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How to keep calm during the COVID 19 storm: Weathering through toxic positivity

May 06, 2020 | By Kirsten Harrison
How to keep calm during the COVID 19 storm: Weathering through toxic positivity

“You have so much free time now- you need to make the most of it” “How are you still not finished with that project?” “I thought you would have been focused on getting into shape by now” These are phrases we have all come across in the past few weeks, whether splashed across social media, from friends/family or from our own internal dialogue. The seemingly harmless act of remaining positive, can turn toxic in time of crisis. 

At this stage, we cannot ignore that each person has been affected by the pandemic in some way or another and it is clear to see that these aspects can have long lasting consequences. While we are directing our attention to the economic and health implications of this pandemic, when will we start to acknowledge the emotional consequences?

Coping during COVID 19

Since the president’s announcement of a state of disaster on the 15th of March 2020 due to the coronavirus, South African citizens have been trying to make sense of what this means for themselves, their country as well as the world as they know it. Every person has their own way of reacting to difficult news, sometimes this can be avoiding the truth, denying it, immersing ourselves in it or trying to fix it. The news has led to individuals trying to exercise their usual coping mechanisms to manage. However, the problem is that many of our coping mechanisms have vanished – take going to the gym or taking a walk in the park as an example, with lockdown restrictions, these are not possible. This can result in individuals feeling lost and uncontained as learning a new skill during these times, can be the tipping point for some. The more we become lost in the whirlwind of uncertainty, the less we focus on our mental health.

Seeing the lockdown as a time to make changes in one’s life may be what is helping a number of individuals cope with redirecting their attention and providing them with a sense of fulfillment but for others, this pressure to change, can lead to feelings of shame, guilt and a sense of failure. In the past few weeks, there has been an increase of articles and social media posts which encourage individuals to stay positive and to focus on the bright side. For a lot of us, a bright side may not be visible right now – and that is okay. You may be wondering, how can staying positive be harmful at all? In every day, “normal” circumstances, positivity can be helpful however when positivity is used to cover up or silence genuine emotion, it can end up being toxic.

With this being said, what is toxic positivity? This concept can be defined as the excessive and ineffective overgeneralization of a happy, optimistic state across all situations. The process of toxic positivity results in the denial, minimization, and invalidation of the authentic human emotional experience. If we don’t acknowledge how we truly feel by covering up certain emotions or ignoring certain aspects of reality, we may find ourselves falling short in the future as trauma often finds a way of catching up with us.

What is Collective Trauma? Understanding this concept 

Traumatic events shatter reality as we know it, usually unexpectedly and suddenly resulting in a loss of control. This sentence rings very true to our current reality. It becomes more and more clear each day that this pandemic is affecting individuals all over the globe.  This is a shared experience that seems to be acknowledged, this sentiment comes through in most articles or news reports. With that being said, we need to truly understand that although this is a shared experience, our experiences will differ.

For the vast majority of SA citizens there is a huge divide in the way such restrictions are being enforced. For one person it may mean they have to forgo their daily run around the block in the evening after work and in the same breath it can mean a mother starving as she has had to give her child her ration of food for the second day in a row. This doesn’t mean that the person not being able to run can’t express and acknowledge the change they have had to make, it just means that we need to understand that although we are in the same storm, we are not in the same boat.

We need to work to stay in touch with the reality of our current situation and acknowledge how abnormal and strange this is. A year ago, not one of us could have predicted the way we have been impacted. There are aspects that can help cushion the longer lasting effects of a traumatic event, one of these aspects is being guided by authentic and meaningful leaders. The term “wounded leadership” refers to the impact leadership can have on a crisis and the period following the crisis, as if compassion can come from above, we can see an improvement in social cohesion. Traumatic events can lead to increased feelings of fear and panic which could cause us to isolate or turn against others, which defeats the impact of social cohesion. Kindness and compassion for others can indeed be our saving grace, now more than ever.

So, what now?

If you can relate to some of the above mentioned aspects, you could be wondering what the next step could be. Have a look at the list below and see if any of the suggestions can help.

  • Acknowledge your emotions: It is important to be honest with yourself and allow yourself to experience your emotions during this time, regardless if they are the dreaded negative emotions. The truth is, negative emotions are not bad emotions and they still do need to be acknowledged.
  • Find what works for you: There isn’t a one size fits all guide to adapting to difficult situations, don’t be afraid to test out different strategies to find your fit.
  • Give yourself a break: It is okay to not have everything figured out at the moment, your mental health should be the priority.
  • Reach out: It is important to reach out for help when you feel overwhelmed and when you are struggling to cope – this isn’t something to shy away from. We need to work towards reducing the stigma around taking care of our mental health.

Dealing with a pandemic is not a competitive sport where you need to come out of it more skilled, fitter or healthier. You simply need to come out of it. Adjusting to this “new normal” will look different for each and every single one of us, it is important to embrace it, however it looks for you.

Written by: Kirsten Harrison Programme Coordinator (Johannesburg Campus) 

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