The Covid-19 pandemic has ravaged our lives and rendered us into an imminent state of distress, but even though our future still appears uncertain, we can bounce back and rediscover a more positive outlook on life and the future.
By: Anele Siswana – Clinical psychologist
Main image: supplied
When the Covid-19 pandemic infiltrated our shores, we never imagined the terror it would cause in our lives. When President Cyril Ramaphosa imposed the harsh lockdown regulations (level 5) in March to curb the spread of the virus, many plunged into a deep depression. There were pay cuts, retrenchments, companies shutdowns temporary or indefinitely, and unemployment numbers skyrocketing (currently sitting at about 40% unemployment numbers).
Lives were lost, some managed to cheat to death, and those who tested positive were forced into strict isolation. Fear and gloom permeated our lives and still lingered even after the government loosened the lockdown regulations, giving us a taste of the bittersweet restricted freedom.
With the second wave of the virus rearing its head and proving to be more deadly than the first wave, the hope of ever regaining normalcy is growing small. There is also a new variant of SARS-CoV-2, called 501.V2, reportedly transmittable through talking, breathing, etc. This has resulted in us being moved from level 1 lockdown to level 3, our freedom going back to being heavily regulated again.
With our lives threatened, any sense of ever regaining control of our lives and future remains a wish. We have had to learn to swim in the turbulent waves and even grown accustomed to this so-called new normal, which carries a lot of discomfort.
But what is the impact of this imminent distress to our mental wellbeing, and can we heal and regain our sense of self again? Yes, we can. However, this will require us to pay close attention to our mental health and implement self-care practices that alleviate stress, depression, and anxiety.
What happens to our psyche when we are in distress for long periods?
I must note that stress is a phenomenon that affects us all in different ways. Covid-19 has proved to be a significant trigger of high-stress levels, the worst being anxiety. There are various causes of stress, especially under restrictions where people have minimal control and no access to activities to distract themselves.
We have limited social interactions, gatherings, and other things that are commonly used to distress and relieve ourselves. Moreover, with the Covid-19 stress, everywhere, we have been through the most to the point that this distress has caused too many stresses, which can wear one down and make one sick, both mentally and physically. Research does suggest that our bodies are designed to handle small doses of stress. We are not equipped to handle long-term, chronic stress without ill consequences.
What are some of the physical symptoms that people in distress display?
Please note: These symptoms vary.
Emotional symptoms of stress include:
Becoming easily agitated, frustrated, and moody
Feeling overwhelmed, like you are losing control or need to take control
Having difficulty relaxing and quieting your mind
Feeling bad about yourself (low self-esteem), lonely, worthless, and depressed
Physical symptoms of stress include:
Upset stomach, including diarrhoea, constipation, and nausea
Aches, pains, and tense muscles
Chest pain and rapid heartbeat
Frequent colds and infections
Low libido: Loss of sexual desire and lack of ability to perform sexually
Nervousness and shaking, ringing in the ear, cold or sweaty hands and feet
Dry mouth and difficulty swallowing
Clenched jaw and grinding teeth
Cognitive symptoms of stress include:
Forgetfulness and disorganisation
Inability to focus
Being pessimistic or seeing only the negative side
What are some of the risky or disruptive behaviours that people in distress are more like to engage in?
In light of the covid-19 pandemic: it seems most risky behaviours, could potentially be related to substance abuse, heavy alcohol consumption, and reckless driving. It has been proven that reckless driving is influenced by alcohol consumption, which potentially leads to drinking and driving. The consequence of that is fatal accidents, which result in a significant number of trauma cases in hospitals. During a recent speech, the president highlighted that the alcohol ban, resulted in a drop in trauma cases, over the holidays. It seems that the risky behaviour was no longer a problem, particularly during the festive season. This suggests that although most individuals can perceive risks accurately, they do not necessarily weigh them when deciding whether to engage or not. Many explanations of why people engage in such behaviours have also been suggested throughout this pandemic.
What are some of the psychological effects that may have come with the rather unusual start to the year?
One of the challenges around this pandemic – tracing from all levels of lockdown – has been the uncertainty coupled with unsettling experiences. It is in our inherent nature to find comfort and safety in certainty and knowing what is next. Now we do not have control over what is happening around us or when this virus will end. That also intensifies our anxieties and levels of being uncertain. In turn, we have become a very anxious society, we are worried about being infected, fear of death and dying, and we have been engulfed by so much agony and grief.
Another source of this anxiety is caused by the vaccine plan and other conspiracy theories. The impact of this has been worry about the effectiveness of this virus to a degree and misconceptions that this vaccine might have severe side effects that may lead to death. We must also note that the deaths have increased with the second wave, and the infection rate is higher than the first wave.
How does this gloomy cloud that surrounds us show up in our behavioural patterns (worst-case scenarios)?
We just came out of a difficult season with many restrictions; for the preservation of life. We also experienced our ‘darkest’ festive season in history, which weighed heavily on us. Several families were grieving in so much pain and in the process of mourning their loved one. This festive season came with lamentations and heavy emotions.
There is also a rise in job losses due to retrenchments, pay cuts, and financial difficulties. I am not surprised that we have experienced an increase in para-suicides – people who attempted suicide, especially youth.
According to stats September 2020 stats by the South African Depression and Anxiety Group, they received about 273 405 calls to their helpline, with a 1400 per day increase with the call volumes doubling during the lockdown. They also received about 55 504 calls to their suicide helpline and an additional 22 770.
To better prevent our distress, we need to develop personal mastery skills to manage our stress levels before we are impaired. It’s all about keeping the stress in check. Some stress is normal – and a little stress can help us feel alert, motivated, focused, energetic, and even excited. Take positive actions to channel this energy effectively, and you may find yourself performing better, achieving more, and feeling good.
To seek professional help, contact:
SADAG (The South African Depression and Anxiety Group) on 0800 567 567
24hr Emergency Helpline: 0800 12 13 14
SMS 31393 (and they will call you back)
Lifeline – National Counselling
0861 322 322 (24 hours/ 7 days a week)
For updates on the SA Covid-19 news, go to sacoronavirus.co.za
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