, they will amplify our stress.
9. Humour is a natural stress-management tool. It enables us to minimise and cope with stress. Laughter relieves anxiety, lowers stress hormones, and helps us to calm down. I cannot tell you how to find humour in your own situation, but as much as we can, we need to laugh and just take it easy.
“That every individual has the capacity to be fully functioning person if the power of the person is given recognition.Carl Rogers