Charles E. Dodgen Ph.D.

Simple Lessons for a Better Life

Morale in the Age of Coronavirus

Maintaining your fighting spirit and health.

Posted May 30, 2020

The pandemic has taken an appalling toll: to those directly afflicted, sometimes severe illness, even death; to loved ones of the stricken, loss and grief; to most everyone else, fear and distress. This being our first encounter with the novel coronavirus, we are learning some painful and unwanted lessons about its myriad harmful effects, including infection of the human spirit. Dealing with a mysterious and dangerous enemy for an indefinite period of time, when it seems all we can do is run and hide, are factors that can damage morale. Helplessness, hopelessness, and a loss of purpose or meaning are the unholy trilogy of demoralization1. And worse, when we lose our fighting spirit, we play right into our adversary’s hands—emotional duress suppresses our immune response, weakening our internal defense system. We are born with personal protective equipment (PPE): our brain and immune system work together to safeguard us. Escape is part of a natural alarm reaction to remove us from danger, but is not meant to be a long-term solution. We’ve taken flight and hunkered down, now it’s time we fight against chronic passivity and avoidance, which come with their own costs to our mental and physical health. Although we may be forced into a sheltered, defensive position, we can still assert ourselves in safe ways in order to manage our feelings and to optimize our well-being as part of a comprehensive strategy to cope with the coronavirus.

Why should we prioritize improving our mental health and well-being during this uncertain and threatening time? The current public health policies and recommendations (i.e., staying away from sick individuals and social distancing from others of unknown status, masking to protect those around us, cleaning and disinfecting frequently touched surfaces, and engaging in good hygiene through hand washing and avoidance of touching our eyes, nose, and mouth with unwashed hands) are for the prevention of contact with the virus. But what if we are living with a sick family member, unwittingly encounter a sick individual or contaminated surface, and the germ is introduced to our bodies? The short answer is that we should aim to be a hostile host and this is accomplished via a robust immune system. Obviously, we cannot fight the virus in the conventional sense by punching or kicking the germs. We can fight fire with fire—microscopic germs meet our invisible attack squad—our antibodies. Fortunately, antibodies do their jobs automatically, but they benefit from our support.

A complete discussion about the many factors relating to the health and effectiveness of the immune system is a medical discussion far beyond the scope of this article. However, there are psychological factors which have some bearing on this topic. There is a firmly-established relationship between mental stress, depression, anxiety, immunosuppression, and proneness to infection. Summarizing, stress and emotional distress are antagonistic to the operation of our immune system and make us more vulnerable to infection2. For the last few months I have been hearing statements like the following from patients: “The coronavirus has affected my whole life and there is nothing I can do about it;” “I don’t think this situation will ever end;” “This is no life—I don’t even know what normal is anymore, or if I care.” These statements and others like them are the unmistakable words of helplessness, hopelessness, and loss of purpose or meaning—anxiety, depression and apathy usually are lurking nearby in such circumstances. Overwhelming conditions like the present can create a crisis of faith—not only do we experience fear, but a sense that life itself has fundamentally changed and we are left lost, confused and uncertain how to even proceed. It is known to be the case that when the mind is beaten, the body follows suit and our immune response is weakened. Fortunately, we can bolster our spirits, rebuild our morale and enhance our natural defenses. Morale, like a muscle, can be strengthened through exercise. We can no more improve our morale by telling ourselves to “buck up” than we can build up our physique by telling ourselves to “muscle up;” both result from specific practices. The following are ways to reverse the helplessness, hopelessness, and purposelessness that characterize demoralization, and to restore hope, personal agency, and wellness.

To combat helplessness:

  • Control the controllables. There are many aspects of the current situation we cannot immediately control and to wish for the virus to disappear, or for the government to provide a perfect solution is to doom ourselves to disappointment and despair. We absolutely should follow the public health guidelines, and more. Make your focus on what you can directly control: your mindset and your behavior. Much of what has changed for many of us relates to losses of routine and structure, and to restriction of movement. Physical activity helps us to feel strong, healthy, and effective. We should endeavor to get as much physical exercise as possible. Having lost structure with school and work being interrupted or greatly altered, we should create our own plan. Maintain a schedule, get up and go to bed at the same time, for example. We should engage in typical hygiene and grooming habits; going through the day disheveled and in pajamas or sweatpants is a setup to feeling lousy. Finally, be careful not to overdose on coronavirus information on your TV, computer, or smartphone. Consume enough information to be informed, but recognize that there is nothing to be gained by being neck-deep all day in negativity.
  • Review your prior victories. Nobody gets through life unblemished, so everyone has had to deal with some adversity. Reflect on your personal challenges, for example a relationship breakup, job loss, bad grade on a big test, health setback, etc., and on your recovery from each incident. Your victories indicate your resilience which you can fall back on again. Fortitude and courage are transferrable—the abilities you showed to recover from past setbacks can be summoned up again.
  • Regulate your emotion. Stressful situations often result in emotional distress which is both uncomfortable and unhealthy. Allowing ourselves to be overwhelmed with emotion provoked by the crisis results in suffering, mental disorganization, and confusion. In order to regain emotional balance and to restore mental sharpness, the body needs to be calmed. Employ stress management strategies to promote relaxation and well-being; there are many online resources to help achieve these goals.
  • Seek social security. All other things being equal, one of the single best predictors of how well someone will cope with difficult times is the existence of a support system consisting primarily of family and friends. When we feel lost, insecure and frightened, isolation is torturous. The remedy is affiliation with people we trust. Unfortunately, the coronavirus requires us to maintain social distance which disallows us to take full advantage of this resource. Luckily, we can still make contact and receive support through the many electronic means we have today. Make ample use of video-chatting, emailing, texting, and telephone calls. Also, be sure to visit with friends and loved ones under proper distancing precautions. In New Jersey, with the nicer weather upon us, more people are meeting in yards, driveways, and parking lots—as close to the real thing as we can get right now, which is not bad.

For hope building:

  • Construct a victorious narrative. How you conceive of current events will determine its personal meaning, and meaning generates feelings. For example, sheltering-in-place can be viewed by you as a fearful surrender to the virus. Or, it can be thought of as a maneuver which is only part of a larger strategy to triumph over the situation. Even the fiercest and most courageous professional fighters sometimes retreat to slip a punch or to blunt the force of a blow, only to re-position for a counter-attack. Thinking of quarantine in these terms is more empowering. You get to write the narrative, make it triumphant.
  • Connect with identity. We all have multiple aspects of our identity which can be classified as personal, family/team, and collective3; focus on those that relate to victory and strength. For example, on the personal level, think of ideas such as, “I am a survivor, it will take more than this to keep me down.” Relating to empowerment through family/team level identifications, “I am a parent and I will model good coping skills for my family; or “I am an ex-marine, we are tough;” or, “I’m a Smith, we take care of each other in difficult times.” Collective identifications (including such reference groups as those based on age, gender, ethnicity, religion, political party, to name several) which can be helpful could include, “My faith and church will help me get through this;” or “I’m an old-timer, I know that this crisis will end like all the others before, and we will recover.”

For purpose/meaning:

  • Set goals. Speaking generally, purpose flows from striving for something, seeking to reach a goal. Grand or long-term goals are not helpful at this time. Consider accomplishing something concrete every day. For example, clean a drawer or organize your computer passwords, or switch out your seasonal clothing today. Then find a similar project tomorrow. This one-day-at-a-time approach helps ground us in the moment and maintain a positive, productive focus.
  • It’s a matter of mattering. Focus on the idea that what you do matters—for your life, your family’s well-being, and for the good of the community. 
  • Consider spirit. Act in concert with high spiritual values such as love and compassion. For example, provide assistance to an elder by shopping for them so they can remain safely sheltered. Or consider helping a family of someone who lost a job due to the national quarantine. Nothing is more meaningful or rewarding than service to others. Although loss currently abounds—of work, school, routine, comfort—we must reserve our highest regard and deepest sympathy for the loss of life suffered during the pandemic, which can beautifully be expressed by supporting a bereaved family.

References

1. Dodgen, Charles E. (2015). Simple Lessons for a Better Life: Unexpected Inspiration from Inside the Nursing Home. Amherst, New York: Prometheus Books.

2. Kiecolt-Glaser, J.K., McGuire, L., Robles, T., & Glaser, R. (2002). Psychoneuroimmunology: Psychological influences on immune function and health. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 70, 537-547.

3. Griffith, J.L. (2018). Hope Modules: Brief psychotherapeutic interventions to counter demoralization from daily stressors of chronic illness. Academic Psychiatry, 42, 135-145.