We have to understand that everyone has different reactions and coping mechanisms to deal with the Coronavirus quarantine, which has to be acknowledged as a “traumatic” experience for most. Trauma is the experience of severe psychological distress following any terrible or life-threatening event, which is the case at present. We are all going through a collective traumatic experience that most of us have never experienced before and none of us were remotely prepared for. Those going through trauma may face emotional distress such as extreme sadness and outbursts of anger, PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder), exacerbation of ongoing insomnia and sleep disturbances, physical pain, and turbulence in their personal and professional relationships. Furthermore, being in constant proximity with family or paradoxically in complete self-isolation can induce a questioning of self-worth , bring up feelings of low self-esteem, raising stress levels. This challenge has also brought up issues of insecurity regarding our own and our loved ones’ health, and pushed us into an existential crisis (questioning the meaning of life). All this may put us into “fight, flight or freeze” mode, which is the human body’s natural reaction to danger or perceived threat, and run havoc on our nervous systems.
We need to remind ourselves that drowning in six feet of water or in the ocean is, at the end of the day, still drowning. So let’s not lay a guilt trip on ourselves and other people
We have all seen quotes such as “we are all in the same storm but in different boats” going around on social media. While it may be true that some people may seem to have better “means” to get through the pandemic, (e.g. a day labourer has a hard time feeding his family, while others have food on their tables and fewer financial worries), we have to take into account individual and intangible differences that make some people vulnerable. Secondly, we need to remind ourselves that drowning in six feet of water or in the ocean is, at the end of the day, still drowning. So let’s not lay a guilt trip on ourselves and other people. Yes, this time, absolutely should make us more empathetic to the plight of others who have lived or are currently living in traumatic situations with no end in sight, e.g. in Kashmir, Yemen and other war zones. You can take the proactive approach to help them in a way that is meaningful and feasible for you, as helping others has scientifically proven to contribute to your own mental well being.
Nevertheless, it should not stop you from directing a bit of that empathy and kindness to yourself and others whom you think “should” be grateful as they don’t have to worry about basic necessities. After all empathy is a limitless commodity and everyone, including ourselves, deserve some of it now. Others seem to be on a mission (albeit with good intentions) to relentlessly pressurize us to be more motivated and productive, we are bombarded with posts and videos about how we should be using this time as an opportunity to learn a new skill, enhance our children’s practical, analytical and creative intelligence, be the family chef, psychologist, cleaner, teacher, gardener (and a million other things and be perfect at all these tasks), write a book (or two), spring clean our closets and ourselves, learn a new language, connect with God, connect with nature, connect with ourselves, meditate, eat healthy, lose weight, read two books a day, basically do whatever we have been putting off for a lifetime and emerge from this period as an altogether better, improved almost super human versions of ourselves. While it’s great that some of us are able to reap the benefits of the more gainful aspects of the quarantine, it is equally important to remind ourselves that everyone processes events in a distinctive manner. We all have our own unique biology, biography, conflicted history, family and other dynamics that makes us individuals and we need to respect those differences in ourselves and in others. Not all of us can be highly productive and it may be a particularly difficult time for some of us. Yet we continue to label ourselves (or be labeled by others) as “lazy” when we may simply be overwhelmed and doing the best we can. As Carl Jung pointed out “The shoe that fits one person pinches another; there is no recipe for living that suits all cases”.
All this performance and expectation related anxiety can incite guilt in us, which can be a form of emotional abuse we inflict on ourselves. A distinction has to be made here between true and false guilt. True guilt is a vital and appropriate tool in maintaining standards of right and wrong in individuals and in society as a whole. On the other hand, false guilt is destructive and detrimental, as it includes feeling guilty for events which are out of our control. Unfortunately, false guilt is more likely to kick in at this time as most of what is happening at the moment is beyond our control. Many of us will be facing “Survivor’s guilt”. This is a term that describes feelings of guilt that come from having done something wrong or not having done enough, for surviving a traumatic event, which this is. Individuals experiencing survivor’s guilt may constantly be asking themselves things like, “Why did I survive when others didn’t?” and “Why wasn’t I impacted as badly as others?”, “Why am I not better able to cope and have more resources?” “Why am I so ungrateful?”. Guilt is indeed a strong emotion, and can incite a variety of harmful symptoms. This ineffectual emotional self-abuse can be restrained by practicing a little self-compassion and reaching out for professional help if needed. Next week, we will focus at some ways in which we can incorporate self-compassion and empathy into our lives.
(The author is a humanistic and clinical psychologist. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)