Other than the Diary of Samuel Peeps, there is little to enlighten us on how humans survived the brutality of the plague. Those who were lucky enough to stay alive during a world war did not discuss how they felt about the horrors they had seen; nor did society measure the impacts of a global war on the emotional well-being of the population.
But this current threat to our global survival has seen us bombarded with facts and opinion about how the pandemic has impacted our mental health. And there is no denying the impact is being felt in my therapy room.
As a Clinical Psychologist, I work daily with clients who have suffered trauma; an immediate threat to our own lives and the lives of those around us is widely recognised as the cause of major psychological disturbance.
The pandemic has produced trauma on a global scale.
Faced with the daily threat of catching a deadly virus, health anxiety has exploded. Many of my clients have become primed for catastrophe, constantly stuck in fight or flight, their minds and bodies struggling to cope with the emotional and physical side effects of extreme anxiety. We know that an inability to deal with uncertainty points to a propensity towards depression and anxiety. So, for some, particularly those with a pre-existing mental health condition, it has been an overwhelming struggle to manage their ongoing obsession about Covid-19 and fear of death. As a professional, the uncertainty can seem more difficult to put into perspective when the entire world is experiencing a global threat to life.
As well as daily fears for our physical state, I have witnessed a huge increase in families at war; the confinement of lockdown forcing us to live together in a way which is unprecedented. No outlet for emotion other than towards each other - anger, despair and the loss of social lives creating a perfect household storm for so many of my clients. I often find in my therapeutic work with families, that space for processing and reflection is vital between sessions. This doesn’t have to mean living separately (although pre- covid this wasn’t unusual), but being able to escape, to remove themselves from close contact while digesting and learning about the emotions and techniques we have unpicked in the therapy room. This is impossible when all members of a family are tightly confined to the covid unit.
And for every household devastated by the suffocation of family living, there is someone living alone and without hope. My daily practice provides a constant reminder that it is those clients living alone who have particularly struggled with deterioration in their mental health.
As the therapist it can be challenging to encourage clients to do more of what they enjoy during a lockdown. Sensitivity to the practical limitations, whilst also maintaining the need to provide opportunities to promote positivity, is an issue. Online connections have been a lifeline for many, but they are not a substitute for those face to face activities that bring us joy, allowing us to authentically be in the moment with another. With social connection so inhibited I had to be creative to find new ways of increasing hope, helping client’s believe the threat would eventually pass.
The pandemic has removed our freedom whilst simultaneously creating long term uncertainty. We lost the freedom of spontaneity, no longer able to create those little sparks of excitement, such as going to the cinema or meeting a friend for coffee. With the whole world unable to travel, some families have been separated, often on different continents, for over two years. For many, this has meant missing major life events and resulted in an overwhelming sense of loss. Clients have presented with depression, increased anger and resentment as well as chronic stress in response to not knowing when, or even if, they will be reunited with loved ones. Many more have been debilitated by financial ruin because of job losses due to the pandemic, the prospect of freedom soured by the inability to afford a return to the pre covid lifestyle and a catalyst for depression.
Despite the ongoing hardship and worry caused by the global pandemic, we have been given the gift of greater awareness and understanding. Many clients told me that they appraised their priorities and value their family and friends more as the result of the pandemic. Working from home has also become more acceptable and hence for many without daily commute, their quality of life has vastly improved and allows greater flexibility such as picking up children from school or practising lunchtime yoga. I think it is fair to say that most parents now hold teachers at higher esteem, greatly relieved that they no longer need to battle with home-schooling and the subsequent stresses it caused.
I think that aftermath of the pandemic will continue to be present in the therapy room, but I also think there have been some positive aspects and learning points for my clients – all of which are paradoxically likely to enrich their lives in the future.