Covid 19 and the pain process: recognizing it and understanding it to process it
Every one of us nowadays, anywhere in the world, is experiencing a sense of loss in different ways and levels. Loss of individual freedom, of a foreseeable future, of economic stability (often already uncertain), of connections, of certainties. We could say, in one word, loss of normalcy.
Advertising message The world is no longer that of 3-4 weeks ago and this is hitting us deeply, leaving us to experience a collective pain to which we were not used to. “We are all on the same boat” we have heard several times or in some cases, finally, realized, yet everyone experiences the sense of loss in a different way.
Then there is what is called early pain: it happens when we fear for our own or a family’s safety, when we receive a terrible diagnosis and we envision the worst of scenarios. This anticipated mourning can also be a future that we have not imagined, a storm for which nobody is equipped. It’s the virus out there that breaks our sense of security. We are afraid for our loved ones, for our health, for our work, for our country, for what will be after and after all for death itself. Although each one experiences and processes pain differently, appealing to a universally shared experience of it, it is possible to better understand our individual and collective reactions.
David Kessler, world pain expert, and co-author of the book On Grief and Grieving with Elisabeth Kübler-Ross guides us in this process. The first step in dealing with pain is to understand it and, to help us do it, the authors seek out those experiences which, although in different order, we all find ourselves experiencing.
“It’s an exaggeration of the media.”
“It’s a simple flu, people catch it every year and only rarely die.”
“I’m not old, immunosuppressed or with other pathologies, this virus doesn’t concern me.”
Denial is the emotional and intellectual rejection of something that is clear and obvious. And it’s something we inherited from our ancestors. Evolution has created in humans the ability to deny both physical and emotional pain for a short period of time, for the purpose of self-preservation.
“It’s all China’s fault.”
“They are depriving me of my freedom and rights by locking me in the house.”
“I am not interested in institutional preventive measures, I go out anyway.”
The feeling of anger often confers power or the illusion of it when we feel we are losing it or not having it. We resort to anger in an attempt to have control over others and our fears. So, often, rather than accepting and facing the problem, we project it outwards, becoming hostile, blaming others, or not respecting the rules.
“Ok, if I watch the social distance for 2 weeks everything will be better, won’t it?”
“I can recognize sick people, so I’ll be fine as long as I keep away.”
“This will be over by Easter, we will be saved then and we can go back to normal.”
As in any compromise, negotiation comes at a time when denial begins to weaken and we begin to take note of reality, but we are not yet ready to surrender to the illusion that we are still in control. And then a win-win solution is negotiated for both parties.
“I don’t know if and when all this will end.”
“I can’t go to work, I no longer have a salary, soon I will no longer have a roof and food.”
“I am at high risk and will probably die alone. Nobody will come when it happens. “
When denial is completely wiped out and all forms of control and power are lost, despair and depression creep in. There is poured on self-pity and although there is evidence to the contrary, only the worst is foreseen.
“I can’t control the pandemic, but I can do my best to keep it at bay.”
“The fact that I can’t leave my home doesn’t mean that my life has stopped. There are a lot of things I can do or keep doing from home. ”
“The world will change, but by the end of this we will be better.”
Advertising message Acceptance takes over when you surrender to the evidence of reality and instead of continuing to oppose it, you face it as effectively as possible. Acceptance is also in a form of rediscovered power: observing social distance, washing hands frequently, adapting to work from home, gives that control and reassurance that was needed.
We will be able to make sense of all this, perhaps not immediately immediately, perhaps months later, but we will find the light even in those darkest hours. It is the thought of Kessler, to which the addition of the sixth stage of the pain process is due, which ended with acceptance.
Already now people are drawing meaning from it: we realize that it is possible to break even the most unthinkable distance thanks to technology and that therefore we are not as far away as we think, or appreciating a simple walk in the open air, the saving power nature that impervious and blooms despite the storm as it happens in spring. People will continue to find meaning and get some good from it when it is all over.
What if, even after reading all this, you still feel overwhelmed by pain?
This is the last question asked to Kessler in the Harvard Business Review interview. Keep trying, he replies. “Emotion needs motion”. It is important to recognize what we are going through. There is something extraordinarily powerful in naming this as pain. It helps us feel what’s inside us. How many times do we say to ourselves “I’m sad, but I shouldn’t feel that way, there are those who are worse off.” We do not authorize ourselves to feel pain, almost ashamed of it. But fighting against what we feel, denying it, does not help us to let it go, rather it amplifies it. Let’s get used to giving ourselves these feelings, to accept and experience them for a few minutes without denying or rejecting them. By allowing our feelings to happen, they will be less impetuous and strengthened by them.