Meaning, Purpose, and Mental Health

How we can find our place during the coronavirus pandemic

April 20, 2020

With the coronavirus pandemic, Christopher M. Palmer, MD, director of McLean’s Department of Postgraduate and Continuing Education, believes there are essentially two types of people in the world today: “those who are completely busy and overwhelmed and others who are out of work, stuck at home, and don’t have much to do.” Members of these groups are reacting to the COVID-19 crisis in different ways.

The first group is involved in essential work that contributes to our health and safety. These are the health care professionals, grocery store clerks, bus drivers, police officers, and others who are on the front lines. They are the people putting in long hours in dangerous and stressful environments. The emotional and physical toll on these individuals can be overwhelming.

Members of the other group are stuck at home, either working remotely or out of work. Many are bored and lonely. Palmer said that some “are terrified about the future, and they feel bad about themselves as providers—there’s guilt and shame.” Some are filling endless hours with mindless or unproductive activities, like constantly checking news sites and social media. Many are lapsing into depression, substance use, and other serious issues.

Palmer explained that differences between the two groups are causing “a lot of tension between people right now.” For example, some busy workers see themselves as lifesavers and might regard the quarantined masses as lazy. On the other hand, many who are forced to stay at home, Palmer said, “are angry that they have to seemingly ruin their lives to save others.”

Palmer said that these different views are causing “disagreements, arguments, and judgments, but it doesn’t have to be ‘either-or.’”

Examining Others’ Emotions—And Your Own

Palmer pointed out that “other people’s lives do matter, and other people’s problems do matter.” He called on people to remember that these are difficult times for everyone, no matter what their circumstances, no matter what they do.

“We can focus both on saving lives, helping the health care system, and curbing the spread of the coronavirus and on helping people with their personal, emotional, and financial stressors,” Palmer said.

Stock image of family posed on couch
Whether you’re staying home or on the front lines, we’re all fighting COVID-19 together

He said that the first step is to perform an “emotional litmus test for how people are doing.” He encouraged people to look for signals or hints about what might be troubling them most as we deal with the pandemic. “Is it anxiety about getting the virus or loneliness? Is it shame or anger over job loss or that your savings have declined? Are you angry that you’re being asked to sacrifice in order to save people you don’t know?”

Palmer cautioned that not examining emotions or giving those emotions validity can lead to “learned helplessness.” He said that learned helplessness happens when “there are repetitive threats to our survival, and we don’t have power over issues in our lives, such as jobs or finances.” Individuals with learned helplessness “aren’t even trying to make their lives better,” Palmer explained. That puts them at risk for clinical depression, misuse of drugs or alcohol, and more.

To deal with these emotional issues, members of both the busy group and the isolated group can take concrete steps. One approach is to become more adaptable. “Many people today are in survival mode,” he said, “and the people who will survive and thrive are the people who adapt right now. Giving up or giving in to learned helplessness is not going to help.”

Adapting to Your New Emotional Environment

Palmer offered many ways that people can adapt to the new realities caused by the COVID-19 crisis. “If you have lost your job or your savings, now is the time to create a new budget,” he said. “If there are skills you can learn right now that will make you a better employee when you get back to work, learn them now.”

Palmer also recommended revising your resume and reaching out to old bosses and coworkers to lay the groundwork for returning to work. “Networking is a highly adaptable skill and reaching out to other people could be enormously helpful and adaptive,” he stated.

Another tactic for dealing with the emotional toll of the coronavirus is to focus on finding meaning and purpose in your life. “Fill your time with things that are meaningful to you,” Palmer advised. He encouraged everyone to reflect on relationships, make time for physical exercise, and engage in healthy forms of self-care.

By addressing our emotional stress, learning to adapt, and focusing on the people and things that truly matter to us, Palmer believes that we can make it through the pandemic. “Use the crisis as an opportunity,” he said. “Reflect on your relationships and do things around your sense of meaning and purpose.”