While it’s certainly true that no two pandemics are alike, it’s also true that no two emotional responses to a pandemic are alike. Whenever we feel a distressing emotion, there are two primary ways in which we can process it: suppression and reappraisal. Suppression is perhaps not the best named response, as it is impossible to suppress our feelings; we can only suppress how we display our feelings.
If suppression is our go-to response when we experience an uncomfortable emotion, numerous studies have found that we are likely to experience stress, burnout, and isolation from ourselves and others. Reappraisal, which is to reframe your thoughts in response to a challenging situation, is much healthier.
This pandemic has been an extended period of collective trauma — in fact, the most distressing period of our lives — for most of us. The best we can hope for after experiencing trauma is what is called post-traumatic growth. A concept developed in the mid-90s by two University of North Carolina psychologists, Richard Tedeschi and Lawrence Calhoun, post-traumatic growth is the ability to achieve positive life changes after a traumatic event.
Tedeschi and Calhoun have found that the people who experience the most post-traumatic growth are those who also experience the distress of the traumatic situation they have undergone. When we allow ourselves to truly feel our emotions, including trauma, it is from the depth of our suffering that our growth can emerge.
Then, the real question that will determine our potential growth from the largest public health crisis of our lifetimes is whether we will run from our distress or embrace and learn from it.
Easier said than done. How can we confront the challenging emotions — including loneliness, anxiety, trauma, and sadness — we have experienced during this pandemic?
Here is a wonderful strategy I first read about in Susan Piver’s book, The Wisdom of a Broken Heart — you guessed it, after a devastating breakup in my life: Invite your challenging emotions over for dinner.
As you set the table for this feast, you will realize that you cannot invite over a dinner guest you can’t identify. Then, the first step is to say to yourself a few times each day, “I feel….” and see what comes next. Write down these emotions.
Once you have named how you have been feeling, literally imagine that these emotions are guests at your dinner table. Ask each guest, “So, why have you shown up this evening?” and “What are you here to teach me?” Then ask yourself, “What are my deeper values that are emerging from the presence of this emotion?”
Keep in mind that, as Berkeley psychologist Richard Lazarus elaborates, we only feel an emotion when something is important to us. While this characteristic of emotions is well-researched, what is lesser known is that we only experience an emotion when we still have something to learn in relation to the life events in which it is encoded.
This understanding comes not from academic research but from spiritual practices. For example, in her book When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times, Buddhist practitioner Pema Chodron sagely remarks that “Nothing ever goes away until it has taught us what we need to know … it just keeps returning with new names, forms, manifestations until we learn whatever it has to teach us about where we are separating ourselves from reality, how we are pulling back instead of opening up, closing down instead of allowing ourselves to experience fully whatever we encounter.”
Why is confronting your emotions important? Enter addiction. All addictions stem from the very human tendency to avoid the experience and subsequent learning associated with a challenging emotion. Whether it’s frustration, anxiety, abandonment, grief, trauma or any other distressing emotion, it can be easier in the short-term to attach to an external object — work, porn, gaming, your phone, alcohol or other drugs — than to acknowledge what the emotion has shown up to enable in your life.
Just as Luke Skywalker decided to confront his fears and embark on his journey to become a Jedi rather than staying home in Tatooine, we each always have this decision to make — avoid the distressing emotions we feel or rise to the learning they have shown up in our life to provoke.
Each of us is called to a personal mission that begins with recognizing that our emotions signal who we are and what we value. If we are willing to read the writing on the wall they etch for us, we move to our next level of personal development. Many of us will go to great lengths to avoid this internal work, which is why the definition of addiction is to repeatedly engage in a behavior despite its negative effects on our ability to function in our lives.
Then, our Shakespearean question is whether to confront or avoid who, at our most profound level, we are as human beings. How we answer this question will determine whether, ten years from now, we look back at the pandemic as the purveyor of all things negative in our life or as a giant reset button that enabled us to be who we are destined to become.