Understanding the emotional strain of living during this Covid-19 pandemic

Living amidst the covid-19 pandemic is having profound effects on our emotional well-being, making symptoms of depression and anxiety worse.

As a psychologist in private practice, I’m noticing that many of my patients are getting frustrated and angry with themselves for having ongoing, persistent feelings of overwhelming depression and anxiety that seem to be getting worse as this Covid pandemic is increasing in intensity and never seems to end…

We all have some degree of resilience or capacity to endure stress and pain. If you’re struggling with depression, anxiety, bipolar, post-traumatic stress or high stress levels caused by day-to-day living, it will lower your resilience and make you more vulnerable to being destabilized by the stress of the losses associated with covid.

The current covid-19 pandemic is forcing many of us to be faced with many forms of traumatization, many kinds of losses, coming together at the same time causing a state of “bereavement overload” and “stress overload.”

  • We’ve been catapulted into living in a literal war-zone where the enemy is invisible and internal. It’s hard to imagine a movie having more high-risk factors, from a grief perspective, at one time. Even during World War II, the enemy was external… it was out there, you saw their planes and tanks, making it easier to make sense of and understand. But how do we manage and make sense of an enemy that can’t even be seen and can be transmitted by our closest friends and loved ones’ and even by ourselves….?!

Without even realizing it, we are being vicariously traumatized even if we haven’t faced loss directly in our own families or among our own friends or loved ones. This effect will have an even more profound impact on someone already struggling with depression or anxiety.

Guilt and grief are two of the strongest emotions surrounding COVID-19. This guilt stems in part from the fact that anyone could be a potential carrier of the virus. This means that anyone could unwittingly pass it to another person, without realizing that they are infectious. This often results in irrational guilt and self-blame.

Guilt often happens when we can’t visit loved ones undergoing treatment at a hospital and when we can’t be there physically to comfort our friends and family who are grieving.

Another trigger for guilt often arises when someone with COVID-19 survives but hears about an infected friend who died, leaving a family bereft and in turmoil. This often leads to a condition known as survivor guilt.

Survivors may also feel an overwhelming sense of empathy, sadness and grief for the suffering of friends and loved ones who have died from Covid. This leads to feeling of helplessness, guilt and a desperate need to help and to take on the suffering of others.

Can too much Empathy be bad?

While feeling empathy for the suffering and grief of others is supportive, comforting and compassionate, taking on the suffering, pain and grief of others as your own can be extremely harmful and destructive and is not helpful to the one in need of your support.

  • What is Empathy?

Empathy is, the ability to understand and share the feelings of another. Empathy is a valuable tool in relationships as it helps us connect more deeply with other people. So how can too much empathy be a bad thing?

  • What is Toxic Empathy?
  • Toxic empathy is when a person over-identifies with someone else’s feelings and directly takes them on and feels the grief and suffering as if it is their own. 

A person who already suffers with anxiety and depression would already be struggling with increased levels of the stress hormone cortisol.  Over time the increased, prolonged activation of cortisol could lead to a variety of serious health issues.

When our empathy becomes overwhelming, the pain is all we feel. We only see horror and brokenness in the world. Destructive, toxic empathy is a total immersion into the pain, grief, sorrow, and suffering of other people.

Without realizing it, our unconscious thoughts may become distorted and faulty and overwhelming in intensity.

You may think toxic thoughts such as:

  • “The more overwhelmed I feel about your grief, the more it proves that  I really care,”
  • “Unless I am physically affected by your suffering, I am not being compassionate enough.”

Or even more insidious…

  • “I feel too guilty to experience peace or joy while so many people are suffering.”

One of the ways to control toxic empathy is to use compassionate empathy, where you feel concern about another’s suffering, but from more of a distance and with a desire to support and comfort the person in need and thereby help the person to help themselves.

  • In Conclusion…

We need to realize the enormous strain that we are living with during this Covid-19 pandemic. Realize that symptoms of anxiety and depression are bound to feel worse and will need to be processed. Be patient. Be gentle with yourself. Nurture yourself and allow yourself the right to be nurtured. Remember that Joy and Peace are fruits of the spirit that God gives us for emotional, spiritual, and physical wellbeing and healing. Handing the burden over to Him gives us the renewed capacity to let these gift in.

Helpful Interventions include:

Deep breathing, meditation, relaxation, exercising, a healthy diet, journaling, adopting a hobby, getting a pet, watching comedies and reaching out to others for support.  Social media and online video chats are very useful when volunteering or engaging with family, friends and co-workers. Prayer, bible study and renewed faith in our Creator provides the hope and stability we all desperately need.

If you’d like to discuss and process these issues with a psychologist please contact us for an appointment. Phone 031 7647675

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