One of the most interesting aspects of a psychology practice is the ebb and flow of my patients’ emotional regulation. There are times when people have personal situations and even biological predispositions that create an increase in the severity of the symptoms they experience day to day. For instance, specific situations, like the break up of a relationship or problems on the job, are many times the catalyst for the exacerbation of emotional issues like depression or anxiety. But there are moments when events that happen collectively to us as a culture affect the mood of the entire community. For instance, when you live on the Space Coast of Florida, a hurricane in the Atlantic Ocean creates anxiety for everyone. As a licensed psychologist who has been in practice for many years, I’ve seen numerous cultural events that have created a spike in symptoms for a large percentage of people who seek treatment at our office. Perhaps this won’t be shocking, but out of all of the cultural phenomenon that I have watched over the years, none has created as much turmoil emotionally for patients as the COVID-19 pandemic. It seems as if our entire culture is in a pressure cooker of stress and uncertainty and people who have had their mental health conditions under control for years are experiencing an enormous increase in symptoms. It has been truly remarkable to see how fear of getting the virus and frustration and concern over the effects of quarantine have affected the mental health of a large percentage of our population. Not only is anxiety off the charts, but the isolation of quarantine has complicated more significant mental health problems like bipolar disorder and OCD. Couples who are struggling in their marriage have filed for divorce. Depressed patients who have made significant progress in treatment have ended up back at the desperate point of suicidal thoughts. Our culture at large is in trouble emotionally.
If we want to understand why COVID-19 has been so difficult for us culturally and how to fix the massive anxiety issue that we are all experiencing, it’s important to first understand what is driving our emotional reaction. While there are a multitude of factors that play in to what’s happening for all of us, there are two psychological principles that seem to be driving our experience: fear and control. Let me explain these two principles and how they interact to create our current emotional situation. Many of us are struggling with fear because of our conditioning. We grew up with helicopter parents who created a culture of fear in the family and we coped with this fear by over managing our life. We heard things like, “Don’t go outside and do that because you might get in trouble.” “Don’t play that sport because you might get hurt.” “I don’t want you to drive on the interstate because they drive too fast and you could get in an accident.” The message you got from the time you were very little was “if something bad can happen, it probably will happen.” So we end up being college students, moms and dads, or even business owners who live our lives with the expectation that if something bad can happen, it will happen to us. When COVID-19 enters the picture we become convinced that we will most certainly get the virus and our knee-jerk response is to do anything to avoid situations that might put us at risk. The reality that over 95% of the people that contract the virus will recover seems completely irrelevant. Instead, we focus on avoiding this dangerous situation in which we might get hurt. Obviously, this kind of avoidance will breed tremendous anxiety and will make it difficult for us to reenter normal life even when our leaders are encouraging us to do so. Now, not all of us were conditioned to fear the worst case scenario and avoid all risk. Instead, we were conditioned in the family to control outcomes. If I’m going to practice a little self-disclosure here, this is probably my wheelhouse. I love to control things. It’s hard to admit, but that is a part of my makeup. I like to stack the deck in my favor. I want to size up situations, understand what the situations require, create relevant responses, and get desired outcomes. That little strategy works great for me (and a lot of us) in some areas of my life. I can understand business, practice good business strategies, and get good results at the office. I can understand the behaviors that characterize a good husband and execute those behaviors in my marriage to create a solid relationship. But our controlling nature￼ comes with an incredible downside. When we face a situation as complicated and uncertain as COVID-19, the whole model breaks down. When even the experts are giving us conflicting opinions about best practices, that controlling nature will leave us with significant anxiety. The answer to crushing fear of getting the virus and an overwhelming desire to control outcomes that are truly uncontrollable is a simple concept that is incredibly difficult to live out: surrender. Our job at this point in the COVID-19 pandemic is to simply surrender to the process. We have to trust our leaders and their intentions to be good stewards of the power we have given them to make decisions about our well-being. There’s no perfect way to navigate or manage the unprecedented uncertainty of this pandemic and those in power will certainly make mistakes. But the healthiest thing for us to do at this point is to surrender to what comes next. Now that will certainly trigger our issues, right? For those of us that struggle with control, we have certainly had tremendous anxiety and probably even some anger about the quarantine. We don’t like feeling like we can’t make decisions about what’s best for our health and well-being. My best advice to you is to surrender. This story doesn’t revolve around you and your desire to control the outcomes. During this season, you have to let go of the wheel just a little bit in order to honor those in authority over you. Those of you who struggle with fear will also have to surrender. You will also have to submit to your leaders and understand that there will be a moment in which we will be required to engage some risk in order to get back to a normal life. Let’s be clear: lots of people will get sick with Coronavirus and about 95% of them will get through with little to no problem. Five percent of people are going to struggle significantly and some of them will die. That is a hard reality for all of us, but especially for people that are conditioned to believe that bad things will happen to them and those they love. But the answer here is still surrender. I wish I had the magic pill that I could provide to all of us that would ease the fall-out emotionally and eliminate the triggers to our fear and our control issues. I don’t, and neither does anyone else in government or healthcare. But I can say with certainty at this point the battleground is our mind. Collectively, we have to remember that we are a part of something bigger here. We have to focus minute by minute on the reality that we have been in very difficult situations in the past and have come through together. So let’s choose to focus on this one thought. There is reason to be scared and there are things we can’t control. But together we can have hope that we will all get through this together.