As a therapist, I am witness to the havoc the COVID-19 pandemic is inflicting on people. My heart goes out to those whose lives are being devastated. This includes the sick and the dying, as well as the many people who are losing their livelihoods, are at risk of losing their apartments or homes, or are facing other new personal challenges.
But I am also witnessing and want to share some hidden opportunities that I see emerging from this pandemic.
Viktor Frankl, a survivor of the Holocaust, wrote the book Man’s Search for Meaning* out of the wreckage of the concentration camps. He also created logotherapy–the therapy of meaning-making. Frankl argues that we cannot avoid suffering, but we can choose how to find meaning in suffering, cope with it, and live our lives with a sense of purpose.
Out of one of the darkest chapters in human history, Frankl’s work inspires me to look at the potential positive possibilities that could emerge from the wreckage of COVID-19.
Reactions to the Pandemic
We are all somewhere along a non-linear spectrum in relation to the impact of COVID-19 in our lives. From talking with my therapy clients during this pandemic, here’s a range of reactions I have noticed:
- Shock, with despair and incredulity
- Panic–fear of becoming ill and dying
- Adjusting; for example:
- Where and how to shop for essentials
- How to set up a home office and a home school
- Re-dividing household chores
- Settling in–establishing the ‘new normal’
- Questioning our values, choices, and behavior
- Seeing opportunities for growth and change
Opportunities abound to self-reflect, re-arrange priorities, and connect with others in a deeper, more meaningful way.For some people, coronavirus fatigue has set in, which may include restlessness, boredom, and worry about the future opening of our towns and cities. For others, the last two areas–evaluating our behaviors and seeing opportunities–are also taking place. Opportunities abound to self-reflect, re-arrange priorities, and connect with others in a deeper, more meaningful way.
Facilitating Change in Therapy
It often takes a significant personal challenge such as a breakup, a job loss, etc. to compel a person to begin therapy and consider the daunting process of personal change. For some people, no challenge has been more impactful than COVID-19.
A therapist in New Mexico attempted an experiment by giving his clients an assignment: to assume that their lives would end in exactly one year. Then, he took them on a real-time journey of transformation for the next 52 weeks. The pandemic has created a similar situation, as the impact of COVID-19 was whiplash fast and the urgency for change soon followed.
One of the goals of therapy can be to take away old, unhealthy coping strategies (ex: alcohol, affairs, food misuse, isolation, etc.) and replace them with healthier ones. During this period of change, this process of replacement can be facilitated more quickly.
Another common goal of therapy–helping clients manage their emotions better–can also be hastened during this time. I see people I work with in therapy steeling themselves; tolerating large doses of uncertainty, fear, and worry; and becoming stronger, more assertive, and developing a greater sense of agency–even as some juggle feelings of panic and overwhelm.
Although the virus is causing disruptions in many relationships, many couples I’m working with in therapy are getting emotionally closer. They are becoming more patient with each other and more generous of spirit. Some couples have reported doing things together that they put off for years. They’re connecting more with their children: having dinner together on a regular basis (with phones down), taking walks, playing games with them, and listening to their fears, concerns, and hopes. They are really listening to one another.
Loosening the Grip of the Paradox of Change
People ostensibly come to therapy to change, but the unknown is scary, so they may cling to their old coping strategies. The subtext is that because the thought of change is overwhelming, they must keep their protective strategies in place.
However, the jolt of this pandemic is prying the paradox loose and facilitating transformation. Many people in therapy have told me they see this pandemic as an accelerator for personal growth.
Clearing the Decks
There’s a phrase I often use in therapy: “clearing the decks.”
When clients first come to treatment, they discuss their presenting problems; for example, an unhappy marriage, a recent divorce, a terrible job, and so on. Eventually, their presenting problems begin to resolve and move to the back burner. Because they have “cleared the decks,” they have the opportunity to explore their pre-existing but unexplored issues more deeply.
And that is exactly what this pandemic has done for some people: Once the initial panic and uncertainty gave way to the new normal, the decks have never been more clear for a deep dive into the self.
Positive and long-lasting change is possible.As Viktor Frankl’s work would suggest, we all need to make meaning out of our experiences during COVID-19. It will not be the same for everyone. But positive and long-lasting change is possible.
For some, the impact of the virus will turn out to be like a police officer parked on the side of the road looking for traffic violators–they will slow down as they approach the officer, but then hit the gas after they pass. But once these changes are explored, considered, and put in place, therapy can be a weekly reminder that long-lasting change is possible, and rather than just being like a police officer on the side of the road, this pandemic can be a perfect opportunity for growth, maturity, and long-lasting change.
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