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How to Disrupt the Dream-Disruptor, COVID-19

Brooding over cancelled plans? Sadness is not the only possible response.

A few years ago, as I lay in a hospital bed recovering from a serious illness, my mind kept returning to what I was going to do once I was well. I kept turning various plans over and over in my head . In fact they served as a great distraction from my discomfort.

I was going to travel first class to Japan! I had never been to that country, and it seemed like the perfect calm, clean, and well-ordered environment to help me nurse myself back to full health. The plans were finalized.

And then the world turned upside down: The pandemic struck! As a practicing clinical psychologist for the past 45 years, I was determined to not let my sadness and frustration overwhelm me. So I pulled out all the thinking tools in my armamentarium to make the disappointment tolerable.

Besides the obvious cognitive restructuring measures, such as challenging the irrational idea that I deserved this vacation and that it was horrible and Immeasurably awful that the cancellation had occurred, I took a different tack. I allowed myself to feel gratitude for all the traveling that I had already experienced.

I reminded myself that the only reason I could contemplate further traveling was because of all the rich travel experiences I had enjoyed throughout my life. I determined that I would resist the temptation to be greedy with life’s benefits. I would simply radically accept that for now this is simply the way it is and that no one is promised a particular amount of fulfilled dreams in life. And behind all of this I allowed myself to feel deep gratitude for all the successes in my life that would have allowed me to take that trip to Japan in the first place.

But how to share this concept with my patients, who I have been treating remotely? It might be especially difficult to communicate this perspective to younger patients, for whom the pandemic is not only an unwanted lockdown on their active lives but an interruption of a long-held dreams about career and/or romance. Of course, an additional problem with younger patients is that they simply don’t have the same depth of experience or quantity of successes yet in their lives to draw on as backup.

A couple of actual examples may suffice.: A 21-year-old college senior was devastated that his internship with a major New York financial firm had been postponed indefinitely. He had worked hard in college and had been able to attract an offer from a premiere firm. In his anguish he withdrew, slept often but fitfully, and questioned whether life was worth living if his career dream had gone down the drain.

I have been working hard to show him how his thinking is not only unhelpfully black-or-white but also that he is missing the most important point: The only reason a top firm reached out to him is because he had demonstrated academic and leadership superiority.

He needed to allow himself to feel gratitude about his inherited and parentally guided strengths of intellect and humor, curiosity, and assertiveness. Rather then needlessly upsetting himself over the job postponement and fearing that he will never have such an extraordinary opportunity again, he needs to realize that his skills are recognizable, valued, and will be enthusiastically sought when the work world returns to normal.

Another 21-year-old, a college graduate, had been working hard to repair a broken romantic relationship. Throughout her life she has felt blocked inside, shy and unworthy within her social group. She had convinced herself that there was something inside of her that was damaged and would never allow her to take the risk of loving another.

She and her ex-boyfriend were communicating remotely. She reported that she had never felt such love and caring from another and that she had finally opened herself up to be vulnerable, authentic, and deeply loving. The ex has been resisting reigniting the relationship and my patient had begun to blame herself totally for the breakup, convinced that the dream relationship can never be found with anyone else.

She became depressed, cried incessantly, felt unmotivated to explore potential job possibilities, and may embark on an antidepressant medication regime. Once again, my cognitive restructuring with this young woman has emphasized the importance of recognizing and feeling grateful for the personal growth that she has derived from the relationship even if it never recovers.

She never knew she could feel so alive and joyful with another person. Her recognition that she has the ability to feel such joy is crucial to feeling worthy and comfortable in future relationships. The richness that comes with allowing herself to be open and vulnerable will fuel her awareness of self-worth and permit her to “be alive like other human beings”

We can help our patients change the sadness and loss that they feel when their dreams are disrupted by the virus by helping them see the enormous emotional positivity that they can realize by merely feeling gratitude that they were able to dream.

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