Let me ask you a question: Have you thought about seeking therapy recently? A sentiment I’ve sometimes heard out there in the general public during the past year is “I can’t change the situation, so what’s the point of talking to someone about it?” If you can relate to that, and you’re wondering how psychologists can help you during a pandemic, please keep reading.
Counselling is not solely reserved as a space for solving problems or changing our circumstances. It can also be a space for seeking comfort, finding new ways of coping, healing emotional wounds, building emotional resilience, getting out of old patterns, feeling seen and understood, and seeing new perspectives. I also want to assure you that therapy isn’t “just talking”. Psychologists and other licensed clinicians are specially trained to do work that goes beyond having a conversation in the way that you would have with a friend. Here are a few of the ways psychologists can help during a pandemic:
Shame reactions to judgment
People have been asking me how to make sense of the increased criticism and judgment they’re seeing within their own communities right now. I think it partly has to do with shame. When we feel judged about our actions, shame reactions can arise. As Nathanson originally described, these shame reactions include self-criticism, withdrawal, denial, and blame.
Let’s imagine a situation where someone feels judged because they decided to send their child to school and a close friend chose not to. Perhaps the friend said something that was ambiguous, and could be seen as judgmental. The person feeling judged might isolate from that friend, numb by drinking more than usual or keeping overly busy, criticize themselves (“I’m obviously failing as a parent, I can’t do anything right”) or blame and criticize the friend (“This is their fault for making me feel this way. What, do they expect me to just stop working?”). The blame can sometimes extend to other people in attempts to separate ourselves from those who are the “real” problem (e.g., “At least I’m not like _______, who is obviously doing the wrong thing”). Psychologists can help you identify your reactions to shame and incorporate compassion-based practices.
Naturally, this is a time of heightened levels of anxiety for all of us. Some people might also be experiencing what’s known as “death anxiety”:
“We are living in a time of extreme insecurity and multiple threats to our existence [...]. Within a few months in 2020 we went from a world in which death was something in the indefinite future for many of us, to a world in which not only our own death but the deaths of millions became an imminent possibility.
A rational response would be to come together and fight for our collective survival. So why are so many people choosing divisiveness instead? Sheldon Solomon, a professor of psychology at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, New York, offers an answer: when reminded of the fact that we die, we double down on our existing beliefs and circle the wagons, regarding anyone outside our cultural group with suspicion.”
Without ignoring the real causes of concern, there are still things we can do to reduce our overall anxiety and panic so that we can be more present and grounded in the moment. I find it’s important to acknowledge how our current stressors have contributed to the way we’re feeling, then take a moment to ask ourselves what might help bring us comfort with the experience of anxiety. Sometimes it might help to have a plan, distract ourselves, and move our bodies, or try out some grounding exercises.
Vaccine hesitancy and the spread of misinformation
The pandemic has brought to the forefront another phenomenon we might not even had heard about before: an infodemic. This saturation of false or misleading information, as we’ve seen, creates confusion and mistrust in authorities, which can be disastrous for public health. However, this also has an impact on a personal level: we might be affected by this confusion ourselves and not know who to trust, or we might struggle with the beliefs held by someone we care about.
Well, psychology has something to say about this! I was really glad to get this article in my inbox from the Psychologists' Association of Alberta last month. I'm looking forward to learning more about how the spread of misinformation happens and the ways we can better help people in our community sort through how to debunk myths so they can make more informed decisions about their health.
Another really interesting article from a psychology perspective is this one published in Forbes. This is a good read if you’re curious about how vaccine hesitancy might relate to the mental blind spots we all have and how we can avoid them. It’s also worth looking at this piece about the influence of US media in our perceptions and beliefs about the pandemic. Maybe it’s a good time to start curating our follows on social media!
When you’re feeling hesitant about any medical information or advice, you might consider asking yourself if there’s a source of trustworthy information you can turn to during this difficult time (e.g., your family doctor, a pharmacist, or an evidence-based source of information online). Here are some non-partisan sites dedicated to combating misinformation that you might be interested in consulting: Science Up First, AFP Canada Fact Check, FactsCan, Snopes, and the app Project Fib for Chrome, which detects fake news on your Facebook feed!
In addition to all the above, psychologists can also help with a ton of other pandemic-related issues like coping with loneliness, relationship issues, dealing with trauma and vicarious trauma, grief, figuring out new boundaries, and so much more.
For those of you who are residents of Alberta and seeking help specifically related to the COVID-19 pandemic, you might try accessing the Disaster Response Network: “Our Disaster Response Network members are offering pro-bono psychological services with priority for health care providers and first responders traumatized by recent events. This is not a crisis line or a referral service but pro-bono support by volunteer psychologists of 1-3 sessions for those in need.”
Nicole Perry is a Registered Psychologist and writer with a private practice in Edmonton. Her approach is collaborative and feminist at its heart. She specializes in healing trauma, building shame resilience, and setting boundaries.
About the Blog
This space will provide information, stories, and answers to big questions about some of my favorite topics - boundaries, burnout, trauma, self compassion, and shame resilience - all from a feminist counselling perspective. It's also a space I'm exploring and refining new ideas.