I have clients from many countries including Australia, USA, UK, Pakistan, India, Philippines and more. I am starting to notice a familiar trend amongst these clients who seek out my services. They often speak of how they were fine before the pandemic started but they are really struggling now to manage their stress, anxiety, negative thoughts, overwhelming emotions and they are noticing past trauma resurfacing. These clients are reporting that they are unable to focus on work and studies, they are tired and irritable and they are reporting feeling lonelier than ever before despite being surrounded by family. What is going on here and how is the COVID-19 pandemic negatively influencing mental health?
The COVID-19 pandemic is unique in a very important way. It forces seclusion and isolation on a scale unheard of before. The borders of entire countries are closed. Some people require government issued passes just to leave the house. Some people are being quarantined in hotel rooms and others are stuck in their bedrooms for weeks on end. That’s the problem. We have become accustomed to living with relative freedom. The freedom to be able to go to the shopping mall whenever we want to. The freedom to go for a walk down to the local park and sit under a tree. The freedom to visit friends and family who live outside of our immediate communities.
The Covid-19 pandemic has changed all of this. Most of my clients are 20+ years old and they have lived independent lives for quite a few years before the pandemic started. They are now being forced to move back home to their families. Their personal space is non-existent. Most of them are not able to even go outside just to get a break from their families. For the first time in these clients lives, they are being challenged in ways which they have not developed the coping skills necessary to manage. This is obviously starting to challenge their mental health as they begin to realise that the coping strategies that used to work for them no longer work.
They are also under immense financial pressure. Some of my clients are now unemployed as a direct result of COVID-19. They are burdened by loans and expenses that they can no longer afford. For those clients who are still employed, they are reporting being under more pressure than ever before. They are feeling the strain of taking on ever more complex roles as the business they work for downsizes and their superiors become ever more stressed. Often, they are not even qualified or educated in these roles but their jobs are on the line and so they must perform if they wish to remain employed and if they wish to continue to provide for their families.
For those clients who are studying, their parents and families are adding extra pressure to get good grades and thus secure good employment after graduation yet these same parents and families are not providing environments conducive to effective studying. Many of my clients who are studying report being constantly drawn into the family dramas of which they previously escaped by moving out of home. For others its just a matter of finding a quiet and peaceful place to study without younger siblings annoying them.
The combination of all of these factors is what is wearing my clients down. They are experiencing enormous stress and they are under enormous pressure. They are becoming increasingly overwhelmed by their negative thoughts, negative emotions, anxiety, fatigue, depressive symptoms and past trauma memories. They are reporting that when they are unable to focus on work or study they feel like a failure. They report feeling small, inadequate, helpless and out of control. They pine for their old selves and for when they were controlled, confident, productive and focused.
Some of my clients have attached their self-esteem and self-worth too rigidly to their work or studies and now that they are struggling in these areas they are being reminded of times in the past when they felt inadequate or powerless. The introjects from past abusers telling them that they are stupid or hopeless are coming to the forefront of their minds. For those clients who were abused as children, their core feelings of shame are resurfacing. Their traumatic memories are resurfacing and they admit to having no healthy coping strategies.
When I ask these clients how they managed their stress, anxiety, negative thoughts, etc in the past, they often say that they repressed and blocked everything and “just got on with life as if everything was ok”. They report how they were able to control everything just enough that it enabled them to put on their ‘I’ve got it together’ mask. Now though they are struggling to keep the mask on. Binge watching tv and gorging on food is not blocking out the painful thoughts and emotions. The lack of exercise and fresh air is certainly not helping either. They report feeling desperate and alone and they just want to go back to their pre-pandemic lives where they were confident and in control.
I remind these clients about the dangers of repressing and blocking out painful thoughts, memories and emotions. I remind them that these painful thoughts and feelings will always remain under the surface until an opportune time comes along and your defences are down. As soon as the defences are down, they will come attacking in full force. I remind these clients that they have great strength and I encourage them to regain their sense of control by counterattacking. By being proactive rather than passive. By standing their ground and fighting rather than continually running away and escaping. I provide them with the tools and strategies that allows them to challenge negative thoughts, rebuild their confidence, manage their painful emotions and come to terms and make peace with their past traumas.