We find ourselves in challenging and extraordinary times. Some of us are able to emotionally distance ourselves from the changes and challenges, and are able to focus on the task at hand and in so doing manage to navigate this uncharted path by focussing on newly identified, current priorities. From clients who are managing to do this, I have heard them say that the lockdown has been a gift, in that is giving them the space to re-prioritise, that it is giving them time to get long-overdue work done and that it is giving them time to reflect, read and enjoy simpler everyday things again.
For most of us, however, the impact of Covid-19 is akin to a trauma. A trauma is where something, that we have no control over, changes our life ‘instantaneously’. The impact of Covid-19 may not be instantaneously, but in the context of our lives, it is sudden and unexpected. If our typical trauma response when dealing with uncertainty is to fight or flee, we can do neither – there is nothing to fight and nowhere to run to. So our response may be to freeze. And this is what I have seen happening to most of my clients; they report that what is happening feels unreal, that they don’t know how they are feeling or what to think, and that they are feeling numb. All these are typical trauma responses. Because the majority of us are currently in survival mode (which is a kind of frozen mode), we will most probably only be processing what we are dealing with now, in a few months’ time.
It takes time to deal with trauma, and like with any loss (Covid-19), we will move from the initial shock and denial, to being flooded with a host of varying emotions, to finally making sense of, and giving meaning to, what is happening. I want to talk a bit about meaning making.
In his book Being Mortal, Atul Gawande refers to what Daniel Kahneman terms the ‘Peak-End rule’ in order to understand how we make meaning in life. Kahneman distinguishes between an experiencing self, that is in the present and experiences what happens in a moment-by-moment way – where every moment is endured/experienced equally; and a remembering self that “gives almost all weight of judgement afterwards to two single points in time, the worst (or best) moment and the last one.” This seemingly contradictory way of understanding how the brain evaluates experiences, the Peak-End rule, is based on a series of experiments Kahneman conducted with patients’ experiences of pain.
With these two meaning making selves in mind Gawande writes: “For human beings, life is meaningful because it is a story. A story has a sense of a whole, and its arc is determined by the significant moments, the ones where something happens. Measurements of people’s minute-by-minute levels of pleasure and pain miss the fundamental aspect of human existence. A seemingly happy life may be empty. A seemingly difficult life may be devoted to a great cause. We have purposes larger than ourselves. Unlike your experiencing self – which is absorbed in the moments – your remembering self is attempting to recognise not only the peaks of joy and the valleys of misery but also how the story works out as a whole. That is profoundly affected by how things ultimately turn out. Why would a football fan let a few flubbed minutes at the end of the game ruin three hours of bliss? Because a football game is a story. And in stories endings matter.”
How are we going to make meaning of our Covid-19 experience? And do we have any control over how we are going to weave this into our own life stories? If we want to ensure that the trauma we are experiencing is not going to endure way beyond our current experience of it, we need to understand (1) whether this experience is accessing old trauma for us, and (2) how our remembering self will edit and give meaning this experience in the future. If this experiencing is accessing an old trauma or fear, I suggest you speak to a psychologist to assist you with trauma debriefing and to help you deal with the old trauma and help you separate it from your current experience. With regards to the ultimate meaning the experience with have for us, by applying the Peak-End rule, it may be helpful to be conscious of our peak experiences, perhaps even to try and moderate them because they will most probably be negative and debilitating. But more importantly to be aware of how we are going to interpret ‘the end’ of this experience. Of course there won’t be an end, but to try and give ourselves endings that we can meaningfully weave into our larger life story, as this may be the only control we have whilst navigating this uncharted terrain.