The Coronavirus Pandemic seemed to come out of nowhere. It has caused unprecedented suffering and death, not to mention shutting down thriving economies. Emotionally and physically for so many, Covid-19 is a mass trauma. One of the features of trauma is the disorientation, the way none of it makes sense. But research based on first responders to 9/11 has shown that we can recover when we do make sense of it.
What can we do to help with trauma?
Resilience to trauma was a major area of study after 9/11, and one of the labs which studied it was at Binghamton University. That lab has put out a new paper focused on what helped in the past and how that applies to the stress of the Covid-19 pandemic.
“I think an important takeaway from our article is that many individuals exhibit recovery and resilience in response to mass traumas, which is an optimistic finding,” Craig Polizzi, first author of the paper, told me in an email. That perspective is encouraging, coming from someone who referred to Covid-19 as “the invisible enemy, the angel of death, a relentless and soulless invader that has infected the global psyche with fear,” in the paper.
The authors expect that, like past disasters, the coronavirus pandemic will lead to an array of mental illnesses and addictions. Underneath, all of those problems are driven by one key emotion. Fear.
Fear and the related feelings of helplessness and uncertainty are drivers of trauma response. To boost resilience and counteract fear, stress researchers refer to the “3 Cs” model: control, coherence, and connectedness. And that means finding coping strategies to engage all three.
Many people are finding some sense of control by scheduling their days or learning how to protect themselves from the virus. And the surge in video chatting shows how hard we are working to maintain our connection to each other. But for many of us, coherence may be the hardest to find.
What is coherence?
Traumatic events shock our systems. They don’t fit into the way we think the world works. Even if we do believe such things are part of life, the actual experience is overwhelming. They simply don’t make sense; traumatic events are incoherent.
Getting over something traumatic is impossible until we make sense of it. What do we do with a deadly disease turning our world upside down? We have to develop a narrative that brings meaning to what has happened, and leaves room for hope.
According to the study, “coherence, is founded in the deeply human desire to make sense and meaning of the world. Developing a coherent narrative of what has happened and what can be done to live each day safely and fully, is a challenging yet rewarding endeavor.”
Everyone is creating a narrative about coronavirus.
Whether we recognize it or not, all of us have formed our own narratives to make sense of the coronavirus pandemic. We can’t help it, we are driven to make meaning out of hard times.
The type of narrative we choose will have a lot to do with whether we develop mental health problems during Covid-19 or not. And we also respond to different narratives based on what scares us most.
For instance, many people are drawn to narratives that provide a sense of control by making the world feel less chaotic. Chaos is scary, but conspiracy theories, as odd as they may seem to many, provide a compelling story that someone is pulling the strings. That’s the appeal of Plandemic, or of the idea that the virus was intentionally created or spread. (It wasn’t. Nature sucks sometimes.)
And of course, a narrative that says the virus doesn’t actually exist so it’s safe to go out helps people avoid dealing with the problem entirely. Unfortunately, that denial could be fatal if they get sick with Covid-19.
But what if we consider a narrative about coming together and facing this in our shared humanity? What if our narrative includes our strengths, or our caring for each other? Narratives rich in connection and love can lead to much better mental health outcomes.
How to find coherence in the middle of Covid-19.
If the idea of “developing a coherent narrative” sounds like a lot, it can help to have a starting point. The study authors have one to suggest called acceptance based coping.
So much of the stress we feel when faced with trauma is the effort of avoiding the unpleasant emotions that the trauma causes. That’s where the term “triggering” comes from. A trigger is something that reminds us of the traumatic event brings up related emotions. Most of us avoid triggers, and in so doing we make it harder for ourselves to bounce back.
The idea behind acceptance based coping is not to change what has happened or our feelings about it. We can’t. Instead, we want to change how we relate to our feelings and the uncontrollable events that triggered them. The goal, according to the study, is to become “nonjudgmentally aware of the flux of internal states that arise in response to them (e.g., fears, doubts, self-blame) in an accepting and planful manner.”
Wait. That’s mindfulness. And mindfulness could be a problem because of a common mistake people make when they try it. Jamie Gruman recently pointed this out in Psychology Today. He reviewed the research showing that mindfulness can cause harm if people simply use it to focus on their experiences. Mindfulness used successfully involves both experiencing our emotions AND accepting them. Without the acceptance, focusing on our experiences has been associated with poor mental health outcomes.
The authors of this study agree, and emphasize the acceptance part of mindfulness. They point out that “learning that a ‘thought is just a thought’ or that worries are evanescent and morph transparently into another thought or feeling” helps us increase our stress tolerance and makes room for us to enjoy the good things.
“Also, people are unique,” Polizzi wrote in a email, “and the way they cope should be consistent with their unique needs and values. As such, we suggested a variety of techniques so people can determine the strategies that work best for them during this perilous time. For example, I enjoy practicing mindfulness during my day where I take several minutes to notice my thoughts and emotions. But other people may enjoy journaling or painting about their experience while others may be more inclined to volunteer or talk to loved ones to cope with stress.”
When we find meaning, we recover.
After 9/11, finding meaning made all the difference for mental health. According to the study, “those people who found meaning in the attacks by aligning with their personal values… and responsibilities, while acknowledging the emotional weight of the attack, fared particularly well in terms of low rates of psychological complications and increased resilience.”
Notice that key phrase: “while acknowledging the emotional weight of the attack.” That’s the truly difficult part. We haven’t found coherence or healing until we have felt the grief.
It’s a heavy time as all of humanity faces a disease on a scale we have not known in generations. The way through starts with acknowledging that it has happened and will be with us for some time to come. That’s when we show our resilience.