While issues around the pandemic have been to the fore up to now, many will find it difficult .to readjust to life in the aftermath of lockdown, writes clinical psychologist Paul Gilligan.
Trauma and loss have been at the centre of our lives for the last five months. Concerns and uncertainty about the future and how it will be shaped are adding to our challenges.
Increased levels of anxiety and depression, while normal, are impacting on us all. The psychological process we are going through is moving us from shock and fear, through denial, anger, and depression to resolution.
Getting blocked at any of these stages or finding these feelings are adding to our existing mental health difficulties may be resulting in challenges.
Our mental health, while determined by our personality, emotional resilience, and support systems, will also be impacted by our individual experiences throughout this crisis.
Empowerment, or our ability to feel in control of our lives, has been significantly reduced, impacting on our confidence and preparedness to take risks. Many of the activities we previously engaged in to relax or resolve stress have now been removed, with no certainty as to when we will be able to re-engage in them.
Many have seen our lives turned upside down, with the exams we have been preparing for over the last six years cancelled, having to cocoon because of our age, finding ourselves furloughed or unemployed, or finding our livelihoods threatened. Some of us will have gotten the virus and will have experienced the fear, isolation, and physical challenges it carries, and others will have lost loved ones.
While our main focus has been on avoiding and fighting this pandemic, the psychological journey of recovery will represent our biggest challenge.
Psychological resilience and adaptability are essential aspects of being human and over the coming months our main focus will need to be on finding this inner strength in ourselves.
For some of us, this will require additional help and support. Being prepared to seek this help will demonstrate courage not weakness; ‘leading by example’ rather than ‘letting the team down’.
Yes, we are all in this together, but achieving psychological resolution will be an individual journey. Tackling our anxieties and fears with the accurate facts and information is the starting point.
It will require us to begin taking back control of our lives and making plans for the future, knowing that these might have to change or adapt. It will involve us being prepared to re-evaluate our lives and to fight for and enhance the things in them that add to our happiness, fulfilment and sense of worth.
It may require us to address the negative lifestyle patterns we have developed and to re-establish healthy patterns. Building or enhancing the skills we have that support our emotional resilience such as reinforcing our self-worth, self-confidence, and emotional-awareness is vital to the process.
The return to intimacy and socialisation may be understandably not a high priority but we need to be confident and committed to ensuring that we will go back to being able to hug our loved ones and friends, meet in restaurants, get our hair done, and go to cinemas, sports events, and theatres. The importance of these cannot be underestimated and are essential to our wellbeing.
Each of us have experienced loss over the last five months and the impact of this needs to be understood and resolved. Giving ourselves permission to acknowledge our own losses, no matter how they might seem to compare with the extent of other’s losses, is vital.
This requires us finding meaning in our individual losses and understanding how they are impacting on our psychological wellness. While empathising with others is important, comparisons have no part to play in our personal resolution journey.
Guilt has been a common side-effect for many of us over the last five months. Feelings that we have not done enough, that we have not, like others, used this opportunity to self-develop are common.
Deep down, we know that this is irrational and destructive thinking which needs to be confronted. Each of us is taking our own individual journey through this crisis, doing our best to meet our challenges while doing what we can to be part of the broader response. We cannot expect any more from ourselves.
Feeling secure and safe is an important component of mental health, and it is this that has taken the biggest impact. The lockdown, despite its negative effects, did carry with it the security of making us feel that we are safe.
Being prepared to re-enter society, with the risks still existing, will require psychological fortitude. It will require us to re-establish control of our lives, to take back responsibility for our own behaviour, and to be prepared to confront our fears. Refocusing our anger on constructive questioning and challenge will be an important part of the recovery and re-empowerment process.
Some of the changes imposed upon us have been positive. Spending more time with immediate family, finding creative new ways to socialise and relax, working from home, and spending less time commuting, have been a significant benefit for many. Consolidating and drawing off these experiences will be important as we move forward. Holding on to the positive changes will need to be balanced with our need to regain some of our losses.
We all have a right to feel angry, depressed, and anxious about what has happened to us over the last five months. The sacrifices, the losses, and the exhaustion we have endured are real and painful. The future is uncertain, the psychological challenges significant, and the societal and financial uncertainty substantial.
Arising from this crisis is the opportunity to emerge psychologically stronger, more focused on what we value and what we are prepared to fight for. This will require awareness, courage and hard work.
Building our psychological wellness and resilience now will help us prepare best for the journey ahead. Finding our inner resilience and strength is the only way forward.
Paul Gilligan, clinical psychologist, CEO St Patrick’s Mental Health Care