Even though life is slowly struggling to return to normal, we still face anxiety about our jobs and permanent changes to how we live our lives.
Yet it is possible to come back stronger and more resilient. Post-traumatic growth is the science of emerging stronger after a traumatic experience. Now, after studying the aftermath of events such as SARS, Ebola, terror attacks and wars, mental health researchers have identified what differentiates those who develop disorders after traumas and those who grow stronger from them.
Three trauma experts tell us what behaviours can increase our chances of coming back from the Covid-19 experience mentally well.
Prepare for transition anxiety
If you’re feeling uneasy about returning to real time, you’re not alone. Nine in 10 of British citizens feared getting back on public transport, one study found, and that’s just one tiny aspect of post-lockdown life. From job insecurity, the potential second wave, the economy – no wonder some are reticent about leaving our cocoons.
“Covid quickly switched us into emergency mode,” says Dr Talya Greene, a mental health lecturer at University College London who helped set up the Covid Trauma Response Group to provide evidence-based guidance into the mental health aftermath of Covid-19. “People functioned fuelled by adrenalin. But as we come out of lockdown, they’re starting to realise how depleted they are by the months of being at home under huge stress.”
While some are calling this the “recovery phase”, Dr Greene says it’s more of a “transition phase” in which we need time out. We need to give ourselves a break to feel whatever comes up, including transition anxiety; nervous feelings about returning back to normal life as well as fear and confusion. “We don’t know where we are going, whether there will be another phase, the children are exhausted, the parents are run down – people need a break,” she says. And yet, we can’t even plan a holiday.
Feeling anxious will be inevitable, so take time out, switch off and breathe – then de-stress in whatever way you can, she suggests. Daily exercise and eating well are crucial, but so is doing whatever you need to feel better. “If walking in nature helps you, do that. If watching Netflix is your thing, do it. Now is not the time to judge yourself.”
Build up your bounce-back character traits
People who experience growth or positive transformation after difficult events are often the ones that have had to deal with the worst circumstances, says Dr Greene. “This is because it forces them to stop and reflect on what and who was important to them.” Certain clusters of character traits can together help increase the chances of this, she says. These include making positive changes to the way you relate to others, identifying new possibilities, understanding your own personal strengths, renewing your appreciation for life and making spiritual changes.
Certain characteristics emerged as key to resilience – optimism, higher self-esteem, acceptance, finding meaning and developing a spiritual practice, says Dr Jonathan Rogers, a psychiatry lecturer at UCL.
Spirituality emerges again and again in the literature on resilience – why? “It can give suffering a purpose and meaning, for, if this life has been ghastly maybe there is payback in the next,” says Neil Greenberg, professor of defence mental health at King’s College London.
Play the blame game right
In the aftermath of any difficult situation, it’s important to find meaning. “But this can go two ways,” says Prof Greenberg. “The first is by turning it into a moral injury, where we blame ourselves or another person for making mistakes, and the second is to create a meaningful narrative where no one is to blame but the situation.”
But we have to blame someone, surely? To grow from a trauma, it’s most useful to find a way to blame the situation, rather than yourself or another person.
“You will have strong emotions such as anger or confusion after the pandemic,” says Prof Greenberg. “But living in a state of anger and retribution increases the risk of psychological toxicity in its aftermath. What’s more useful is to find a meaningful narrative in which the situation wasn’t yours or someone else’s fault but down to the situation – so if there was a culprit to blame, it was the virus – and while none of us acted perfectly, we did the best we could at the time.”
Research released from UCL has found that a quarter of people report their work relationships have worsened and a fifth say their friendships have worsened over lockdown. But friendship is central to mental health, with studies co-relating the number of friends you have with a lowered risk of mental health problems, says Dr Rogers.
“For many, friendships will be based in work and will have suffered,” he says. “One way around this is to make your geographical area your friendship zone and get to know your neighbours.” Routine is important to friendships, too, he says. “You need to see friends on a regular basis to get the mental health benefits.”
You can’t plan anything. You don’t know when Covid will end. Your job is uncertain. None of it is fair. But accepting life’s inherent unfairness increases your chances of growth from adversity.
“It’s not about resignation,” says Dr Rogers. “It’s about accepting the things you can’t do anything about, and identifying the areas where you can make a difference. Studies have shown people’s ability to accept and improvise is predictive of their resilience in the face of adversity.”
Control what you can
“So, instead of saying, ‘I can’t go on holiday’, focus on what you can control, for example, a weekend away locally,” Dr Rogers suggests. “If you love hillwalking, you can now do that in a safe way.
“With the present, what are things you can influence, however small? Focus on those.”
Watch out for the vulnerable
Still, the mental health fallout from the crisis is bleak. Research last month by Mind found that two thirds of adults with a pre-existing mental health problem said it had become worse after lockdown and one fifth of vulnerable people have considered self-harming.
The situation is particularly dire among people in vulnerable groups, such as those who had complications from the illness or lost loved ones, front-line health, social care and other key workers and those living in unsafe situations such as abusive home environments, says Dr Greene.
This is not the time for self-interest – we have to watch loved ones we know are in trouble.
...especially anyone who has lost a job
The most vulnerable group post-Covid will be those who have gone into poverty, says Prof Greenberg. “If you know someone in this position, make an effort to check in regularly and don’t let things reach crisis point.”
If you’re doing OK, become a safety net for others
“People who recovered well from trauma were those who felt they had a safety net around them in the form of a strong community or family who could provide help if they needed it,” says Dr Greene. “If someone is having a tough time, you can benefit your own mental health by checking in regularly with them, especially if they came to the pandemic in an already vulnerable situation.”
But avoid getting frustrated if they’re not making progress – everyone’s way of coping will be different, she asserts. “Being compassionate towards people having a hard time and just showing you’re there can help them recover better. Even if they don’t see it now, it shows they have a community and safety net.”
The Daily Telegraph