I’ve worked with cops in psychotherapy for about 40 years. I’ve observed, and they have told me, that they travel through a series of stages in their cop career. The first is The Heroic. They see themselves as the man or woman who can help the legitimate victim, right the wrong, protect the innocent. Further down the career, after seeing unnecessary slaughter, criminal-like victims, helpless criminals, and a broken justice system, The Cynic stage emerges. Here the cop suspects the motivations of everybody. There is no joy in Mudville. The goal shifts from righting wrongs to watching the clock as one waits for retirement. I’ve seen an additional stage: The Resilient. Here the cop shifts from savior, then disgruntled to the appreciation of one’s limits and acknowledgment of the tides of human behavior.
Given classic research on stress and productivity*, work from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration (SAMHA), and my contemporary clinical findings, I would like to propose a similar model for the over time psychological reactions to the global Covid-19 crisis. In this incredibly stressful time, it can be helpful, perhaps even comforting, to recognize patterns in our reactions. It’s like riding a rollercoaster. Helps to stop and gaze at the contraption before you get on. Doesn’t mean the thing won’t break and you’ll fly off into space, but at least you can see where the damn thing is supposed to go. And brace yourself for that particularly hair raising turn.
[Note: Each stage should be seen as a continuum. Like the virus itself, one may barely feel the symptoms or one may succumb to them. And everything in between.]
This phase occurred when we heard that there was a new virus in Wutan, China. There were several reactions ranging from Alfred E. Newman’s What, me worry? through Not Our Problem to running out and buying rolls of toilet paper. Our stress response to the potential disaster ranges from denial, compartmentalization to anxiety and panic. Calm reactions included thoughtful preparation. (Wish that last one would’ve been me. Oh, well….).
The Heroic Stage
Here the fear of viral contamination is overwhelmed by the psychological strength of planning and altruism. The sense of control arises as one makes plans, imagines ways to not only cope, but prevail. Work out plans are made, economic contingencies are strategized, in-home school schedule is pinned to the front of the refrigerator door. The clearer the plan, the stronger one feels. How will we get groceries? How will we exercise? Questions are answered by plans. Check on the elders, make sure the young are educated. And if possible, send a donation to a food bank. These bring a sort of calm direction. Hope mixed with anxiety energizes. Grief and loss are felt, but the survival mode is paramount. The crisis is fresh. This is coupled with fantasies of the pandemic’s conclusion: the celebration and relief of freedom from worry.
The Cynical Stage
The disaster psychology literature calls this the Disillusionment Phase. Here one just gets tired. Burned out. The relentlessness of the pandemic wears down the feeling that these are unique challenges. They become a routine without relief. At one end of the continuum is despair and at the other feelings of loss of family and friends. Grief. Getting re-energizing by friends, sports, a date night, a movie, dinner out are lost. The novelty of masks, strategizing how to keep six feet away, remembering to wash your hands, goes from novelty, to hassle to a relentless burden. Negative emotions and pettiness arise that are difficult to mitigate by the usual diversions and socializing. One realizes that all the work one has done will not bring back one’s old life style.
How does one deal with the fact that this is a global disaster with massive disruptions, hunger, economic and political instability? The idea of one’s ability to effect the situation let alone survive it is down-shifted to psychological fatigue and exhaustion. While this stage is not inevitable, without ongoing preparation for it, the potential is great.
The Resilient Stage
This is the payoff stage. Like the squirrel who buries his supplies for winter, resilience is the result of earlier work. Daily attention to ones’ body, social life, inner self can lead here. The understanding that not fretting about things that one cannot change brings serenity. This pandemic has brought us loss, grief, loss of control, anxiety, helplessness, and a ton of other difficult, but authentic, emotions. Resiliency is the acknowledgment of, and the ability to tolerate these profoundly painful feelings. With this acceptance comes the potential for renewal. This may take the form of an identity shift, prosocial activities, increased creativity and spirituality, or other forms one did not expect. And therein would be the good news.
Go easy, folks…
* The early research on patterns of reactions to stress produced the Yerkes-Dodson Law. The idea here is that performance increases with stress, until the stress becomes overwhelming. Mounting anxiety then decreases the performance. The pattern is in the shape of a curve.
(From Francesca Gino’s article in the Harvard Business Review, ‘Are you to stressed out to be productive? Or not stressed enough?’ April 14, 2016.)