The invisible pain of living during a pandemic
Recently I’ve had the opportunity to reflect on some of the effects of living in a pandemic situation for a year may have on our psyches. I have already written about several stress factors in my previous article. Now I’d like to consider some of which are rarely mentioned or acknowledged as things that can really affect our moods and our levels of stress and motivation.
Many of us have felt it this beginning of the year, a change in our levels of energy and motivation. We may feel unable to do as much as we did before, and we are not finding the same joy and satisfaction in things that we enjoyed before. By now we are aware that living in uncertainty and aware of a certain level of permanent risk for us and the people we love creates chronic stress which has real effects on our physical and psychological state.
However, there are other things we may be carrying since the beginning of this pandemic that we may not be aware of and could have been weighing on us for a while now. I’d like to bring attention to four different sources of suffering we are not talking about so much:
- Invisible losses
- Vicarious trauma
- Survivor’s guilt
- Moral Injury
I’d like to briefly discuss these often unnamed, unacknowledged issues.
Some losses can go unacknowledged or unrecognised because socially, they are not considered as important as others. Nevertheless, they have a real impact on our wellbeing, especially if we don’t let ourselves feel what we need to feel to process these losses.
Some examples of invisible losses are: loss of freedom to roam around, loss of physical contact, loss of job opportunities (even when we haven’t lost our jobs), loss of a general sense of certainty or security, etc.
These disenfranchised losses can create in us feelings of grief, anger, hopelessness that, if unacknowledged or repressed, could be contributing to our general state of sadness and lack of motivation.
- The first thing to do is to acknowledge what disenfranchised losses you may need to name and grieve at this time.
As humans we can be hurt by witnessing other people being hurt. Vicarious trauma was first studied in psychotherapists working with survivors of trauma, but it is now applied to other professions including social workers, justice system professionals, health care provides, journalists, etc. it is brought about by empathic engagement and witnessing the pain, fear, and terror of trauma survivors.
2020 has been a traumatic year for many. We have witnessed many people losing their livelihoods, feeling desperate, losing loved ones, or suffering physically from illness. The collective suffering of marginalised groups and the violence they are subjected to has been brought to light. Witnessing so much pain, even when we are not ourselves suffering directly, can be causing vicarious trauma.
Symptoms of Vicarious trauma can include numbing of emotions, mood swings, irritability, cynicism, a change in our perception of meaning, and loss of hope, among others.
- Self-care is paramount to offset vicarious trauma. The much-repeated phrase “put your own oxygen mask first” is true in this regard. Know when to take a step back, reduce exposure to trauma through news or social media. If you take care of people that are suffering make a point to schedule time just for yourself as well. Balance this with practices of gratitude and exposure to news that may help bring hope.
Some of us may also be developing survivor’s guilt, consciously or unconsciously. A vague feeling that we are wrong or bad because we have not suffered as much as others, because we haven’t been infected or haven’t lost anyone for example. We may feel bad about that, it does not need to be a rational feeling.
We can also be feeling guilty about not doing enough in this bad situation, either by helping others directly or by not using our lockdown time more productively. We may be feeling a sense of responsibility that we cannot fulfill.
When survivor’s guilt is unconscious, we often ruminate, worry, and self-punish, or we may be experiencing depression, loss of motivation and joy.
- Acknowledging survivor’s guilt is important. We are only human and we can only do so much, but the fact we feel connected to others make this unavoidable. It is a normal experience given the circumstances and self-compassion is needed. Small acts of kindness around us and connecting to people we love to offer support can help too.
Moral Injury comes when we are presented with difficult choices or moral dilemmas, especially the ones in which there are no right answers or the answers contrast with our morals and values. We also may be regretting a certain decision we had to make during this pandemic or feeling guilty for having to make decisions that had negative consequences.
Moral injury may come from action or inaction. One example could be knowing someone who is isolated and really needs support, but having to decide between leaving them isolated or putting them and others at risk of infection if we decide to help them. None of the possible answers to this dilemma are totally satisfactory morally speaking. This situation may cause distress.
Symptoms of moral injury include demoralisation, guilt, shame, and self-punishing behaviour.
In our current situation, this injury can also include moral distress and outrage as we witness injustice and the poor management of this crisis by people in power, with the feeling that we cannot do much to help.
- Identifying and acknowledging what our moral dilemmas have been during this pandemic and how our responses to them may be creating pain in us. Self-compassion again is needed for us to face these feelings gently. They are proof that we deeply care about others and about the world around us, which is often a double edges sword. Let’s be gentle with ourselves.
As the situation changes again around us and we (hopefully) slowly come out of lockdown let’s not forget all the things we can be carrying around from the fear and pain experienced by the world during this pandemic. Everyone will feel these things differently and be more or less affected by each of them.
To help us continue taking care of our mental health we might need to examine what our emotional needs are at the moment and act accordingly. Letting ourselves grieve what we need to, self-compassion, and seeking support are some of the best ways to go through these difficult circumstances.
(For tips and tricks, as well as information on where to access mental health support in your area please visit Mind’s coronavirus hub).