Since coronavirus began its spread in the US, social distancing measures and stay-at-home orders have been implemented across the country in an effort to slow the spread of the virus. This has been an extremely difficult adjustment for many people to make. It has come with a loss of routine and predictability, a loss of a sense of safety, loss of support systems and coping mechanisms, loss of work and income. Some of us have lost loved ones, or have become sick ourselves and are now coping with the long-term impacts. Many people are wondering when they are going to see their families and friends again. Many of us are feeling lonely and isolated. One of the most difficult aspects of this is that we are sacrificing a lot and we’re unable to predict how long we will have to give it up. Even as stay-at-home orders are lifting in many places, the danger remains in the absence of effective treatments or vaccines.
In the face of this ongoing risk, how do we motivate ourselves and others to make necessary sacrifices and act from a place of social responsibility and care for our communities? Much of the discourse seems to be characterized by perspectives at two extremes. On the one hand, messages relying on optimism and positive thinking tend to ignore many of the hard facts about this situation. This can sound like, “You’re young! Everything is going to be fine!” Or claims that data around severity, long term impacts, death rates or risk are being exaggerated or are negligible. This type of messaging invites people to respond with passivity or recklessness, or to adopt the belief that we are somehow exceptions to the rules. On the other hand, there are messages that rely on shame or fear tactics in an attempt to convince others to stay at home, ignoring the very real emotional, financial, and health challenges that result from long-term isolation.
What’s missing from these conversations is hope. Hope sustains us in the long road ahead, even when we can’t see the end of it. It helps protect us from the sense of apathy or powerlessness that often comes with hopelessness. And while hopelessness, fear, and sadness are natural and valid responses to crises, hope can be a precious salve. Luckily, hope is a strategy, not a feeling. That means that there are things that we can do to create and maintain hope for ourselves and for each other.
How to maintain hope during the coronavirus pandemic:
- Look for small signs of progress:
Set an intention to notice the small steps that have already been taken. Large scale, systemic changes take time. It’s easy to lose hope while we work toward those changes. So it’s important to make note of the small signs of progress. For example, if you’re placing your hope in a vaccine, don’t just read the headlines about how long it will take to make one. Learn about the process. Who’s working on these vaccines? What research already exists that will help us toward finding one? Can you subscribe to a scientific journal where you will get regular updates on the progress being made? If you’re placing hope in safety nets to sustain people during the crisis, look first within your own social circles. What kind of work is being done already by your friends, family or neighbors to support one another through this crisis? How can you be a part of that work? Get involved in community efforts and mutual aid groups, or create a system between friends or neighbors to check in on one another, drop off groceries or other gifts, make masks, etc. We may not have the power to make the virus go away, but we do have the power to support and care for one another right now.
Try reminding yourself of why you are choosing to follow social distancing guidelines, and why you might be making other hard choices during this time. Instead of thinking about this as a personal sacrifice, think about it as a contribution to a greater social good. This can be a life-giving reframe in a time when many of us are feeling the impacts of isolation, especially those of us who live alone or live with people with whom we feel disconnected or unsafe. We are struggling with feelings of boredom, restlessness, and powerlessness. In isolation, our feelings of disconnection from others can become exacerbated. But we can feel a powerful sense of connection and solidarity with our communities when we remind ourselves that these sacrifices are an act of hope in the ability of people to come together to do something important and vital. In couples’ counseling, we talk about finding a shared enemy. The enemy is not each other; it’s the problem. Let the work you are doing with your community to fight a common enemy soothe the feelings of isolation and loneliness. We are keeping each other safe. We are saying, with our actions and with our sacrifices, that we care about our neighbors and the most vulnerable among us.
- Focus on the present
Remind yourself that things are constantly changing and evolving. This is a fact of life, beyond the pandemic. New information is coming out all the time. Just wait. Focus on the present. Make the present more comfortable and predictable by creating simple daily routines. These can be as flexible or rigid as you’d like. You can also write down a list of activities you can choose from when you start to feel restless, bored, or just down. Having a list on hand makes it easier to choose something to do when you’re already low on emotional, mental or physical energy. Allowing yourself to feel moments of joy and pleasure in life as it is now can help you feel more empowered and energized for the future.
An important part of any conversation about hope is clarification about what hope is not. As I stated at the beginning of this article, hope is not a feeling. That means that hope doesn’t always feel good, or that you have to be happy in order to be hopeful. It is unfair and unrealistic to ask each other not to grieve, shut down, or break down in the midst of a traumatic event. We can feel sad and scared while we act in hope. Hope is also not denial. To deny the severity of an event through willful ignorance is a behavior rooted in fear. Hope is a courageous and empowered act.
You’ll notice in the list above that connecting with others can play a big role in generating and maintaining hope during the coronavirus pandemic. This isn’t something you have to do alone. Now is the time to lean on your support systems. If you think a therapist would be a helpful part of that support system, feel free to give us a call at 215-922-LOVE.