A 38-year-old male client tells me, “Living alone is hard but falling ill with covid-19, when no one can visit you, just makes it terrible. I so longed for human touch in the 10 days it took me to recover. I felt isolated and broken from within. Mom sent me homemade pav bhaji, which I love, but I couldn’t smell or taste it. It got me angry, and I couldn’t stop crying. It felt like covid had taken my physical and psychological safety both away from me. I have never felt this vulnerable, ever before. At a time when people have lost their jobs and loved ones to covid, I don’t know If I am overreacting, but I needed to share this as I am struggling.”
Over the last few weeks, most therapy sessions have been about the losses Omicron is leaving people with. Whether it’s individuals or families, our emotional resilience feels shaky. Not just that, clients across gender and age have been experiencing exhaustion, helplessness and hopelessness. In the context of psychological distress and sheer number of people who have contracted the virus, the psychological costs are far from mild. My understanding as a therapist is that when it comes to emotional pain, there is no hierarchy. Learning to acknowledge the losses we are feeling is the only way to collectively deal with the situation. As human beings, we have a basic need for connection and safety. Both these needs have been compromised by covid-19.
Our current emotional losses need to be understood against the background of grief and trauma we have experienced directly or vicariously over the last 21 months. The fear and and feeling of lack of safety has seeped into our bodies and minds, so we are hyper-vigilant most of the time; this, in turn, is compromising our emotional well-being.
Losses come in various forms. A friend’s 12-year-old called me and said: “Mumma has a fever and is waiting for her test results, I haven’t hugged her in two days or sat next to her. I can’t stop myself from crying. I don’t like this; I really want to give her a hug and eat my meals with her.” Many children across the globe are struggling alone as their parents deal with covid-19.
Amidst illness, our body and mind seek comfort, whether it’s in the form of a hug, someone patting our heads or sheer physical presence. Research shows touch can play a huge role in reducing anxiety. Its loss is leaving children vulnerable. While they can engage in self-soothing, they depend largely on parents through that social soothing, comforting touch to regulate their systems.
I worry about the emotional scars children will be left with. For children and teens who have contracted the virus, quarantining, isolating and even coming to terms with it is going to be a difficult journey. Research shows that parental anxiety can rub off on children; their ability to cope does depend on parents to a large degree.
It may be important to develop the mindfulness and vocabulary to ensure children, teenagers and even adults can talk about what they are feeling, even if their coronavirus symptoms are mild. If your resilience has been challenged as a family, by guilt, blame, differential approaches to treatment, then spend time rebuilding the trust. Speak to your children about hope and teach them ways to manage anxiety if they are struggling.
A lot of people who live by themselves or are single are also re-imagining cities/areas they want to be in the long term and how to build collaborative working environments, to address loneliness and anxiety.
Just as each feeling is valid for the person who is experiencing it, every loss has its own place and assumes a personal meaning. So, learning to honour that for yourself, and others, may be a beginning to recovery and building resilience again.
Sonali Gupta is a Mumbai-based clinical psychologist. She is the author of the book Anxiety: Overcome It And Live Without Fear and has a YouTube channel, Mental Health with Sonali.