When the first wave of coronavirus struck back in March, we surprised ourselves with how well we coped psychologically and with how well we collectively responded to the challenge. People almost universally accepted the public health message of “coming together as a nation, by individually staying apart”.
There were high levels of altruism and community spirit; frontline workers were valued and supported. Those who suffered losses experienced understanding, and there was a collective drive to protect the vulnerable in society.
Now as we face into the second wave of the virus, the public mood is more fractious, jaded and fatigued. We are facing into a challenging winter with no end in sight. It is easier to experience a sense of camaraderie queuing outside the supermarket in the summer than during a cold, dark wet winter’s evening.
In addition, the normal social events that sustain us through winter feel under threat. These include sport, music and theatre, family rituals over Halloween and our collective celebrations of Christmas. It can feel like we have nothing to look forward to and there is widespread gloom and psychological fatigue.
As we move forward, learning to manage our individual and collective mood will be crucial to determining how well we manage the ongoing coronavirus crisis.
Focusing on personal coping
For individuals coping with an ongoing stressful challenge, the first step is to acknowledge what we experience and to give space to the emotions we feel. It is normal for us to feel upset, angry and depressed about what is happening and to be fearful and worried about the future. Being able to talk about our feelings and to reach out for support is key to supporting our mental health.
As we learned in the first phase of the virus, simple things make the difference in our psychological coping such as keeping exercise in our daily routines (even though it is getting darker), continuing to eat healthily, limiting our intake of “bad news” from TV and social media and focusing on small enjoyable goals each day.
Keeping going psychologically is about adapting these routines into the autumn and winter.
Managing our anger
As the coronavirus crisis continues indefinitely, a particular challenge will be managing the growing anger that people experience about the losses and restrictions they are enduring. The problem with anger is that it is an irrational emotion that we can easily direct at those close to us and which can lead to fracture and division in communities.
In social media, we see how easily certain groups get scapegoated for spreading the virus – whether it is young people at parties, migrant workers in factories or even a rural/urban divide. Anger and fear feed conspiracy theories and dangerous anti-science ideas – that coronavirus is no worse than the flu, that wearing face masks or even vaccines are affronts to our freedom.
While our anger and upset at the enduring crisis is understandable, it is important to temper it by reason and to channel this at the right target rather than at each other. In simple terms there is no one to blame for the virus other than the virus itself.
Rather than fighting with one another, we need to use our anger to help us bond together to defeat the virus. This might mean redoubling our efforts at keeping to social health guidelines and supporting families and communities during the hard times. Learning to channel our anger correctly is to the best way to motivate ourselves and to overcome psychological fatigue.
Living well in the new reality
Going forward, the key to coping is to learn to live well in the new reality of the virus. There are no quick fixes and no easy solutions. Rather than wishing we could return to normal, we need to focus on living more resourcefully with the reality we have. Psychologically, we do need things to look forward to and to have enjoyable events in our diaries.
Let’s use our collective creativity to explore how we can create social, artistic and sporting events that are safe and that we can still enjoy. As parents how can we help our children still enjoy the fun and magic of Halloween in ways that respect public health guidelines?
Rather than just blaming people for going to parties, how we can all facilitate our collective need to socialise and connect in positive and safe ways? There must be many new creative outdoor and indoor ways that are safe and that allow this.
As we move into the winter and towards Christmas, we need to think of new rituals and events that will allow us to renew our family and social bonds in ways that sustain us.
Reaching out to help others
While there may be no particular group to blame for the crisis, there are many who are much more adversely affected than others. These include people living alone who are experiencing increasing isolation, people who have lost their jobs and businesses, and those directly affected by the illness.
The mark of our collective coping will be in how we share the burden across society and look after everyone together. While some people are experiencing economic hardship, others continue in employment and prosper.
As the challenges of recession come down the tracks, we need to support fair measures that support everyone in society. This includes both Government and society-wide measures, as well as individual efforts to reach out to those less fortunate.
This “altruism” is not just for the benefit of those who are less well off, but for the benefit of everyone in our communities. Societies that are most equitable promote the greatest amount of collective well being.
The simple message is that we are all in this together and that if we all try to pull together then we are most likely to get through.
Dr John Sharry is a social worker, founder of the Parents Plus Charity and an adjunct professor at the UCD School of Psychology. See solutiontalk.ie