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Mental Health

Turning Adversity To Advantage In The Face Of A Pandemic

Snigdha Samantray, Clinical Psychologist

Trust that the future is bright.

15th march 2020, Sunday morning 8:00 AM, I got a phone call from Maya (name changed), a 45-year-old housewife. Her shaky voice managed to utter the phrase, “Good morning doctor, I need your help. I am not infected by the coronavirus; however, I feel I am the most affected.” As we moved further with the consultation, she described how her stress level has suddenly escalated as a result of the coronavirus outbreak. She said “I feel helpless these days as I don’t know how to handle my stress. Although I am well-read and educated about the precautions that I am supposed to take as a responsible citizen and ensure that my family does the same, I am unable to deal with the other unexpected things that are happening, which I was not prepared for. I am a mother of two children, one supposed to appear for her board exams and another in 5th grade. My husband is a software engineer. Currently at home, I also have my in-laws, who were supposed to travel back to their native after a vacation at our place but could not do so because of the travel advisories by the government in the current scenario. While on one hand as a mother I am struggling every day to keep my elder daughter motivated and deal with her frustration, as her board exams got postponed, on the other, my husband’s frustration because of the work from home scenario is taking a toll on me. He is getting unreasonably angry, picking up fights with me mostly because he is frustrated with the frequent internet breakdowns and his boss’s unreasonable demands. Since my in-laws are around now, much of my freedom in terms of what I wear or do in my routine lifestyle is compromised. I have to do things I don’t like in order to please them. My mother in law’s consistent interference in the kitchen is frustrating me. My younger daughter being a child is constantly nagging to go outside to play and doesn’t wash her hands or take precautions if not supervised. My maids and cooks have stopped coming following the advisories on social distancing and I have no help for the household chores. Earlier I used to get some space when my husband used to leave for work and children would go to school. I could relax and do things that I liked and now it seems like I am suffocating. It seems like I will break down. She takes a pause, sobs and starts speaking again, “As if all this was not enough, only yesterday I got to know that my brother had been on a solo trip to Europe without informing any of our family members. And now he is unable to travel back to India due to international airports being shut down. I have no idea how he is doing and how he is coping. He has anxiety and my parents are worried. I don’t know how long this will continue and the uncertainty is driving me insane, I have never felt like this before.

For most of us, we can find a part of ourselves in Maya’s experience. I applaud Maya for coming up with this as she played a pivotal role in the initiation of this article.

Worries about the novel coronavirus are roiling the world now in every way imaginable. Most of us are probably having worrying thoughts like, am I going to get coronavirus? Is someone I love, going to get it? And if we do, is it going to kill us? But then there are others like Maya (may be few in number) who are already conscious of the aftermath of the coronavirus outbreak in terms of emotional issues, and they have no doctors to help them, mostly because there are no medicines for their problems! 

And let me tell you, we are all heading towards this aftermath as ‘social distancing’ and ‘lockdown’ are being implemented seriously across the globe.

As she didn’t qualify in any of the diagnostic criteria to label her with a mental health disorder or to refer her to a psychiatrist for medication, the only resort was ‘supportive psychotherapy’. As a mental health professional, I had no choice other than shifting Maya’s perspective from her problems to potential solutions. In my experience during the tenure of working with her, which I still am, I have understood that we are all going through Maya’s experience currently in some or the other way under the pandemic umbrella of the coronavirus. The need of the hour is a very old perspective called “turning adversities to advantage.” Let’s understand this perspective better as together Maya and I understood it during the therapy sessions.

Make work from home productive

I remember those days when I used to come back home wishing I never woke up to another working day. And now when I am isolated and given the official work from home, I feel miserable and unproductive. I am sure many of us feel the same way. But if we just change our perspective, we would realize that this is just a sabbatical to nurture and rejuvenate ourselves from our daily hustle-bustle. Not only it gives us relief from hectic work-related travel and saves our travel expenditure but also enables us to quickly meet our deadlines and complete the most procrastinated career goals. Yes, power cuts and internet breakdowns can be frustrating but not as much as getting stuck in the traffic for hours or missing our lunch for back to back meetings.

Share household duties

While many housewives are rightfully feeling that their space has been compromised and responsibilities increased, you are also being offered an opportunity to exercise your emotional flexibility and agility. Understand that this pandemic is not going to last forever. You can use this opportunity to generate responsibility for daily chores in your family members by asking for their help and not single-handedly bearing the burden of responsibility. If each family member takes care of their own share, the burden of work would be divided. Think of creative ways to playfully engage your children in helping you with the household chores. This also gives you an opportunity to understand your husband’s nature of work and its demand. Have family meetings (including your children) and put it on the agenda to discuss family issues daily. It’s a great way of spending time together and working together to find solutions during times of adversity. This worked excellently for Maya. She figured out that when she had family meetings and asked for a solution, the help she was seeking came effortlessly.

Study smartly

Surely uncertainty and postponement of exams can be frustrating as many students are homebound now. Understanding what’s more frustrating to you than your exams getting postponed is the limitation in your freedom to move around, meet friends, go out freely, or post-exam vacation plans getting thwarted. However, this is not going to be forever. Instead, the silver lining in this dark cloud of uncertainty is ‘time’. It’s such a precious commodity for you now that you can use it to cover the portions of various subjects that you were unable to complete earlier and even if you did, revise and solve new question papers. It’s been 15 years ever since I passed my board exams, trust me I still wish I had more time back then!

Develop consciousness

We all have that day to day challenge of keeping our lives together. Being an isolated traveller under the current circumstances can be frustrating but you should know that you’re serving a purpose that’s bigger than anything. Who said travelling is all about pleasure, seeing new places, business meetings or work? Travelling is also about the wisdom that you gain about life and its uncertainties. It’s also about learning responsibilities that you owe to yourself and others while you are travelling. Trust me you will be a more conscious traveller next time! I know the social treatment that you are getting now just because you made that benign travel plan, might have been more stigmatizing and the isolation from your normal life are testing your vulnerabilities. Understand that when you planned your travel, you never knew where this was going, and your fear and apprehension now are legitimate and bigger than you being quarantined. However, getting quarantined and isolated are the only desperate measures during this desperate time for the greater good.

Rekindle relationships

Every aspect of human relationship has been put under scrutiny as a result of the novel coronavirus outbreak. While many of you like Maya are juggling between responsibilities and the need to have space and freedom, what you are letting go unnoticed is that this provides you ample time to bond with your family, which you may have missed out due to your personal goals. Working couples who see each other only on weekends due to different work shifts now get to spend time with each other. Children who craved time from their parents now have them all. Many people are calling up their friends, relatives and acquaintances and catching up to know how they are doing. This may have been procrastinated otherwise. During the session, Maya realized that her long-standing promise to make biryani for her younger daughter was pending. She realized how much she nagged when her husband used to return late from work and now that he is there 24/7, she wants space! She realized her in-laws are not going to be there forever and she could leverage this time to turn her mother in law’s interference in to help in the kitchen or learn new recipes. 

Everyone’s responsibility

Often, during times of crisis, people get to see the altruistic side of humanity. Hope and brotherhood are rekindled. While humans are responsible for this pandemic, they are also responsible for their eradication. If you wish to just switch your focus from a few irresponsible citizens now, you would realize the majority of them are adhering to collective responsibility and we are doing better than countries like China and Italy. Even corona-stricken people overseas are posting on social media stating how not to repeat their mistakes. Why do you think they need to write to the world at times of crisis when they haven’t fully recovered from their own ailments?  This all spontaneously rises up under the banner of collective responsibility. It has been seen that people don’t learn from advisories but they learn from their mistakes. Even the citizenship amendment act that stirred up our nation a while ago has now taken a backseat. It’s remarkably surprising how humans can coordinate and cooperate at times of adversity. Don’t you think coronavirus is a blessing in disguise?

A silver lining

I feel that the coronavirus outbreak has taught most of us about facing adversities while having considerably limited control over a globally rising pandemic. However, it also has the potential to improve our connections with our environment. While carbon emissions and pollution have significantly reduced and bans are being put in place on farming and consumption of wild animals, it is important to notice that it isn’t really the end of the world. In fact, social distancing and the lockdown have led to nature taking a much-needed break from continuous human presence, which under the current scenario, is definitely a silver lining.

Healthcare takes a twist

As the number of confirmed cases of coronavirus continues to rise in India, the healthcare industry is witnessing an increased trust and adherence to online consultations or telemedicine among consumers. This boom in telemedicine is due to the fact that people fear visiting hospitals as it could lead to direct contact with a person infected with the coronavirus. Such a trend is not only observed in India but is being seen across the globe as telemedicine becomes the first point of contact for most of the suitable suspects. Similar reports have also been published by Economic Times on 16th march 2020 stating, “There is a clear trend towards e-consultations, and people do not want to go to crowded healthcare facilities like hospitals, clinics, labs, pharmacies, etc., perhaps due to the fear of infections there.” Even the number of telepsychology consultations for mental health issues as a result of the coronavirus outbreak has increased. More and more people like Maya are becoming aware of their mental health needs and social distancing, making teleconsultations their most convenient option at the moment. This clearly shows a positive development and shift towards AI-based medical innovations of the next generation. 

The novel coronavirus outbreak has so far affected more than a million people and more than half a lakh people succumbing to the illness worldwide, approximately. However, let’s not forget that more than two lakh people have also recovered around the world so far. Humans are more afraid of something they don’t know than of something they know, and hence new viruses are more threatening than the old and known ones. But as history testifies, new understanding and innovations have always emerged from calamities and losses. Trust that the future is bright!

Note: If you are experiencing symptoms like cough, fever, sore throat or breathing difficulties, it is advised that you consult a doctor as soon as possible. Get your symptoms assessed by top doctors on your phone on the MFine app.

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