Positive psychology in times of adversity: Surviving covid19 isolation & illness
A couple of weeks ago I questioned whether I was being neurotic for keeping my child home from school because he coughed a couple of times. Now, we are in complete isolation as my son’s symptoms developed into a full blown fever and cough. By isolation, I don’t just mean in our house with full access to a living room, kitchen and garden. I mean we have confined ourselves to two bedrooms and a bathroom – to protect my elderly mum who lives with us and has other health complications.
If you told me I needed to do this two weeks ago I could not have comprehended it. We need to live like this for 14 days. Every trip to the kitchen leaves me questioning whether I have washed my hands thoroughly enough. Whether my need for a cup of tea, touching the kettle, getting a tea-bag from the container, opening the milk carton, will result in me causing my mum an early death. Dishes are stacked up in one corner of my room so that I can avoid making too many trips downstairs. We haven’t stockpiled food in our household and while I’m concerned about my son being ill, I’m also thinking about how great it is he has been off his food as otherwise we would have run out of food by day three. As parents of young boys will understand, they can eat you out of house and home!
My son thinks we are playing house in a tree-house (my bedroom) that fortunately, looks out over our south-facing garden… with plenty of sunshine. When he was feeling well enough, we took a trip to the garden but he had to keep his hands in his pockets and wear a face mask through the house until we got outside to avoid spreading the virus with his cough. He found the mask terrifying – he hates dress-up at the best of times. I’ve used some of the online child resources to explain the virus to him so he understands why we are doing what we’re doing. He cried and said to me “I wish the virus wasn’t here, mummy”. When we spoke about his worries, I was shocked to discover that he thought he was going to die because he was ill with the virus symptoms – he got this idea from being repeatedly exposed to the words “death” and “coronavirus” on the news. There is no watershed on the news at the moment. I completely overlooked this and now take care to catch up on news on my phone with my earphones on. He was over the moon when I explained that he isn’t going to die, that coronavirus is not a risk to kids and that we don’t even really know if he has it. Saying this, I have googled the youngest age to die from coronavirus and watching him struggle to draw breath in between coughing fits has had me worried. Whatever illness we are experiencing, it appears to have triggered asthma that he hasn’t suffered for a couple of years. Thankfully his inhaler is working. Now he is recovering and I only have very mild symptoms (shortness of breath, cough) so we are remaining isolated in my room until my 7 day period is over.
I pride myself on being highly adaptable to change. I keep my eye on the horizon, cue into possible trends and am ready to change a little earlier than many people around me. I’m also quite tolerant of adversity. I’ve been watching this pandemic unfold for a while now, and while I fully expected it would have a big impact on us I completely underestimated by how much. The situation I’m in is extreme, but I can’t ruminate on that. People who know me are aware of my expertise in Positive Psychology (PP). There is a misconception that PP is “happy-ology”; that it is about avoiding sadness, ignoring problems and just being positive all the time. Actually it is a lot more than that and one of the reasons why my son and I will bounce forward from this experience, is because I am working hard to apply everything I know about looking after our wellbeing through this experience.
With help from others, I cultivate optimistic thinking by recognising this is a temporary situation. After 14 days, we can rest at ease within our house again. I repeat to myself that I couldn’t have done anything to prevent this from happening and this isn’t going to mean that every aspect of life is terrible for the next 14 days. That’s because I know that positive and negative emotions can co-exist alongside each other. I also know, that if I can maintain a higher ratio of positive to negative emotions over the coming weeks, then I can sustain my motivation, energy and wellbeing, and probably boost my immunity and health at the same time. That’s why the memes, jokes and videos being sent by friends are a lifeline (so keep them coming!) We make time to laugh. We make time to sing and dance. We hug and comfort each other. We are enjoying a lot more chocolate than I normally allow us to. We are not sweating the small stuff (e.g. not worrying right now about getting through hours of home-schooling, he can catch up later).
Hope, means being motivated to achieve a specific goal or outcome, figuring out various ways to get there and having the belief that I can get there. It’s much more practical than optimism. Studies show that hope is more prevalent and beneficial than optimism in situations where the goal might feel difficult to reach. My goal is to get to day 14 with a household full of healthy and happy family members. This means isolating, practicing meticulous hygiene, and looking after our health and psychological wellbeing as best as I can. I reframe my mindset to view any feelings of stress as positive; the stress is just enough to motivate me to take appropriate action at this time. Hope helps limit the time I spend worrying about things outside of my control, for example; “What if’ my son ends up needing help to breathe”, “Will there be a hospital bed available?” “What if I get really ill too? Who will look after him?” (I’m a single parent) etc. Instead, I explore practical ideas on how to address these worries, park anything that is out of my control and then press pause on thinking about them unless they actually occur. I recall past experiences of when I’ve overcome similar challenges like these and I am confident I can deal with these situations again in the future.
I experience fear, anger and sadness like anyone else. When I do, I try to notice how I am responding, and practice self-compassion if I am less than perfect in managing my emotions. I say sorry to my son if I need to and I acknowledge if I’ve stepped out of line. When he loses it, I show compassion to him. I remind him and myself that we’re not alone in this experience and we can't be perfect all of the time. I try to be mindful, that is, I allow my thoughts and feelings to occur without over-reacting to them so that I can process what is going on. It’s a bit like watching what is happening to you from the outside. I haven’t felt the need to cry but when I do, I have no problems doing this. I create an appropriate time and space for this to happen. When I’m angry, I engage in a physical workout to work off the energy. It feels cathartic; feeling these negative emotions feels right, good and positive. I give myself permission to feel whatever I need to feel at this time. I sit with these emotions. I talk to my support network, I vent with trusted people if I need to (usually with humour). Finally I write and journal, to process my thoughts; another evidence based strategy to increase coping and wellbeing.
Equally, I choose to take care how I react to things given that I am in the presence of my 7 year old. I choose to demonstrate leadership and be a strong role-model for him at this time. I focus on the hope and optimism to keep him engaged and motivated. He receives signals and cues from me on how to respond to situations. If he sees me - the adult in the situation - falling apart about being ill and having our movements restricted, I know he will lose all hope and react negatively too. This doesn’t mean he can’t cry or get sad. He has on several occasions, and I have sat with him, listened and showed compassion. We talk and focus on how to address his worries in the same way I address mine – constructively.
Applying my Strengths
I leverage my strengths, and my son’s strengths during our isolation period. How to convince a 7 year old that we need to stay upstairs for 14 days? I turn to a signature strength we both share - creative thinking. For example, our 14 day isolation is a game. We are in a tree-house, hiding out from the universe’s rival enemy – coronavirus. We have to build a fort and figure out how to send signals to the outside world…we are learning about technology, programming, writing letters etc. We are taking selfies and making videos. Another of my signature strengths is gratitude. I am extremely grateful I have a supportive network of family, friends and neighbours who have been very kind and generous during out time in isolation. I think about people in much worse off situations and I am thankful that we have all the mod-cons to live comfortably. I nurture this strength in my son and we write about things we are grateful for. He said to me “mummy, everyone has been so kind to me since I’ve been sick” after he received gifts of chocolate, cash (from his nanu) and toys from family and neighbours! Things could be a lot worse and I know they are for many in the world. My son’s signature strength is humour and there is never a dull moment. His pranks, jokes and antics keep us in good spirits. His laughter is infectious.
My son is an extremely sociable child who craves other people’s company on the best of days. Every day he asks “Are we going to a party? Can we go to someone’s house?” It is vital to keep up relationships by communicating with others and much like the rest of the world, we are doing this through video and phone, from a distance in the hallway and through the bedroom window. I try to make sure my son gets as much opportunity for this as me. My son has enjoyed some “face-time play dates” with his friends; they play Lego “together”. He’s been talking to people on my calls too. I have been staying in touch with others using a combination of text, phone and video to maintain some variety. I share pictures and messages from friends and family with my son, and even if we aren't jumping up and down to Joe's PE in the mornings because we haven't been feeling well, we tune in to feel a sense of connection with the million other people who are doing the same. This evades the feeling of isolation. We also wave at nanu in the garden, and say hello to our neighbours as we're blowing bubbles out of the window.
Purpose, Engagement & Achievement
Finally, I have spent a large portion of time focusing on something that gives me meaning and a reason for being. I am continuing with my work where I can (which is a passion for me), and I’m applying my skills to support others through this time (cue @theMissionThrive)! This not only gives me some purpose and allows me to leverage my strengths, but helps me to remain engaged in something constructive and feel a sense of achievement. The flurry of activity that inspired Mission Thrive is my response to stress, I need to feel like I’m doing something constructive - I recognise this. My son is fortunate that he gets highly engaged in playing with Lego and doing maths challenges on a tablet. He also feels a great sense of achievement when he builds something creative or when he has achieved a high score on a maths game. I tell him often, how lucky I am to be stuck with him in our tree-house.
We are almost at the end of our isolation period within our rooms and although we had a few hairy moments with the asthma, so far so good. We’re not out of the woods yet so I commit to keeping up with my coping strategies and plan. No one else has developed symptoms yet, we are both feeling healthier every day so things are heading in the right direction. My iPhone sent me a “Best of the last 2 weeks” photo montage / video – I had to laugh. It’s a memory I’m not quite sure if I will treasure just yet. It has been a mixed bag of emotions. I consider that time and space might allow me to see more silver linings in this.
Many factors, including our personalities and past experiences will influence how we respond and cope with a crisis. Equally, there is an opportunity to try to take control and influence how effectively we deal with these challenges. If you are interested in learning more about how you can apply the science of positive psychology to your personal circumstances or challenges, then please don’t hesitate to reach out to me.
Stay home, stay safe and stay well!