Flexing Our Coping Muscles This Pandemic: A Disaster Responder Weighs In


Covid-19 didn’t get here first. We’ve all been living in another kind of pandemic, long before the virus entered the scene. And we are all the stronger for our experience.

In recent years, one way or the other, we’ve established our own ways of coping with political stress. At times it certainly doesn’t feel like we’re coping, as we continue to fend off partisan slings and arrows. But coping doesn’t mean that hard times no longer stress us. Coping means adaptively living through stressful situations, rather than only becoming distressed. We draw upon ever-evolving personal resilience, and may even experience post-traumatic growth. Coping is about flexing, adding, and strengthening these inner muscles.

What has changed about your thoughts, feelings, and behaviors while coping over time with the stress of political divisiveness? You may find evidence of new muscles, as well as stronger resilience for facing new challenges.

To be of any use, however, these muscles first must be recognized and acknowledged.

The First Pandemic: Polarization-Induced Stress

I’m a semi-retired psychologist. After a long career in disaster mental health, the time came to hang up my field vest. I really did think of myself as retired from all that. But a couple of years ago, it suddenly seemed as if I’d never left. Everywhere I looked, I saw people who were:

  • Overanxious or fearful
  • Dazed or confused
  • Withdrawing from social interaction
  • Quick to lash out or otherwise overreact
  • Using avoidance or denial to deal with daily issues
  • Argumentative to the point of harming relationships
  • Struggling to access better reasoning and logic
  • Overwhelmed, or downright depressed

These symptoms of overstress and trauma are as familiar to me as the back of my hand. But there was no hurricane, flood, 9/11, or other usual suspect to explain their appearance.

Eventually the culprit became clear. Our ongoing mind- and spirit-jarring political stress has created a mental health disaster, on a grand scale. Social media, traditional media, conversation at the water cooler or dinner table, and even our own niggling thoughts retrigger this stress daily. Everybody is trying to make life work with a constantly-pressed panic button.

Our coping mechanisms and resilience have struggled valiantly to meet this challenge. But as always happens in disaster, they do not necessarily succeed at first. This is especially true for novel situations, such as our widespread socio-political meltdown. The unfortunate result is we find ourselves watching our communities and common humanity get twisted into perverted versions of their former, more robust selves.

The good news: understanding what’s going on inside us, and what we can do about it, does indeed reduce suffering, just as it does during other disastrous situations. Furthermore, the rush of energy that so often fuels suffering can be funneled instead into post-traumatic growth.

So what’s happening when we get stressed about politics? Let’s start by taking stock, and eventually taking charge, of the physical cause behind our knee-jerk defensiveness that pops up like whack-a-mole whenever politics come up. When sensing dire threat, our “gut brains” trigger neurochemistry that produces the fight-or-flight reaction. In other circumstances, this may save our skins. This is the part of our brains that:

  • Energizes lightning-speed reactions.
  • Shuts down brain and body functions not needed for surviving the crisis.
  • Identifies a threat to blame, and focuses us solely on that threat.
  • Quickly divides surroundings into safe/dangerous or good/bad categories.
  • Produces urges for immediate, sometimes hardwired reflexes and reactions.
  • Sets aside social niceties and taboos that can get in the way of survival activity.
  • Encourages bonding with those fighting the common foe, and joining forces.

These are great instincts and reactions for running from a lion or joining a spear fight with a neighboring tribe. However, our lives (and recent historical events) are littered with evidence of how poorly they work out during socio-political disaster, at times even perpetuating the disaster itself. Chemically-based urges to react without thinking, to forget social niceties, to search for targets to blame, and to adopt extreme positions, only make matters worse in our socially-oriented society.

Fortunately, we are not forced to give in to the whims of fight-or-flight brain chemistry. Our higher-functioning brains are well-able to step in, and often do. Furthermore, they have the power to channel all that passion and energy into adaptive directions—like where our resilience resides.

Taming the Turmoil Within

Lack of certainty and control are the greatest amplifiers of fear and trauma, no matter the source of stress. Shifting our attention to our inner workings can revitalize our sense of certainty and control, and help us resist impulsive urges. Here’s how it works:

  • Take note of exactly what you’re feeling as distress begins to brew, be it bodily sensations, emotions, rushing thoughts, defensiveness, or vague feelings of disquiet.
  • Thank your gut brain for doing its job and alerting you to potential danger. If appropriate, let it know its brand of defense is not the right tool for this job, and that it can stand down.
  • Slow down, especially your thought processes, perhaps beginning with a few deep breaths. This way clearer thinking has a chance to step in.
  • Step back and actively examine your thoughts for possible limited or faulty reasoning—are you making assumptions or knee-jerk decisions, without thinking them through?
  • When hearing “facts,” consider the sources. Are they reliable and evidence/expert-based?
  • Break interpersonal patterns that promote disagreement. Only one person needs to change to break a pattern. Look for whatever you might be doing to keep arguments or ruminations chugging along, and change course.
  • Show compassion for those experiencing the emotional impact of political stress, rather than trying to change their positions. The brain chemistry that fuels compassion overrides the antics of fight-or-flight; they cannot happen simultaneously. In this manner, both giver and receiver benefit.
  • Listen rather than react to others’ distress over today’s politics. Problem-solving cannot move forward without it. Likewise, making yourself listen automatically slows you down, increasing the likelihood of rational thinking taking the reins.
  • Seek out a niche in your community that helps you to better society, especially one that enlists compassion for the plight of fellow human beings. You will be amazed at how quickly helping others puts a damper on the doldrums.

Regular exercise and activities that cause awareness of your body strength or sense of power over your actions provide additional certainties to attend to, rather than dwelling on external uncertainties. Likewise, remember that we human beings are designed to feel safer when connected or in sync with others. The stress response even releases extra oxytocin to promote it. Don’t let it go to waste. Stay connected with others through any sort of crisis.

What lessons have we learned, then, while seeking relief from the uncertainty and stress of political divisiveness? It’s been a grand field experiment, an opportunity for each of us to identify and make use of our own style of resilience. Though individual lessons may differ, we’ve all been exposed to versions of the following:

  • Standing in the rapids, shaking a fist upstream, and demanding that the water stop rushing down will never keep fractured reasoning and injustice from swamping politics.
  • Not letting despair corner our souls leaves room for healthy fruit to flourish.
  • Kind efforts, whether aimed toward others or our inner selves, can derail the vicious cycle of political divisiveness.

The Second Pandemic: COVID-19

Now more alarms are chiming in our heads, ringing in a viral pandemic. Symptoms of overstress and trauma again turn up in force. This time the source of stress also brings physical risk—not a charging lion or hostile neighboring tribe, but viruses threatening to invade our bodies. Making matters worse, poorly-managed long-term stress weakens the immune system. Ongoing stress from a pandemic therefore challenges not only our mental wellbeing, but also our ability to fight the virus.

Once again we face an “invisible” disaster, for which physical fight-or-flight are not the best answers. What new muscles did we flex during the first pandemic? What did post-traumatic growth teach us about coping with socio-political divisiveness, that might also help us cope with COVID-19 stress? Though everyone’s muscles differ, they may resemble these suggestions:

  • Limit your amount of exposure to the stressful situation. Ways of doing this include only watching enough news to be appropriately informed, and reexamining one’s relationships with those whose actions and words are aimed to stir up stress. Nobody needs constant reminders of conflict-loaded beliefs and situations.
  • Consider the sources of new information, rather than immediately buying in and passing it on to others. Rumors abound during disasters, and add more uncertainty, rather than the certainty we need to feel safer. Be appropriately selective.
  • Look for viable solutions, and the pros and cons of each solution you encounter, rather than letting yourself be drawn in to the false security that comes with knee-jerk acceptance of any purported solution in a crisis. There was never a better time to bring level-headed thinking to the forefront.
  • Instead of focusing tightly on your own fears, consider also the plight of your fellow human beings. We only need so much toilet paper. We don’t need to pass around toxic posts and tweets that needlessly stir up distressing emotions, especially considering the impact it will have on everyone’s immune systems. Compassion is key for healing both ourselves and others.
  • Respect the need for social isolation and other preventive practices. Doing so is not only safer; it also encourages compassion.
  • Consider what else you might do for others, such as getting in touch with the isolated, making protective gear for those in need, providing a listening ear or words of cheer, or joining a group effort aimed to meet a community need. Or, simply find something you can do that will make others happy, or make life easier for them. Social support brings both physical and emotional healing for all involved.
  • Look forward to the post-traumatic growth this second pandemic will bring. What strengths and abilities do you discover as you travel this road? Seek and ye shall find.

In other words, we have the power to reduce distress and susceptibility, and more effectively come to terms with the pandemic, when we exert control over our fine-tuned primitive chemistry instead of letting fear run the show.

The 2020 Election: A Third Pandemic, or a National Healing?

After this second pandemic runs its course, we will live in a different world. We will need to reestablish key social infrastructures—economic, medical, educational, governmental, and more—based on the new realities before us. In doing so we will draw upon old learning and experience, the tried and true of the past. In addition, we can once again apply learning from the present pandemics, and do a lot of outside-the-box thinking as well.

Life is one long series of “new normals,” for communities and individual lives alike. Change is the only absolute certainty we have in this world. Human beings have had lots of experience adjusting and accommodating to new realities. We will rise to the occasion of rebuilding society, just as our ancestors have for eons of post-catastrophes, and we will establish our new normal.

But a major election cycle is coming in a few short months, and with it will come new waves of political division and personal stress. Who is well-adjusted enough to lead us into this brave new world? How do we make the best possible judgments as we elect strategists and decision-makers? Most of all, how do we avoid driving society into a third mental health disaster?

Take heart. We are so much more powerful than we think we are. You see, as you may have already figured out, we’re in this predicament not just because of the much-maligned politicians, journalists, and social media. Responsibility for polarization belongs to us all. This predicament came into being because of the political arena our society built to support it. But just as we created it, we have the power to overcome it. We do so by using our power differently.

Of course, our “gut brains” do not recognize this bigger picture. Once again, they’re on high alert, encouraging us to see only what favored candidates did right and what opposing candidates did wrong. They seek strength and safety in attacks and counterattacks, and superheroes and numbers, rather than the real solution-seeking that our newly-developed coping muscles have to offer.

As the election date approaches, the following strategies help point us the right direction:

  • Slow down, and focus inward.
  • Remind your gut brain that the real enemy is the problem itself—those with alternate views of how to solve the problem are not the enemy. Rest assured, your gut brain will object mightily. But only your own higher thinking has the power to quell its insistence.
  • Recognize when emotions are hijacking your choices, rather than reason being in charge.
  • Listen to others with an open mind, rather than becoming defensive and argumentative.
  • Before making decisions, fully research the pros and cons of candidate experience, leadership ability, and policy positions, and consider the degree of impact those pros and cons are likely to have on building our brave new post-election world.
  • Engage compassion for our representatives and the rocky road they face. We do so by communicating with them, not with anger and complaints, but by pointing out where we need their reasoning explained. Share with them your own views, ones you can support with facts.

This brand of compassion shows them you believe they’re capable of listening, understanding, and finding solutions, as well as helps them keep their own gut brains under control.

Most of all, remember to keep perspective: our relationships with our fellow human beings are more precious than hotly-defended beliefs of the day. There’s a beautiful world out there we can focus on, no matter what the ongoing difficulty is.

As for the election? This, too, will pass.

We’ve got this.

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4 thoughts on “Flexing Our Coping Muscles This Pandemic: A Disaster Responder Weighs In”

  1. Carol Alexander

    Thanks for your thoughtful comments about this pandemic. Panic is not necessary; careful considerations for self and others are primary. Now is the time for careful actions and consistent love and kindness to self and others. Thank you for your ideas on how to cope and thrive in this “new normal” that will likely last for much longer than we expect.

  2. bdoherty@umn.edu

    A great distillation of what we know works for people facing situations like COVID-19. Much appreciated!
    Bill Doherty

  3. Erica Etelson

    As a warm-up for the 2020 election, I’m trying to practice compassion toward people who don’t share my belief that stay-home orders are necessary. In the early stage of the pandemic, I found myself being quick to accuse them of being selfish or immoral. Then I slowed down and started listening to their fear and pain about losing their businesses and the sadness of having young children shut in with no other children to play with. I found things to relate to — like how sad I am that my son’s prom and high school grad are cancelled and my anxiety about whether he’ll go to college as planned. I found that I can empathize with the horrendous downsides of the stay-home order and, at the same time, hold my position that they are necessary.

    1. Laurel Ellen Hughes

      Excellent–empathy, objectivity and compassionate caring address a host of impediments to experiencing common humanity. Imagine how much our communities would heal if everyone adopted your stance. Best wishes.

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