Managing your mental health in difficult times

Managing your mental health in difficult times Share

Following last week’s post about maintaining productivity while working from home, we also think it’s important to share some advice on how to manage your mental health during this difficult time. Many people will find such confinement a real challenge, while others will see their emotions and mindset go up and down while stuck inside for days on end. So, here’s some guidance on staying mentally well through dark days.

Look for meaning, not happiness

When researchers and clinicians look at who copes well in crisis, it’s not those who focus on pursuing happiness to feel better – it’s those who cultivate an attitude of what’s known as “tragic optimism”.

To understand how tragic optimism might serve us during the pandemic, it might help to recall how the country responded to the 7/7 terrorist attacks fifteen years ago. People in London reported increased feelings of fear, anxiety and hopelessness, and these emotions were more debilitating for some than for others. But what set the more resilient Londoners apart was their ability to find the good.

That didn’t mean they denied the tragedy of what happened – they too felt the sadness and stress of the situation. Even in the darkest of places, they saw glimmers of light, and this ultimately sustained them.

But even more than helping people cope, adopting the spirit of tragic optimism enables people to actually grow through adversity.

Growing through trauma

For a long time, many psychologists embraced a victim narrative about trauma, believing that severe stress causes long-lasting and perhaps irreparable damage. Yet only a small percentage of people develop full-blown PTSD while, on average, anywhere from one half to two-thirds of trauma survivors exhibit what’s known as post-traumatic growth.

After a crisis, most people acquire a newfound sense of purpose, develop deeper relationships, have a greater appreciation of life and report other benefits. Those who grow spend a lot of time trying to make sense of what happened and understanding how it changed them. In other words, they search for and find positive meaning.

Hope in times of crisis

Of course, some people are naturally more hopeful than others. But the success of psychological interventions like meaning-centered psychotherapy — developed to help terminal patients cope with death — reveals that even the most despairing individuals have the capacity to find meaning in a crisis.

It may seem inappropriate to call on people to seek the good in a crisis of this magnitude, but in study after study of tragedy and disaster, that’s what resilient people do. Heart attack survivors, for example, who found meaning in the weeks after their crisis were, eight years later, more likely to be alive and in better health than those who didn’t.

This doesn’t mean that people should endure adversities with a smiling face: tragic optimism is not the same thing as happiness.

When people are feeling depressed or anxious, they are often advised to do what makes them happy. Much of the pandemic-related mental-health advice channels that message, encouraging people to distract themselves from bad news and difficult feelings, to limit their time on social media and to exercise.

We’re not suggesting those aren’t worthy activities and won’t provide some short-term benefits. But if the goal is coping, they do not penetrate into the psyche as deeply as meaning does.

When people search for meaning, though, they often do not feel happy straight away. The things that make our lives meaningful, like volunteering or working, can be stressful and require effort. But months later, the meaning seekers tend to report fewer negative moods and also feel more enriched and inspired.

Looking around and looking forward

Though it has been only a few weeks since the pandemic started affecting life as we know it, many are embracing meaning during this crisis. People are organising “help groups” to run errands for vulnerable people. They are rallying around struggling small businesses. Many companies and freelancers, nationally and locally, are offering their services free. People are feeling more grateful to the caregivers, teachers, service workers and health care professionals among us. And while this time certainly won’t be remembered as a happy period in the history of the world, it may be remembered as a time of redemptive meaning and hope.

Does any of this mean the pandemic is a good thing? We’re not saying that: it would be far better had the pandemic never occurred. But that’s not the world we live in. That’s why it’s important to learn to suffer well and look for meaning throughout the mayhem.