Mental Health Lessons From a Virus

By Cheryl Francis, LPC, CPCS

Everything has its purpose! We may not agree, nor like this phrase; but even a negative situation creates opportunities for learning. The season we’re in right now with the COVID-19 pandemic brings with it lessons that, if continued to practice, will keep us mentally strong.

Many of us for the first time in a long time have had to sit, reflect and ask ourselves some questions. We may have checked in with ourselves asking “How am I truly doing? Am I living life as normal or am I being cautious?” 

With the quarantine, whether self or mandatory, “Did I do what was unavoidable, or unnecessary? And, how have I been authentically living my one earthly life?” This different kind of normal, because of COVID-19, has shown us how we have been genuinely living. The answers to the questions reveal how we have been caring for our mental health.  

During the height of the pandemic, some of us actually went to a breaking point. We experienced and understood what it was like to suffer a mental illness; something that impacts how we live laugh, love, work and learn. We recall how our days all came together, as we forgot what day it was. Our lives were totally disrupted, and our mental health strengths tested. 

Unprecedented job losses occurred in a matter of days. This one thing contributed to significant financial losses. In April 2020, 6.6 million unemployment claims were filed in one week, according to the Department of Labor. Along with this report came more Americans – millions – who have lost their jobs since. If our finances are not right, our mental health is impacted.

The quarantine, or sheltering in place as it was referred to caused us all to face some sort of trauma. When our bodies undergo trauma or distress, parts of our brain stop functioning at their optimum level to help us survive. This prevents us from fully processing much of what happens around us. We become hypervigilant, anxious, abnormally inactive, anxious or even depressed. We learn to manage our emotions and function; lowering expectations of ourselves so we can mentally survive. In other words, we developed skills to help us weather the suffering. 

Not only did we experience trauma because of COVID-19, but we all shared a collective grief and loss. We had common experiences in missing someone or something dear to us. Our sense of safety, social connectedness, financial security, stability and our lifestyles were abruptly taken from us. In an advanced, developed country as the USA, we witnessed that access to healthcare was limited. We had to adjust to the way learning and education was done. Our entire way of functioning was interrupted!

But, like the phoenix, we rise and continue to rise. We discovered how to do things to protect our mental health. Individually, many of us learned crucial techniques to implement the management of our weight, health and lifestyle. We ultimately increased the quality of how we live, laugh, love, work and learn. If these habits are continued, we can be healthier individuals and ultimately, become a healthier society.

Having to shelter in place, we made efforts to improve our mental wellness. Intellectually, we identified our creative abilities and found ways to increase our knowledge. Some took time to learn a new language, hobby or skill. We may have even created and sought out new ways to improve ourselves and and our self-image.   

Emotionally, we developed the ability to cope effectively with life and create satisfying relationships. We learned to be intentional about cultivating a self-care routine and reduce stress to grow inner strengths. We became aware and accepted our feelings to stay positive and overcame the challenges we experienced.

Creativity burst forth like rain lilies after a wet spell. Like a matrix, we increased a customized sense of connectedness and belonging with the relationships we had. We nurtured healthy and supportive relationships. Many of us reached out to the important people in our lives on a more consistent basis. We utilized electronics, not only for self-gratification, but to sustain connections and encourage others. New relationships were formed, and old ones rekindled.  

Meditation, mindfulness and the spiritual attributes of our being thrived. We took time to examine our purpose and meaning in life. We sought to establish a stronger bond with a higher force concealed within. We took time to ask ourselves questions to help find meaning to our existence. Space was given to be intentional about distancing the self from the noise of the everyday in order to find a peaceful time to reflect. 

With limited places to go, physical factors regarding the way we lived were exercised. As the nature of the virus became evident, we were encouraged to care for our bodies through activity, nutrition and a strong belief system. Many of us chose to eat a well-balanced diet including foods with dense nutrients and vitamins. We built our immune systems and became conscious of even the slightest activity. Many of us did not worry about getting sleep as we were able to slow down and rest. 

Whether we wanted to or not, we became environmentally conscious. We conserved energy and did what we could to allow our environment to repair itself. When we could, we went outdoors, or allowed the outdoors in by opening doors and windows. 

The way we gained personal satisfaction and enrichment from our work – even if we did not previously enjoy the work we did – changed. Our attitudes shifted as we began to develop and manifest an attitude of gratefulness. We reflected on the opportunities we have and acknowledged that we are employed and are not in the over 6.6 million out of work. With the new way of working, we reflected on what we needed and sought out ways to be successful in our present occupation. We became team players, communicating and collaborating to finish tasks. 

Many of us may have created a vision board for the first time as we recognized the importance of setting life goals. Those of us who were still gainfully employed, being concerned about joining the millions of unemployed, used the time to figure out the family debt ratio. Wills were created and finances were organized. Innovative paths to create streams of income and creating a budget helped to create a plan for a positive financial future. A process to successfully manage finances was developed. During this time, this behavior supported a healthy mental health process.

As women, many of us engage in multiple roles naturally. The virus contributed to a change in our roles as we were thrust into roles we would prefer not to do. We became full-time teachers and still had to maintain and complete our other life roles. We reinvented ourselves and chose to control what happens to us. Many of us chose to create memories instead of balancing an additional life role. Some of us chose family time over school assignments or lessons over doing laundry. Most important, many of us chose to laugh and snuggle, focusing on the fact that we were safe, sheltering in place.

Some of us chose family time over school assignments or lessons over doing laundry. Most important, many of us chose to laugh and snuggle, focusing on the fact that we were safe, sheltering in place.

For those of us who became overwhelmed with managing on our own, we took courageous steps and asked for help. We were determined to manage our mental health with a vengeance. We sought out professional healers and helpers. We kept a routine to manage anxiety. We scheduled tasks and took necessary breaks to prevent burnout. 

We were intentional about how we work as we implemented a determined and set time to shut down from our work roles to engage in family time. We managed what we set our time and energy to accomplish. We realized how much of a hero we were, especially in the eyes of our children. We lived in the present, cherishing the moments. We lowered our expectations to stay mentally well. 

Finding altruistic acceptance during the COVID-19 challenges increases our optimism and our attitude about life. We become innovative in addressing our mental health and the negative responses life hurls at us. We respond in a collective manner to keep others safe and to ensure our society remains well. 

Although our mental health has been interrupted, deep inside of us, we have found the ability to heal. These are the lessons we learned from the virus.

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