Psychologists featured in blogs and newscasts have focused on helping people ease their immediate struggles with anxiety. These experts publicize breathing techniques, diet, physical exercise, and sleep hygiene. They recommend getting together with friends and extended family over the internet. From this perspective, there isn’t much point to recommend more than basic cognitive-behavioral coping skills as the solution to pandemic suffering. If the anxiety attached to the pandemic is mostly about social distancing, fear of infection (or fear of the vaccine), temporary financial insecurity, and uncertain working conditions, then once the pandemic is under control, our anxieties will fade away naturally. Anecdotal evidence even suggests a single vaccine dose improves psychological functioning (Yousif, 2021, May 23).
This interpretation of our current stress leads to an obvious question: Do those who are struggling with mental health issues during the pandemic merely need more finely tuned coping skills? Are those who are suffering the most—the later Generation Z (18-24 years old)—simply too young and naïve to overcome a global crisis?
As I mentioned in the previous issue of Positive Living in Difficult Times, the history of pandemics tells us that our current situation has more profound effects on our mental health than merely a temporary interruption of daily life. According to historians Frankema and Tworek (2020, November 6), “Pandemics are central to global history. They have global impact and create anchor points in time. They also interrogate the foundations of society, the sustainability of its material basis, the role of expertise, our social codes, and behavioural norms.”
Similarly, Rose (2020, July 20) wrote that pandemics generate or maintain social disorientation: “Like all pandemics, COVID-19 is not an accidental or random event. Epidemics afflict societies through the specific vulnerabilities people have created by their relationships with the environment, other species, and each other.” Citing Snowden’s (2020) history of pandemics, Rose goes further: “Each of the many epidemics Snowden cites represents a writ-large example of a social crisis and often a political one as well. Each disease discussed has resulted in some sort of society-wide anomic situation.”
Apart from our invitation to COVID-19 through densely populated urban centers, rapid transportation systems, and our invasion of animal habitat (particularly our multiple contacts with bats), we are feeling anxious from a growing social isolation.
Anxiety in a Time of Transition
Eagleton (2008) tells us that any time society is in transition its inhabitants feel anxious. They feel Rose’s social disorientation and begin pondering their personal priorities versus those that society imposes on them. It’s curious that people who live contented, predictable lives don’t feel this way. They don’t tend to question how they are living or whether their goals will truly fulfill them; they just live. As soon as our assumptions and expectations are interrupted, however, anxiety arises as we start questioning what the good life is.
Here are a few anxieties that have arisen during the current pandemic, which show how we’re questioning the status quo:
- Because most of the workers who lost their jobs were women, commentators have questioned more intensely why women are treated as less important than men are in the workplace.
- The pandemic has plunged the economy to levels not seen since the Great Depression, although we’re rebounding faster than anticipated. It has generated wealth for select businesses attached to the pandemic, such as pharmaceutical companies; but it has also highlighted financial inequalities, both among workers and among nations. Talk of financial reform is robust (except in the financial community). We hear many discussions of subsidizing a minimum standard of living or free college tuition.
- The public has widely condemned senior political figures who secretly vacation abroad after telling their constituents to stay home. In fact, researchers discovered that once the public learned that Boris Johnson’s senior advisor secretly took a trip to visit his parents, adherence to restrictions dropped significantly.
- The pandemic has made it abundantly clear that health care systems favor the privileged. Eliminating patents on vaccines would make them readily available to protect poorer nations, but the pharmaceutical companies have balked at the suggestion. Similarly, we’ve seen long-term care homes take government handouts during the pandemic and then give shareholders the profits, without adequately addressing infection control.
- Public protests and complaints express mistrust of politicians and governments, which have scrambled to come up with infection control measures, often choosing making money over the health and safety of residents. Some even doubt the government’s capacity to understand the pandemic, let alone financial, social, and other issues.
The pandemic didn’t initiate these issues—frustration with a patriarchal workplace, mistrust of authority, disgust with financial and health systems that favor the rich—but it certainly made them more public and compelling. The anxiety such issues express is well beyond any immediate stressor, such as travel restrictions or the uncertainty of returning to work. Much of our pandemic anxiety is the stress from such issues.
An Existential Anxiety
These anxiety-producing upsets are piled onto the fear of infection, irritations of wearing a mask, and frustration at being unable to go to a restaurant or playground. They pose a threat to our well-being because the pandemic has made it obvious that business as usual, the old normal, is no longer sustainable. They speak directly to how we make sense of our lives and the world around us.
Existential positive psychology (PP 2.0), the new science of flourishing through suffering, offers help for this stress. While recognizing the value of mainstream recommendations for reducing harm, PP 2.0 allows us to peel off a few surface layers to address the pandemic’s existential anxieties.
The benefit is that we can transcend our biology and environment through new ways of making sense of ourselves and the world around us. Such an approach helps us not only overcome COVID-19 but all our life struggles:
- How can I confront my anxieties—of death, financial insecurity, unfairness, uncertainty—with responsibility and resilience?
- How can I feel more comfortable when faced with situations for which there are no ready answers?
- How can I feel more fulfilled in my work?
- How can I face sickness and death with courage?
- How can I show moral courage in the face of dangers and risks?
- How can I use my negative emotions—shame, anger—as a catalyst to achieving a sustainable happiness?
These questions are, of course, just some of the themes for the 2021 meaning conference, and you can see that the answers to these questions would be life-altering. Discovering workable answers to these questions requires more than basic cognitive-behavioral approaches. Yet the payoff is the ability to manage one’s anxieties whether under COVID-19, or faced with the uncertainties attached to death, a new career, or other stressor.
Managing Stress is About Making Coherent Sense of our Lives
Traditional stress tests in psychology propose that one’s stress level is the sum of individual stressors. It may, however, be more accurate to interpret stress as a function of how we interpret our lives. Antonovsky (1987) proposed that if people had a good “sense of coherence,” that is, if they could make good sense of their lives and feel confident that they can overcome problems, then they likely won’t be too stressed too much by individual stressors. On the other hand, if people struggle with self-awareness and self-esteem and are confused about the trajectory of their lives, even a single stressor can send their anxiety through the roof, leading to illness.
The best protection we have against COVID-19’s psychological impact—or a diagnosis of cancer or loss of a loved one—is the ability to manage our lives. If we accept death, suffering, anger, shame, and so on are part of what it means to be human, then we are able to use these to our advantage. We can’t simply eliminate these ‘negative’ feelings; they are as natural to life as a heartbeat.
Schulenberg (2020) has pointed out that meaning, resilience, and personal growth can result from experiencing a disaster. Similarly, McBride and Joseph (2021, May 15) discussed case studies of individuals struggling with trauma who experienced personal growth during the pandemic. As McBride stated, “We do not have meaningful lives in the absence of distress, trauma, and suffering.”
Antonovsky, A. (1987). Unraveling the mystery of health. How people manage stress and stay well. Jossey-Bass.
Chotiner, I. (2020, March 3). Pandemics change history. The New Yorker [online].
De Witte, M. (2020, April 30). Past pandemics redistributed income between the rich and poor, according to Stanford historian. Stanford News [online].
Dunham, J. (2021, May 21). Anxious about returning to pre-pandemic life? Here are tips on how to cope. CTV News [online].
Eagleton, T. (2008). The meaning of life: A very short introduction. Oxford.
Frankema, E., & Tworek, H. (2020, November 6). Special issue: Pandemics that changed the world: Historical reflections on COVID-19. Journal of Global History, 15(3) [online]. Cambridge University Press.
McBride, H., & Joseph, A. (2021, May 15). An accelerated emergence of the self: The drive toward self-righting and experience of personal growth during the Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. Presentation at the annual conference of the Canadian Counselling and Psychotherapy Association.
Rose, P. I. (2020, July 20). Frank M. Snowden, Epidemics and society: From the Black Death to the present. Society [Epub ahead of print]. Doi: 10.1007/s12115-020-00517-z
Schulenberg, S. (Ed.). (2020). Positive psychological approaches to disaster. Springer.
Snowden, F. M. (2019). Epidemics and society: From the Black Death to the Present. Yale University Press. Doi: 10.2307/j.ctvqc6gg5.
Spinney, L. (2019, October 15). How pandemics shape social evolution. Nature [online].
Yousif, N. (2021, May 23). ‘Your perception changes.’ For many, one vaccine dose has a clear psychological effect. Toronto Star [online].