By Jay Wagener
Special to The Outlook
Now that the country is looking forward to a phasic opening, we might begin to ask ourselves, “What has weathering something this major revealed to us about our psyches, our relationships, and what is important to us?”
One of the reoccurring fears I am hearing from patients is that though the government and CDC may have learned a lot about preparedness for future pandemics, aside from always having backup toilet paper on hand, what are we personally going to take away from this experience?
Without question, this pandemic has rocked our psychological foundation in ways we may never have imagined. This shaking has left cracks in what (for most people) was a fairly solid base. These cracks have revealed a great deal on both a conscious and unconscious level.
On the unconscious level, one way the psychic impact of this event has manifested is in our nightly dreams. One patient in my practice described a dream in which he was looking for a place to get a Coke, and wandered into a building looking for a vending machine. As he continued searching the building (a common symbol for the self), he began encountering people with the virus wandering about, nearly comatose, and often in close proximity to him. His frantic search shifted from finding the canned beverage to just getting out of the building (revealing that he felt overwhelmed and trapped unconsciously). His dream ended in a nightmarish ICU engulfed in clouds of viruses. He woke up in a cold sweat and called me admitting, “I wasn’t even aware that I was afraid of the virus.”
As troubling as his dream was, it led to some very productive sessions about his fears, including both contracting the virus and, perhaps more importantly, other long-buried worries. This is an especially opportune time for all of us to pay close attention to our dreams, fears and anxieties and to talk to someone about them.
As for the conscious revelations, in past articles we have examined the ongoing issues we referred to as “the three U’s.” These three U’s are the main reasons this pandemic has been so difficult to cope with.
1. Unpredictable (maybe now a little less so because we have charting and graphing)
2. Uncontrollable (perhaps more so because we are doing our part by wearing masks and social distancing)
3. Unending (because we may have a plan to reopen and most people see some light at the end of this tunnel).
As more and more people have become aware of how unique and unusual this event has been, we ask ourselves, “What was this all for?” In response to this question, I am adding a fourth “U”:
4. (Un)meaningful: “Did we go through all this for nothing?
Victor Frankl, an existential psychologist, wrote that as humans we all have a drive to seek meaning, even in his case, being confined in a concentration camp. This drive to search for meaning can be especially strong when the answer is not obvious. The other day, a patient started her session with, “I know the CDC gained a lot of knowledge regarding how to address a future pandemic. Similarly, I want to figure out exactly what I have gained.” As with the other three U’s, I do believe we all have the ability to look within for the answer by asking ourselves, “What has this pandemic revealed to me about myself? What do I now know about how I handle fear, claustrophobia, down-time, financial insecurities, etc.?”
Now is the time to address not only what you have learned regarding how you deal with worries, but also the role of familiar diversions like sporting activities, concerts, dining out, movies, and the importance of having face-to-face contact with family members in your life. As with the other 3 “U’s,” you have the ability to address this by asking yourself and others, “What insights have I gained? What has this told me about my life and what’s important to me? What has it told me about my relationships with others? What do I want out of the rest of my life?”
As we move through the upcoming “phases of reopening,” look at the ways you have been impacted by this pandemic. We have this unique opportunity to discover and learn more about ourselves. Ask yourself what are the five things that this pandemic has revealed to you? Start by asking yourself, then ask friends and family members, “What have we learned personally and as a society?” Now is the time to start a dialogue before it fades away like the dream you awaken with.
This challenging time may have revealed that we have a lot to appreciate about our life and our resilience to dealing with it. At a minimum, if we take this time to look within, we can emerge from this troubling event with lasting revelations about what is important to us and what gives our lives meaning.
Jay Wagener is a clinical psychologist who has practiced for 35 years. He has worked with all ages of people experiencing trauma and crisis situations, and currently does telephone and Face Time consultations with individuals and couples.