It’s no surprise that the stress and anxiety of the COVID-19 pandemic are having a significant effect on people’s mental, as well as physical health. Public health and racial justice challenges also create opportunities.
According to a national poll released this Spring by the American Psychiatric Association (APA), more than one-third of Americans (36%) reported that coronavirus is having a serious impact on their mental health and over half (59%) indicated it’s having a serious impact on their day-to-day lives. 19% reported having trouble sleeping, and nearly one in four people (24%), said they have had trouble concentrating on other things because of concerns about coronavirus.
Most adults were concerned about the negative impacts of COVID-19 on their finances (57%) and almost half were worried about running out of food, medicine, and/or supplies. Two-thirds of Americans (68%) fear that the coronavirus will have a long-lasting impact on the economy.
While COVID-19 and its related concerns are a new stressor, the past is all too present in the recent spate of horrific high profile murders of African Americans, including by law enforcement authorities, crystalizing awareness of the systemic racism that has been all too prevalent throughout US history.
The continuous news reports of protests, initially littered with incidents of rioting/looting, and often heavy-handed law enforcement responses evoke widespread anger, sadness, frustration, and fear. In combination, the result for most people is a sinkhole of uncertainty.
Uncertainty occurs when the ground with which we’re familiar shifts, seemingly right beneath our feet, and things are in a state of flux where no one knows what will happen next or how things will play out, and what a “new normal” may look like when the dust settles.
The human body is hardwired to respond to uncertainty in that as our brains are structured to assess potential threats/risks. In the face of uncertainty and unpredictability our nervous systems are on high alert, braced for reacting through fight, flight, or freeze.
Tragically, the polarization of positions related to both the coronavirus (fully reopening the economy vs. proceeding more slowly and cautiously) and the issues of racial equality and police brutality is pouring accelerant on this sense of uncertainty and intensifying the emotional intensity and anger. Social media and certain news outlets oversimplify the issues and amplify the loudest and angriest voices—further increasing the experience of “threat.”
Crisis creates opportunities
A crisis can be any event or series of events that create an unstable, threatening situation affecting an individual, family, group, community, or whole society. All crises share several defining characteristics that include: being unexpected, producing high levels of uncertainty, anxiety, and stress, and representing a threat (real or imagined) to those affected.
A crisis can revolve around a specific incident such as an earthquake, tornado, tsunami, an industrial accident, or a terrorist attack. Crises can also be related to any substantial change in the events that comprise the daily life of a person and his or her closest significant others.
Such circumstances consist of situations that are life-altering and include everything from medical/public health emergencies, serious injury, and long-term illness, crime victimization, widespread public unrest, and the loss of a job/career and/or extreme financial hardship, to active addiction that can no longer go unaddressed.
On a personal level, crisis is a state of psychological disequilibrium (imbalance) that occurs when extraordinary events trigger extreme stress, challenge our perceptions of life as we know it, and throw us into turmoil. Because crises disrupt what is familiar and in turn comfortable, these shifting sands also create rare and meaningful opportunities for growth and change.
Such opportunities may never have existed before, at least not in the conscious awareness of those caught in crisis. But the stress and uncertainty of the situation can cloud our ability to see and utilize the opportunities that emerge.
Often, the difference between despair and hope reside in a change of perspective. The 1st principle of Buddhist psychology is that all phenomena are impermanent and constantly changing, yet we tend to relate to them as though they are or should be permanent.