mental health

How to prioritize your mental health while juggling the pandemic

Written by: Elana Burger, September 2021

Introduction:

When the period of the Covid pandemic comes to mind; it will be a time that nobody will ever forget, but also never want to remember! It changed the world as we had known it- as our movement and worlds were limited to our back yards, our virtual worlds expanded beyond measure. As our social interaction and contact diminished, our vocabulary expanded and neologisms like ‘facemasks’, ‘social distancing’, ‘lockdown’, ‘compassion or Covid fatigue’ ‘zoom meeting room’ became part of our everyday language.

According to an article by the Department of Human Sciences, University of Cassino, Italy; the lasting effects of Covid resulted in prolonged exposure to stress, disrupted routines, cabin fever, lack of social contact with our extended families and co-workers took its toll on a whole population’s mental health. Research has highlighted the impact on psychological well-being of the most exposed groups, including children, college students and healthcare workers, who are more likely to develop post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, depression, and other symptoms of distress.

As we are entering mental health awareness month, the effects on our mental health, as well as the efficacy of our coping strategies is placed under the spotlight.  Life as we knew it, had completely changed. Our relationships, our perception of empathy, religion and life has drastically changed. But are our strategies to manage our mental health in these times still sufficient? So let us start looking at the things we need to accept:

Confrontation with death as a part of life:

James Hollis, in his book “On this Journey we call our Life”, said: “Life is suffering- and suffering is relative, contextual and very, very personal.  Scott Peck, in The Road less travelled, supported this view by using: “Life is hard”, in his opening line. This is one of the greatest truths. Once we truly understand and accept it, – only then life can become less difficult.

Hollis referred to depression as a compensation in that it obliges us to pay attention to an altered reality to find meaning and see life and define ourselves in a new way. Dr Edith Eger, psychologist and one the few remaining Holocaust survivors, reminded us that the opposite of depression, is expression. She also said that we disable our children and others when we take away their suffering. Do not try and cheer someone up but be empathetic and supportive and allow the feelings to be felt and expressed. It affects our body chemistry, and you can’t heal what you don’t feel.

As we are still trying to accept suffering as part of life; the Covid pandemic forced us to also understand death as an integral part of life!

The Pixar movie Coco created a great way to see death as an integral part of life. It also created a way to talk about the reality of death in a less threatening way. It further reminded us that you can honor those you have lost by remembering them and telling their stories. The pandemic has brought our own mortality to mind as the faceless deaths became closer to home.  Face to face confrontation with death, made us recount what the important things in life are. Professor Randy Rausch, in his book on his last lecture, said:” Most people expected me to talk about dying, but it had to be about living.” When he gave his last lecture before dying of pancreatic cancer. So, to accept death as part of life, we must stop only existing and start living…

And while being alive, talk about the elephant in the room- death and dying. Discuss and plan the practical aspects that accompanies death, making the lives a little less complicated for the loved ones left behind.

“I am living like I am dying. But at the same time, I’m very much living like I am still living”. Pausch lived fully until he died.

In the Fair Lady of September/ October 2021 the author wrote about the pandemic as an experience of powerlessness, pain, loss of income, loss of security of life, loss of organized religion, loss of social contact, of freedom and loss of life. Important milestone celebrations and rituals celebrating the beginning and the ending of life have changed. Celebrate every possible event worth celebrating!

On a personal and professional level, I was confronted with the multiple losses during the Covid-pandemic and how people were trying to process the uncertainty, grieve the losses and trying to find meaning. How many of us can stay afloat when collectively there are so many losses? Maybe if we start focusing not only on what we have lost; but also, be conscious about what we still have!

“Time is all you have…

… And you may find one day that you have less than you think “, wrote Randy Pausch, a former Carnegie Mellon University scientist. More than a decade ago, Pausch wrote these words while facing terminal cancer. He also commented that time is finite. Pausch truly lived his life this way. “Time seems infinite when you are a kid, elusive when you’re an adult, and precious when you are near death”; profound wisdom spoken by Johnny Depp as the dying Richard in the Movie, “The Professor”.

 A positive effect of the Covid -pandemic, in agreement with both Depp and Pausch, is to see time as the most precious commodity we possess, and most of us have wasted so much of it in our lives. We’ve given it away to people who didn’t deserve it, to tasks that didn’t matter, to emotions that didn’t do you any good.

An import question to reflect upon: are you spending your time on the right things? Keep asking what matters, in the end, what wisdom would we impart to the world if we knew it was our last chance? If we had to vanish tomorrow, what would we want as our legacy?  How do we keep hope afloat within so much uncertainty?

Hope:

Carl Jung said about hope: “There are moments in human life when a new page is turned. When new interests, tendencies and personality changes appear. Therein lies the hope!

The known Greek myth of Pandora where her curiosity led her to open the jar left in her care containing sickness, death and evil which were released into the world. She put the lid back just in time to prevent hope from escaping too. Hope is a powerful thing. It inspires us to do the impossible and help us carry on in many different shapes. It may be through religion, prayer, friendship, a book, music, a dream, or imagination. Or maybe just seeing the crisp new leaves emerge after a long and cold winter.

Dr Victor Frankl, well- known holocaust survivor and author of the book: “Man’s Search for Meaning” said: “… even in this Europe in the sixth winter of the Second World War, our situation was not the most terrible we could think of”. He said that each of us had to ask himself what irreplaceable losses he had suffered up to then. Whoever was still alive had reason for hope. Health, family, happiness, professional abilities, fortune, position in society- all of these were things that could be achieved again or restored. After all we still had our bones intact. Whatever we had gone through could still be an asset in the future. And he quoted from Nietzsche:” Was mich nicht umbringt, macht mich starker.” (That which does not kill me, makes me stronger.)

Optimism:

No matter how bad things are you can always make things worse. At the same time, it is often within your power to make them better.  Optimism is a mental state, it can enable you to do tangible things to improve your physical state. If you are optimistic, you’re better able to endure the brutal realities of life and it’s suffering.

Another way to be prepared is to think negatively. Think of the worst-case scenarios. One thing that makes it possible to be an optimist is if you have a contingency plan for when the worst things actually happen.  There are lots of things you don’t have to worry about because you have a plan in place if they do.  

Too many people go through life complaining about their problems. I have always believed that if you took one tenth of your energy you put into complaining and applied it to solving the problem, you’d be surprised by how well things can work out. Complaining does not work as a strategy but let us explore how the science of gratitude can improve the mental health of a suffering nation.

Gratitude:

The impact of gratitude on mental health have long been studied and researched by modern psychologists, like Dr Joshua Brown and Dr Joel Wong. The results showed that gratitude improved the mental health, as well as the mind. They used less negative vocabulary, increased brain activity in the regions of the brain that are associated with empathy, moral- and social recognition and bonding.  There was a shift from toxic emotions, that comes from negative thinking. Dr Oliver Sacks, neurologist, during the last few months of his life, wrote a set of essays in which he explored his feelings about completing a life and coming to terms with his own death.  It is the fate of every human being, ‘Sacks writes, “to be a unique individual, to find his own path, to live his own life, to die his own death. This forms a uniqueness of each human being and to gratitude for the gift of Life.”

 So, create more space and time to focus on the good of life. Most memories of gratitude-reflect on what he we been given by others, and what we have been able to give back. Show gratitude, if you can’t pay back, pay forward. Go out and do for others what somebody did for you.

Conclusion:

Plato believed that all things pass, and nothing stays. Heraclitus (535 BC-475 BC), a Greek philosopher was known for this quote:” The only constant in life is change”.

Everything is temporary, tough times, pandemic and even intense feelings will pass.

Find opportunities to give life meaning. Human life, under any circumstances, never ceases to have a meaning, and that this infinite meaning of life includes suffering and dying, privation and death.

Make this year, your year of “yes!”, take more of the roads less travelled, materialize your bucket list. Invest in your friendships. Take time to notice -the honeybirds in your garden or your first taste of coffee, laughter. Take time to notice and experience the joy of being truly alive!

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