Psychological Survival and the “Second Winter” of Pandemic

Lessen the psychological burden of COVID-19 by adopting a 100-year-old maxim.

Posted Nov 06, 2020

 gerdalena.dreamstime/Pixabay
Source: gerdalena.dreamstime/Pixabay

As we enter the winter of 2020-2021, we see cases and subsequent fatalities of COVID-19 increase … just as they were predicted to increase. This will be the second winter of the COVID-19 pandemic. Medically, it promises to be at least as severe as the first winter, and most likely more severe until such time as a safe and effective vaccine can be deployed. Economically, increased restrictions on businesses will bring added financial pressures on families, unless significant help from the federal government is forthcoming. Psychologically, the “second winter” can denote not only the season of the year but a psychological cold and dark period. It has the potential to be fraught with widespread disillusionment, grief, anger, and despair. But it doesn’t have to be.

The Second Winter

The “second winter” of COVID-19 is predicted to be a second surge of infections nationwide. And we are seeing that occur. This second wave was predicted to follow basically the same pattern as the pandemics of 1918 and 2003. The second winter may indeed be challenging medically and economically as noted above, but it does not have to be as crippling as many prophets of doom predict. Given our attitudes affect our actions, we can prepare ourselves psychologically. Optimistic, but realistically informed, attitudes can affect our behavior in such a way as to boost our resilience while reducing actions that may jeopardize our health and the economy.

 TheDigitalArtist/Pixabay
Source: TheDigitalArtist/Pixabay

Attitude Is Critical

The Greco-Roman philosophers such as Marcus Aurelius, Epictetus, and Cato argued attitude is everything. I have studied three highly diverse groups of people who have endured chronic adversity: 1) survivors of the London Blitz during World War II, 2) dialysis patients, and 3) survivors of the Iraqi invasion and occupation of Kuwait. The most resilient of those possessed a common denominator: a specific resilient attitude. That attitude is perhaps best captured in the maxim “Life is a journey, not a destination.” The template for this phase of unknown origin can be traced to the mid-1800s. Sometimes the journey can be enjoyed, sometimes the journey must be endured. Those I studied who seemed to be most resilient had a forward-thinking optimism but lived each day one at a time. They allowed neither success nor failure to define the journey as these were but milestones, never the journey itself.

As we look at how to best endure the “second winter” of the pandemic, if we define our lives in relation to a vaccine or herd immunity (destinations), we will surely be disappointed. They will never come fast enough. But if we see the pandemic as a yet undetermined segment of our journey that must be endured, we may not only survive psychologically, we may actually grow stronger. Friedrich Nietzsche's Ecce Homo (1908) reminds us, in the chapter “Why I Am So Wise,” that a person who has “turned out well” could be recognized by certain attributes, such as an ability to prosper from adversity. Nietzsche said: “What does not kill him, makes him stronger.” (“Was ihn nicht umbringt, macht ihn stärker.”)

Five Resilient Attitudes We Can All Adopt

In order for people to change their attitudes and their actions, three things must occur. First people must believe there is a problem. Second, they must believe that the problem affects them personally. Lastly, they must believe that they can act effectively so as to lessen the severity of the problem.

The pandemic and its adverse impact both physically and psychologically are undeniable. Its global footprint is affecting the vast majority of the world’s population, directly or indirectly. A community will never recover from a disaster until its people recover, but the key to recovery is making a conscious decision to prevail against adversity. Here are five attitudes you can adopt that will help:

1. Regard the risk of infection and severe illness seriously. COVID-19 can disable and kill people of any age. Assess your current health status identifying any factors that might put you in a high-risk category (over age 65, diabetes, obesity, chronic pulmonary illnesses, a compromised immune system, pregnancy, certain heart ailments, to mention only a few).

2. Assume that COVID-19 will be a persistent threat to you and your family, regardless of your risk factors, until a safe and effective vaccine is widely deployed. We are tired of the virus, but the virus is not tired of us. It thrives when we let our guard down. Stay vigilant. 

3. Commit to be a good neighbor. Act responsibly, not only for yourself but with others in mind. While your personal risk of dying from the virus may be low, your ability to spread it to others you know and love can be high. Avoid needless risk of exposure. Actively reduce your risk of becoming infected by taking appropriate precautions such as wearing a mask, physical distancing, and avoiding crowds or densely populated areas, when possible.

4. Remember the single best predictor of human resilience is connection, the support of others. Adopt the attitude that life is better shared through connection. It multiplies happiness and divides sadness. Nurture the relationships you have, rekindle the relationship you’ve lost, create the relationships you wish you had. Physical distancing does not mean “social distancing.” Find the courage to actively reach out. Plan virtual dinner parties, gatherings, online “window shopping.” Shop locally when possible. They are your neighbors, too. Form virtual tutoring, teaching groups to help with online schooling.

5. Don’t be selfish. Understand this is not about you any longer, this is about us! As John Donne reminds us, “No man is an island, Entire of itself, Every man is a piece of the continent, … Any man's death diminishes me, Because I am involved in mankind, And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; It tolls for thee.” We may have to make a promise to ourselves and our neighbors to endure inconvenience and perhaps hardship. We may have to temporarily sacrifice a lifestyle as we know it today for the promise of life tomorrow.

© 2020, George S. Everly, Jr., Ph.D.