Overcoming 4 Mental Road Blocks en Route to a New Normal

Quarantining poses critical challenges to improving your mental health.

Posted May 15, 2020

Human beings are adaptable and, as such, we are finding new ways to adjust to the unprecedented and unpredictable nature of a “wartime” pandemic. A major part of the mental adjustment to this “new normal” is the realization that there will be ongoing mutations for an indefinite period. As a result, people are battling heightened levels of psychological trauma that feel ominous. There are four psychological areas that I feel are having an adverse impact on people’s ability to feel inspired, passionate, and motivated about various aspects of their lives: learned helplessness, compassion and information fatigue, PSTD/dissociation, and lost belief in inner locus control.

Learned helplessness burdens the brain with a belief that nothing you do will impact or change your current situation. Compassion and information fatigue results in overabsorption of media exposure whereby you potentially miss opportunities for positive information on improvements in technologies, opportunities for social contact, etc. PTSD symptoms include a strong sense of a vanishing self, whereby your daily life consists of going through robotic motions and detachment without any feelings. Lost belief in internal locus of control results in a cycle of low self-esteem in areas even where you may have some control, thereby further compounding your belief in an external locus of control.

As we continue to remain sheltered in place for longer periods of time, it will become increasingly challenging for people to feel inspired, passionate, and motivated about various aspects of their lives and cope with the ever-changing social, entertainment, work, financial, and health landscape. We’re now three months into the coronavirus pandemic and federal agencies and experts warn that a historic wave of mental health problems is approaching: depression, substance abuse, domestic abuse and violence, post-traumatic stress disorder, and suicide. Nearly half of Americans report the COVID-19 crisis is harming their mental health, according to a Kaiser Family Foundation poll.

It's very likely that many people may not be familiar with these four psychological terms, so I’ve included a brief explanation on each, as well as some challenges you can use to self-care, if you’re able to identify and feel you’re being affected by them.

1. Learned helplessness

Learned helplessness was a term coined by psychologists Martin Seligman and Steven Maier describing a state where a person who had repeatedly experienced a stressful situation invariably stopped trying to change the outcomes, even if the variables might allow for the situation to change. In studies of learned helplessness they conducted in humans in the late 1960s and early 1970s, a link was found between learned helplessness and depression. The effects of learned helplessness can be extensive, impacting a person’s mental health, relationships, and other aspects of life. It also increases the risk of stress, depression, and low self-esteem. However, it is possible to overcome it with lifestyle changes and therapy.

Challenges:

Force yourself to deconstruct the variables that led you into a feeling of helplessness. Are the variables the same as they were at the beginning? Have they changed at all? If they have changed even a little, can your behavior change slightly as a result? Keep re-evaluating the variables and the possibilities for change.

2. Compassion and information fatigue

When people become over-saturated by distress hearing about illness, death, and perils about the future, they begin to shut down. Compassion fatigue was noted by Charles R. Figley (Ed) in 1995 and described it as a condition that develops over time. When we are consistently hearing vivid stories of traumatic occurrences it can spur feelings of empathy and suffering in us. Over time, those feelings can invade and result in many waking hours without sleep, and lessen our ability to feel "optimism, humor and hope." In a recent study, it was noted that roughly 66% of Americans (66%) feel worn out by the amount of news being reported daily.

Challenges:

Instead of just reading headlines, search for information that may give you hope. Search for titles about entertainment options that may be new or on the horizon. For example, if you like concerts, movies, theater, cooking, books, or other hobbies, focus on searching for streaming options about them. Be more creative in the information you seek and avoid being drawn in by the headlines.

3. PTSD: Dissociation

Natural disasters can be considered a traumatic event and a pandemic is a natural disaster. According to Dr. Arielle Schwartz, these traumatic events lead to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). This PTSD interferes with how we interact with our environment. “Fear and lack of safety leaves you scanning your environment for potential threats.” We may become overly consumed by trying to make sure we are doing all we can to keep ourselves and loved ones healthy and safe. When faced with an unpredictable environment people tend to “turn-off to survive.” This symptom is called Dissociation. It can leave people feeling “foggy” “fuzzy” or forgetful. It can also lead to apathy and lack of motivation.

Challenges: 

You can reduce post-traumatic stress symptoms using cognitive behavior therapy. Focus on de-catastrophizing your cognitions and do your best not to forecast the future. 

Try to avoid magnifying the negative impact the pandemic is having on you. Make a concerted effort not to minimize positive changes that you have been able to make in your prosocial behavior. Balancing your thinking can have a positive impact on your emotional responses during this stressful period. To break episodes of dissociation, try these techniques: Use ice on a pressure point to alleviate fogginess; or use a rubber band and identify five objects in a room, while you snap the rubber band to ground you back in the moment.

4. Lost belief in internal locus of control

In 1954, American psychologist Julian Rotter defined an Internal Locus of Control as the degree to which a person believes they have control over their destiny. Studies have shown that individuals with a higher degree of external locus of control; a belief that external variables control the outcomes of their experiences, result in higher levels of psychological distress (Angela Roddenberry and Dr. Kimberly Renk, 3/2010). This psychological distress leads to lower self-esteem and further compounds a belief in an inability to control outcomes. Individuals struggling with mental health problems are especially affected by this pervasive awareness of uncertainty.

Challenges:

Task yourself with finding one thing a day that is within your control. Challenge yourself to do that thing. It could be exercising, socializing, leaving to get gas, going for a drive, or finding a new activity. Rely and reinforce yourself to make a change instead of waiting for external variables to “move” you. Do one thing each day—no matter how big. It will start to make a difference.

As you can imagine, all these areas can impact a person’s inspiration, motivation, and passion as they are confronted with the unknown for extended periods of time. There are no quick fixes, but if you can make some adjustments, over time you will start noticing increased levels of inspiration, motivation, and passion. If you do not experience any significant positive progress, please reach out to a mental health professional for additional support. There are many affordable options being offered in response to the rising percentage of people seeking mental health support during this pandemic.

References

www.positivepsychology.com, "Learned Helplessness: Seligman's Theory of Depression (+Cure)," 

by Courtney E. Ackerman, MSc, March 24, 2018

www.drarielleschwartz.com, "Complex PTSD and Dissociation," by Dr. Arielle Schwartz, April 26. 2016

en.wikipedia.org, "Locus of Control"

www.stress.org, "When Helping Hurts," by F. Oshberg, MD, published February, 2014

www.pewresearch.org, "Americans' news fatigue isn't going away—about two-thirds still feel worn out, by Jeffrey Gottfried, February 26, 2020