During this corona virus outbreak we must take care of our minds as well as our bodies.
I had a signal of the previous weekend. Normally the three generations of our family celebrate birthdays, tightly squeezed around our dining room table, with merry conversation and plenty of laughter. On Saturday we celebrated my granddaughter’s birthday in a park. No hugs or kisses. My arms ached to hug across the requisite two meters distance. Furtive glances. I felt like crying. What will become of us in the coming months?
I expressed my pain at the birthday party. Reciprocally, I became aware of the love behind the physical distancing- to preserve us oldies.
It helps to know that abnormal responses are normal in abnormal situations, but that underneath we are still the same people.
Taking care of our minds requires proper understanding of our abnormal situations and of our cognitive and emotional responses. Such understanding can be life-saving.
Cognitive understanding, for instance, alerts us to the fact that, due to decreased attention and concentration, accidents are more common in stressful situations. Understanding this, we can be extra vigilant while driving, or when undertaking hazardous work or home tasks.
Marital and family strains increase in disasters and can lead to anger and even violence. Communication of where one is at can ameliorate conflicting views of fear. Society may focus on extra need to protect women and children.
Understanding that our processing may be compromised may help us regulate our attention and concentration. One way is to avoid over-immersion in current events. We may limit information gathering to once or twice a day and only from reliable sources.
Next, we need to monitor our emotions. As we emerge from denial and shock, we may experience fear, helplessness, powerlessness, regret, guilt, anger, frustration, longing, and sadness for a lost world.
It is best to acknowledge, express, and share these emotions rather than bottle them up. Acknowledging them helps us to understand ourselves and the world, and for others to understand us. As a bonus, we may achieve relief of physical symptoms that suppressed emotions commonly produce. Those symptoms include dizziness, shakes, palpitations, muscular tension, neck, back, and headaches, nausea, and diarrhoea.
Awareness of distorted cognitions and emotions conserves energy and allows us to focus on real needs.
While not denying the seriousness of this pandemic, we should not succumb to over-fears and over-reactions. No, this is not the plague or the Apocalypse. As a survivor of the Second World War, I know this disaster does not compare with that catastrophe either. Let us not imbue this pandemic with everything else that we fear.
Let us harness our attention and emotions to real concerns and real hope.
Approximately forty years ago, when disasterology was emerging in Australia, we circulated pamphlets to bushfire victims with information about responses to disasters. We alerted people to vulnerable groups: the elderly, children, the otherwise ill, migrants, and refugees.
I smile wryly. I am in the first vulnerable group. But along with everyone else, I must keep my advice and keep matters in perspective.
I know that most us will survive and recover, and when the pandemic will be over, the world will surge forward with new energy and hopefully wisdom. As happens after disasters, pregnancies will increase, the economy will boom.
And hopefully I will hug and kiss my children and grandchildren again.
Paul Valent was a pioneer in traumatology in Australia. He was lead author in the Red Cross pamphlet still used in Australia and internationally Coping with a Major Personal Crisis, It is available on the Red Cross web site.
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